On Egypt's Streets, Facebook Protests Spawn a Mass Revolt

The atmosphere in Cairo is tense: Anti-riot vans patrol the boulevards, armored trucks are parked near flashpoints and plain clothes officers are everywhere.

CAIRO - Mohammed was going to take to the streets on Friday, come what may. He was among the first 2,000 unsuspecting pioneers – youths that signed up to the Facebook event that brought thousands of anti-government protesters to the streets.

Friday, as citizens gathered for prayers, was expected to be the biggest day in the movement to oust Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from his 30 year rule. It could also prove to be the most dangerous.

“If the police react violently this time, many people will be killed,” says Mohammed. “But people now believe in change, they want Egypt to be a better place. They are afraid of what will happen, but they won’t change. They will go.”

In Cairo and Suez cities, violence flared as Egyptian security forces used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons against the crowds. Over 1,000 protesters have reportedly been carted away and many beaten, and so far seven people are believed to be have been killed.

Egyptian riot police clashing with anti-government activists in Cairo, Jan. 26, 2011. AP

The atmosphere in Cairo is tense. Anti-riot vans patrol the boulevards. Armored trucks stand parked near flashpoints in the city, and amin dowla – plain clothes officers from the state security service are everywhere.

Public gatherings have been banned, and a football match was cancelled Thursday for fear of violence.

By Tuesday, over 90,000 people had signed up to the Facebook event. This time around it looks set to be much bigger. ‘One social media outlet rallying people to the street has 381,000 supporters at the last count,” says Hisham Kassem, a respected independent editor.

The main actors of the last few days are well educated middle class students. Critics have commented that this group remains a tiny minority of Egypt’s population.

Mohammed fits this profile, but this protest is bringing together people from different social backgrounds he says. “I went to the elections, to other events. But now, I am going to the protests with people who have never been before. There are from all other backgrounds. I know factory workers who went and got beaten, but they and their friends are going again.”

Unemployment levels among Egypt’s youth are dire; estimates say 25 percent of men and 59 percent of young women are without work. If the poor choose to join the intellectual classes already on the streets, the riots could reach a critical mass.

Driving a beaten up vehicle through Cairo’s streets, taxi driver Raman smiles a crack toothed grin. “Friday there will be huge riots, everyone is going to take part,” he says.

Professor Abdallah Alashaal was an employee in the Egyptian government’s Foreign Ministry. Now he is a well known figure of opposition. “This is a velvet revolution; it is an uprising of the youth”.

“There is a sense of anticipation and emancipation here. The people in the street are not ideologised, they are not Christians, Muslims, Marxists. They are Egyptians. It is not a political movement.”

In a dark backstreet, away from the main roads lined with security, a key protest organizer meets me, eyes shifty, watching out for plain clothes police. He is right to be afraid; Egypt has a bad torture record. His activities could be risking his life.

He walks as he talks, in a low voice: “We don’t need help, this is not organized by anyone outside. We are motivated by Tunisia, but this is Egyptians acting for Egyptians.” He disappears round a corner, and his phone cuts off as he, again, switches sim card.

The protesters cannot predict the outcome of Friday’s events, or the actions of the security forces. “I can't see, that anybody can predict what is happening tomorrow or days to come. In a few days it could be over. It could also get bigger and bigger and at last with the military participating,” says Kassem.

Even key participants don’t believe it will bring about the collapse of Mubarak’s regime immediately. “Mubarak won’t leave peacefully; his government is much stronger than Tunisia’s,” says Mohammed.

But experts agree that, even if today is followed by apparent calm, the political situation in Egypt has changed. “It has weakened the regime,” says Alashaal. “They didn’t expect that the Egyptian population can rise up like this.”

This popular revolt is unprecedented in Mubarak’s strong-handed rule. “Even with nothing else, we have already achieved history,” says Mohammed.