Throughout the day, different groups of protesters flowed organically through downtown Cairo, many of them meeting little resistance. There was a carnival atmosphere, and protesters saluted each other and joined forces, moving through the city with no set plan -- only an unspoken understanding that something new was happening and that they would all eventually meet in Tahrir.
The black-clad riot troops of Central Security dutifully deployed in their usual overwhelming waves. But for the first time in recent memory, the troops seemed potentially outnumbered by the protesters, who simply pushed through their ranks. The Central Security cadres looked strikingly unprepared and completely miserable; they weren't used to a fair fight.
The security troops also seemed to be operating under orders, at first, to deploy a soft touch. Perhaps out of concern over how the Tunisian uprising had captured imaginations across the Middle East, authorities seemed concerned to avoid a major public crackdown. At the beginning of the day, the Central Security forces deployed without their usual batons and riot shields, locking arms to form a human barrier to pen in demonstrators. That tactic quickly proved to be almost comically ineffective.
The first real physical confrontations I witnessed were outside the Supreme Court downtown -- a common flash point since it sits adjacent to the Lawyers Syndicate and Journalists Syndicate, both longtime nerve centers for protests and activism. The two neighboring professional syndicates are symbolic of how opposition politics worked for years under Mubarak. Both, in their time, served as hotbeds of government opposition; but they also clearly demonstrate how Mubarak's forces would allow limited "steam vent" protests to express public frustration without actually threatening to change anything.
For years, you could say pretty much anything you wanted outside either syndicate building, far more than you ever could say in Tunisia, Syria, or Libya -- as long as you didn't try to move from your spot. The Lawyers Syndicate, in particular, had a walled-in courtyard with a front gate that served nicely as a natural choke point to keep protests inside. At the Journalists Syndicate around the corner, protesters frequently gathered on the wide steps of the building's entrance, where they would also be surrounded by riot cops and penned in place. Most of the time, Central Security forces were able to keep matters so effectively bottled up that traffic would keep flowing past the buildings, with passing drivers barely noticing one more noisy distraction.
It was a solid plan and it worked for decades. But it was entirely built around the concept of overwhelming security numbers -- that there would always be more police than protesters. Jan. 25 was the first time I had ever witnessed where the numbers weren't heavily in the government's favor.
"All day you had this sense of euphoria," said Mohamed El Dahshan, who had returned to Egypt one day earlier after helping monitor the referendum on independence for South Sudan. "It was like, 'Fuck it, there's a lot of us!' No more getting cordoned by a measly couple hundred Central Security people.... You would walk with people you recognize, lose them, find some others, and walk and chant with them."
Across the river, on the Giza side, the blogger Mahmoud Salem (who writes under the online moniker of Sandmonkey) started his day outside the Moustafa Mahmoud Mosque -- a central hub in the commercial district of Mohandessin. At about 12:30 in the afternooon he was sitting inside Cilantro, an upscale coffee shop across Arab League Street from the mosque, waiting for some friends to arrive. Suddenly four police officers entered and started demanding IDs and detaining all veiled women and bearded men -- basically anyone who looked like an Islamist. The government clearly still thought the primary threat that day would come from the fundamentalist ranks. "They left my group alone because we looked like frou-frou upper-class Cilantro people," Salem said.
Eventually he ended up in a 500-strong march that tried to cross the Nile and head toward Tahrir. But Central Security had effectively cut the city in two, blocking multiple bridges in the center of the city. Unable to cross the Galaa Bridge, Salem and his group moved north to the October 6 Bridge, but found that also blocked by overwhelming security numbers. In a moment of pure inspiration, Salem found a Nile-side fisherman with a motorboat and gave him LE150 (about $25) on the spot to deliver him and a few friends across the river and right up to the entrance to Tahrir Square.
"We called it the Egyptian Freedom Flotilla," Salem said, laughing proudly. "There was even an Egyptian flag on the side of the motorboat!"