Hend is walking slowly, one halting step at a time. The 79-year-old pauses to rest on a raised curb across from two burned-out state security trucks and the looted headquarters of Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party. The streets surrounding Cairo’s central square are closed to cars, and getting to the massive gathering in Midan Tahrir is taking a lot of energy, but Hend is unwavering. After five minutes, she gets up and starts shuffling forward again.
This is Hend’s second time protesting. The first was in 1952, when the Egyptians overthrew the British. She was studying literature in college. Today she is a grandmother of three teenage boys. Even though she is moving slowly, with the aid of her daughter-in-law, and it’s obvious that each step is difficult, she is smiling like crazy. “I feel very, very happy,” she tells me. “We are making our future.”
After the brief respite, she doesn’t stop shuffling until she can see the crowds moving into the square. “This is different from 1952,” she reflects, as she rests again. “Back then, it was everyone from college. Today it’s all the people, from all levels of society. Today is more important. Then we were protesting the British; today the enemy is our government.”
Egyptian protesters called Tuesday “the day of the million man march,” and they hoped to bring even more people into the square. For the last eight days, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets demanding an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s nearly 30-year regime. Hend is only a few years younger than the man she is trying to evict. As she joins the throng, waiting to get past the parked tanks and into the square, it’s obvious the day was a huge success.
But even after seven straight days of protests, no one really believed they would mobilize so many people today.
Earlier, some activists were worried. What if only thousands showed up? They needed a show of strength, something to keep up the momentum that has turned the world’s attention on Egypt’s plight. Once described as embattled and apathetic, Egyptians are now political agitators, staying on the streets through bullets, tear gas, and sound grenades. Today was imperative.
Three young men from the ElBaradei Association for Change, a group that had been working to mobilize people and have them sign a petition to reform constitutional amendments passed in 2005 and 2007 that prevented an independent candidate from running for president, decided to take matters into their own hands. They would go into other neighborhoods and convince people to come to the square. “We’re going to go out on the streets and start screaming, ‘Down with Mubarak,’ and asking people to join us. Once we get about 1,000 or 2,000, we will move toward downtown,” Tawfik Gamal told me, as we walked briskly toward the subway.
A little while after we set out, word came that other activists had the same idea, so Tawfik and his friends headed to a different neighborhood. I decided to stick with our original meeting point. As I waited in front of a major Cairo mosque in a wealthy neighborhood, I watched about 100 people walk by.
In front of the mosque, carrying home-made banners and bottles of soda, a small group of friends had congregated. They were the affluent upper-middle-class on the march. One of them is Ahmed El-Diwany. An IT manager at the American University in Cairo, he had moved back into his parents’ home to be closer to the protests. He’s not sure when Mubarak will fall, but he is sure that he will. “Mubarak is a Taurus, and so he is stubborn. He doesn’t like looking weak—and he’s a general. Put it all in a blender, and it’s a lethal combination,” he tells me, totally serious.
Then a smaller group approaches. A handful of middle-aged male professors who teach at the Cairo University. They are members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an officially banned Islamist group that is the largest organized opposition to the Mubarak regime, but they weren’t here on orders from the group’s leadership. They are also meeting their friends at the mosque.
The two groups shook hands, and one of the older men gave a young Stanford Ph.D. student his business card. “May God keep you,” they said to one another, then the younger crew hopped into cabs.
I never caught up with the other group of activists. But later in the day, I ran into the first lot sitting on the floor of the square, marveling at the sight of a space so crammed with people that it’s hard to move. “We really didn’t need to go [to recruit people],” Tawfik admits, shaking his head. “We saw everyone was coming here by themselves, so we came back.” By the time they returned to the square, it was jam-packed.
So instead of having to bring people in, the guys passed time trying to estimate how many people were in the square. “This space is larger than Mecca,” said Abdullah, a doctor. “So if there are 2 million people on the ground floor in Mecca, and it’s smaller, there must be more than 2 million people here,” he announced, gleefully.
But as night settles over Cairo, Mubarak is still the president of Egypt. The question on everyone’s mind is what happens next. “That’s not the point,” Abdullah tells me. “By bringing 2 million people to the square, we sent Mubarak a message. We can bring 2 million. Next week, we’ll bring 6 million. There’s no Internet, no SMS, no Facebook, but we did it anyway. We built this without any tools. … That means people can do whatever they want. That’s the point—and the message.”