The events of Jan. 25, 2011, may have come as a shock, even to those who participated. But it was no overnight phenomenon -- more like the sudden flowering of seeds patiently planted over years and years.
"I was shocked. Everyone was. I don't believe anyone who says they knew it would be like that. I had an ear-to-ear smile on the whole day," said Wael Khalil, who had been working for revolution among socialist activists for the past 20 years. "I think of it like concentric circles. It started with a small circle of activists. Kefaya [a coalition founded in 2004 to protest President Hosni Mubarak's hold on power] expanded the circle, the 2005 elections expanded the circle. Khaled Saeed [a young Egyptian man whose violent death, at the hands of Egypt's security forces, became a rallying cry for protesters] was huge."
Nobody was quite sure just what to expect that day. A group of young activists, depending heavily on social media, had announced a day of mass protests, partially in honor of the successful Tunisian revolution 11 days earlier. Jan. 25, a Tuesday, was mischievously chosen because it was also a national holiday: Police Day. The holiday commemorates the 1952 struggle of the Ismailia police force against the occupying British. In the minds of the activists, it became a focal point for an outraged condemnation of the behavior of police and the Interior Ministry in general.
Mohamed Adel, a spokesman for the April 6 movement, one of the youth movements that had pressed for change in Egypt for years, told a local newspaper, "Egypt's police have become [criminals] who don't care about protecting the people, unlike the heroes of 1952."
There was, among some quarters, a certain satisfaction in turning Police Day on its head. As Nora Shalaby, an archeologist and passionate social media activist put it in a tweet around noon on Jan. 25:
It's really satisfying to c Egyptian police officers working & anxious on their day off #jan25
It wasn't the first, or even the tenth, day of mass national protests called for in the previous few years. But this one felt a little different going in. The wounds of Khaled Saeed and the mass insult of the parliamentary elections were still fresh in the public psyche. A growing number of citizens had simply ceased to care about the potential consequences of political action. A politically desensitized population was being re-politicized by their unacceptable realities. The old Egyptian saying of "walk next to the wall" -- mind your business, feed your family, and don't get involved in matters of governance above your station -- was becoming irrelevant; minding your own business in Egypt in 2011 still wouldn't protect you from economic insecurity, institutionalized corruption, nepotistic hiring practices, or a predatory police state.
I was originally scheduled to travel to Dubai on Jan. 25; my wife, Rola, was already there waiting for me. Hearing all the rumblings and mindful of Tunisia, I decided to delay the trip by a day or so, just to see what happened. By the end of the day, it was clear that I wasn't going anywhere. It was still way too early to predict where all this was going, but something unprecedented was happening.
Organizers originally called for crowds to gather outside the Interior Ministry, near Tahrir Square. On the surface, that seemed like a tactical mistake. Gathering in the tightly confined urban space of Lazoghly Square would enable the Central Security troops to practice their well-honed tactics of bottling up protest groups with overwhelming numbers. Anyone gathering in Lazoghly would be easily surrounded, and anyone seeking to join the protest in progress would be just as easily prevented from approaching.
The Interior Ministry plan turned out to be a clever ruse; at about 10:30 in the morning, the word went out through Twitter and Facebook about a whole new set of gathering points and contact numbers. The turnout exceeded all expectations; from the start, it was clear that this was, the largest demonstration Egypt had witnessed in years. I spent the day moving throughout downtown Cairo, trying to keep track of a dizzying set of fast-moving events.