At least two protesters and a police officer were reportedly killed today as thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators rallied in Cairo and several provincial towns to demand an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s rule.
The 20,000-30,000 police deployed in central Cairo were reportedly taken aback by the protesters’ “energy and anger” and the day’s events yielded some dramatic scenes, including a Tiananmen Square-like moment when a single demonstrator faced down riot police and water cannon.
Today’s mobilization was considered a test of whether Egypt’s vibrant online activism could translate into street action.
The demonstrations were the largest since the 1977 unrest over cuts in bread subsidies. Some 80,000 users of Facebook and other social media networks vowed to join the protests, but the crowds were not as huge as some anticipated.
But some observers insist the turnout confirmed that Egypt’s digital democrats are activists, not slacktivists.
“It’s exceeded all expectations,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center.
“People were skeptical about turnout. There have been these Facebook-organized protests before,” he said. “But there’s a difference between cyberactivism and street-activism. Today was the real deal.”
The authorities blocked Twitter and similar networks in an attempt to stop protesters using social media to organize and communicate.
The protest was organized by the pro-democracy April 6 Movement to coincide with Egypt’s national Police Day holiday. The choice was criticized by some opposition groups for interfering with a public rest day when ordinary citizens would be less inclined to protest, but others defended the timing.
“Protesting on this day tells [the police] that their main role is to protect the nation and ensure the safety of the citizens and not the safety of the regime,” said Amr Hamzawy, research director at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
The interior ministry issued a statement blaming the unrest on the Muslim Brotherhood – Egypt’s largest opposition force – which had formally declined to join the demonstrations.
The protest was inspired by the Jasmine Revolution in neighboring Tunisia which ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Activists hope that today’s protests will be the first of a series that will generate momentum behind demands for Mubarak’s removal.
“This will not end. Our anger will continue over the coming days,’ said George Ishaq, leader of the Kifaya opposition movement. “We will put forth our conditions and requests until the system responds and leaves.”
Opposition groups believe the Tunisian uprising highlights the underlying fragility and vulnerability of the region’s authoritarian regimes which have demonstrably failed to deliver not only jobs and improved living standards, but civil liberties and basic dignity.
“That’s why people are getting increasingly frustrated and agitated with them,” says publisher Hisham Kassem, a leading democracy advocate. “They are pretty vulnerable. All you have to do is look at the social and economic indicators.”
But while Egypt shares the socio-economic and political pathologies that prompted Tunisia’s unrest, the population is less educated and the regime is less repressive. Opposition parties, civil society groups and independent media are permitted a degree of political space which, analysts suggest, functions as a safety valve for the release of discontent.
The opposition also seems to lack dependable leadership.
Although Mohamed ElBaradei called on Egyptians to support the protests, he failed to show.
The region’s liberals are often criticized for neglecting the socio-economic demands of the popular majority and failing to mobilize beyond the ranks of disgruntled metropolitan elites. In this respect, reports of today’s large-scale protests are encouraging.
“Egypt’s opposition parties have long struggled to attract a cross-section of society to participate in either politics or demonstrations,” notes one report. ‘Tuesday’s protest succeeded where they had failed. Though many of the protesters were young and middle class, they drew from every sector of society.”
The “ad hoc coalition of students, unemployed youths, industrial workers, intellectuals, football fans and women” that comprised the crowds, one analyst observes, “ensured that were different in significant ways, sending unsettling signals to a regime that has made complacency a way of life.”