A week to the day since the country was swept by anti-government protests, bringing tens of thousands onto the streets of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak – one of the world’s longest-serving dictators – is bracing himself for the biggest challenge yet to his rapidly crumbling presidency.
In what they hope will prove to be the last hours of the embattled Mubarak regime, demonstrators are planning a ‘million-man march’ to the leader’s presidential palace in Cairo, bearing the coffins of some of those killed in the recent violence – and the army has promised not to stand in their way.
It’s been a surreal seven days in the Egyptian capital, home to this correspondent for three years. Familiar back alleys have been transformed into theatres of guerrilla warfare, flyovers normally choked with traffic are now groaning under the weight of tanks, and perhaps most remarkably the police – usually a ubiquitous presence on every corner – are nowhere to be seen. They have been replaced by neighbourhood defence militias, who have erected makeshift barricades and mount night-time foot patrols armed with knives, metal rods and guns.
But far from sliding into some sort of dystopian nightmare, Cairo has never buzzed with more energy. Yes, the sound of gunshots rattling close by through the streets is disconcerting – the product of the clashes between vigilantes and gangs of thugs out looting, some of whom are suspected to be government security forces now changed into plain clothes after being beaten off the ground by protesters on Friday – and at least 150 Egyptians have tragically lost their lives at the hands of the state riot police. But out of the chaos something remarkable has emerged: intense social solidarity, on a level that few outside Egypt could ever have foreseen.
At night in Tahrir Square, the central plaza which demonstrators have been occupying for several days, Cairenes pool together money to buy food and drink, offer each other blankets, and pass round working phones in an attempt to circumvent the government’s communications blockade. By sunrise individuals are already spontaneously pacing the concrete, sweeping up debris and helping the army tow burnt out police trucks out of harm’s way. “The security forces controlled our streets for so long, and they destroyed them,” one protester told me. “Now we are in charge, and we want to prove that we can look after them.”
It’s the same mentality that brought hundreds of Egyptians down to the nearby national museum on the first night of trouble, forming a human cordon to protect the country’s unparalleled cultural treasures from vandalism. And it can be seen again in the darkness of the neighbourhood watch checkpoints, where local communities have bonded together with remarkable efficiency, establishing elaborate warning and identification systems and fuelling each other with endless supplies of hot tea.
Today’s march is due to begin at 4pm local time. By tonight the Arab World’s most populous nation could have a new leader at the helm. But even if it doesn’t something fundamental and strong has been unearthed from Egyptian society this week – and regardless of political machinations at the top, few on the ground are likely to forget it.