Scenes From Egypt's Would-Be Revolution

Mubarak's notorious police stood down, but only for a few hours

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CAIRO, Egypt -- It is too soon to know whether the stunning demonstrations that have rocked Egypt today, with tens of thousands of protesters descending on cities throughout the country and overtaking Cairo's central square in an effort to reproduce Tunisia's recent uprising, will succeed in forcing change. But a telling comment came just after cannons, shooting gas-infused water, dispersed crowds along one major Cairo thoroughfare, when a man turned to me and said, "We want a revolution. We don't want Hosni Mubarak."

That man was a police captain.

To be sure, today's protests have been marked with instances of shocking, even if sadly predictable, regime violence. Riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets; government-hired thugs beat protesters in the streets; and many - including my own roommate - were arrested. But perhaps the most surprising aspect of today's "day of rage" was that, for the first few hours, Egypt's notorious security forces stood down.

The day began with uncertainty. Although many Egyptians had been inundated with text messages and Facebook alerts informing them of today's protests, most seemed determined to stay on the sidelines. Some said they preferred the security of a police state to the chaos of political change and, in any event, they had to go to work. Meanwhile, Egypt's many opposition groups divided over where to hold the protests and at what time. By noon, one opposition group leader said his group was considering scrapping all of the proposed venues because of the heavy security presences. The center of downtown Cairo, Tahrir Square, had been totally shut down by hundreds of riot police and the much-hyped January 25th protests seemed to be just another anti-totalitarian tease.

Around 1:30, a protest erupted suddenly at the Lawyers Syndicate, a hotbed of opposition political activists one mile north of Tahrir Square, where about 200 activists began pushing onto the streets. Rows of riot police quickly pushed back, hoping to contain them within the syndicate's gates. Soon after, a second crowd gathered across the street. As riot police scrambled, protest leaders began appealing to nearby pedestrians to join in, and some did, boxing in the police. Meanwhile, a group of former opposition parliamentarians held a third protest on the steps of the nearby high court, shouting demands for the end of Mubarak's reign. This group quickly gained strength and converged with the second crowd, overwhelming the riot police. The three demonstrations became one and began their push towards Tahrir Square.

Initially, riot police formed rows of human chains blocking off the square. But when the marching protesters met the ranks of police, a strange thing happened. The chains broke at every point, allowing the demonstrators to pass through. The police, it seemed, were simply unwilling to hold. At these edges of the square, and in the square itself, confrontations between protesters and security officials were few and far between. Jubilation was in the air as the ever-growing crowd passed the Egyptian Museum and took Tahrir Square with the astounding acquiescence of the police.

Presented by

Eric Trager is the Esther K. Wagner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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