CAIRO - It was a political rally with no agenda, a demonstration with no main stage or prominent speakers. A mass event with neither organized transportation nor an operating transit system, a march with no predefined route.
But in Cairo yesterday a million Egyptians converged on and around Tahrir Square, in the center of town, on just one day's notice and without the benefit of the Internet or text messaging, in an unequivocal but nonviolent demand that President Hosni Mubarak step down. Egyptians created scenes that have never been seen before in any Arab state.
The April 6 Movement, the young protest movement behind the rally, asked participants to gather in the square from 10 A.M., which for hundreds of thousands of people living in remote parts of the city meant getting up at 2 A.M. and walking for hours. To keep the numbers as low as possible, the government discontinued train service and most public buses throughout the country.
At 7 A.M., millions of people who had been unable to send or receive text messages after the government cut off service received the following message: "The armed forces call on the men of Egypt to stand united against the criminals and thieves and to defend the people, the families, the honor and Egypt." Many people interpreted the message as another attempt by the regime to exaggerate the reports of looting and violence in order to scare away would-be demonstrators.
The obstacles did not keep Husam Farouk Gabar and his brother Nabil from setting out before dawn from their home in the Nasser City quarter.
"I have a small cell-phone store, but I can't manage to save enough money to buy an apartment and get married," explains Gabar, 34. "I don't have a girlfriend because I'm religious. I'm fed up, and I came to demand my self-respect as a human being."
One demonstrator holds a sign with a drawing of a soccer referee showing Mubarak the red card. Nabil is 27 and unemployed. His head is bandaged after being hit with a teargas canister in Friday's street battles with the police, and he's getting worked up.
"All I care about is soccer, and that's what Mubarak wants, for young people to sit at home and watch soccer on television and be stupid," Gabar says. Their family doesn't have the money to send the children to university, but Gabar, who has taught himself English, made signs for himself and his brother in English: "80 million vs. 1" and "Our honor or nothing."
"I made them in English because I never met a foreigner before and today I want to talk to the whole world and say for the first time what I think about the regime," Gabar says.
The brothers join the human river flowing from the bridges over the Nile toward Tahrir Square. Many people brought their children with them, like Abd al-Nasser, 41, a businessman from Heliopolis. He is insulted when a journalist asks if he is concerned for the safety of his two young children.
"Don't ask us today if we fear for our children's welfare. We know that our army wouldn't hurt a single citizen," he says. Nasser, who owns a factory that makes work uniforms, admits that he's a rich man, with a new car and a summer home on the beach. "But I don't want my son to grow up and get beaten up by cops for wanting to express his opinion."
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