As 1,000 protesters jostled with riot police outside the Supreme Court downtown, on a deserted stretch of 26 July Street, a young family walked arm in arm down the middle of the street gleefully chanting, "Down with Hosni Mubarak!"
It became apparent that something different was happening here than the usual semi-annual bursts of public frustration. The anger and the desire for change had metastasized. Whatever anyone says about the Egyptian revolution, it wasn't just "the youth" that brought Mubarak down. The youth led the way, for sure, often showing courage that their elders had long since surrendered. But from the very start it encompassed people of all ages, including innumerable two- and three-generation families, all adding to the protest lines.
One woman in her mid-forties, who declined to give her name, said she had never before gotten involved in politics. But on Jan. 25 she came out with her two teenage sons, "to show them that it's possible to demonstrate peacefully for change."
At about three in the afternoon, the crowds converged on Tahrir Square, the massive public space on the edge of downtown that's the traditional heart of the city. The protesters filled up more than half the square; that's when the riot police started hauling out the heavier tactics -- including baton charges, water cannons, and tear gas. In a surreal interlude, at the Talaat Harb Street entrance to Tahrir Square, there was a mass of protesters and Central Security cadres -- all gagging on the same tear gas. Despite the violence on display, the day contained its share of dark comedy: the now-desperate Egyptian riot police were throwing rocks back at protesters.
A tense standoff reigned for hours. Several times, the riot police scattered the crowd with choking tear-gas volleys, but the protesters kept regrouping and coming back for more. In the midst of confl ict, there were numerous moments of détente and even sympathy between the two warring sides. Many of the Central Security soldiers and commanders seemed to understand the frustrations of the protesters, and many of the protestors seemed to understand that the Central Security was the most immediate threat -- but not the real problem.
Mohab Wahby, a young development specialist, recalls a rather civil negotiation with a Central Security officer who told him, "I understand your anger, but what can I do? These are my orders."
As news of the clashes spread, the various protest groups began converging on Tahrir to provide reinforcements. Just before 4:00 P.M. just as the police were potentially starting to turn the tide, a thousand-strong march rushed in from the direction of Abdin with a huge roar, adding fresh numbers and momentum to the protesters.
As evening approached, "The discussion became, 'Do we stay or not?' People were saying, 'If we leave, we'll never take the square again.' Then people started getting blankets and food," said El Dahshan.
Fresh bodies began flocking to the square, having heard the news of its occupation by protesters. Someone brought a microphone and speaker system and the speeches began. Political and cultural leaders like Alaa Al Aswany, author of The Yacoubian Building, started appearing on the scene and determination hardened around the idea of an open-ended sit-in.
The protesters managed to hold onto Tahrir for about nine hours that day. At about one in the morning, when the crowds had thinned a bit, police violently cleared the square using volleys of tear gas and baton charges. "We were really getting into sleep mode, and then suddenly here comes the cavalry," El Dahshan said. He and others fled through the side streets of downtown with Central Security chasing them and throwing rocks.
As he was catching his breath and regrouping with friends outside the famed downtown café called Horreya, El Dahshan witnessed something that made him realize the battle wasn't going to be won that day. "Around two A.M., I saw a police paddy wagon stop and drop off about a dozen guys in civilian clothes with sticks," he said. "I didn't stick around for long after that."
As they were being run out of Tahrir, one group of protesters made a brief, disastrous attempt to invade the grounds of the NDP headquarters, which are tucked away behind the Egyptian Museum at the northern edge of the square. They were overrun by police and savagely beaten, said Wahby, who witnessed the scene from above on the October 6 Bridge.
The day ended in defeat for the protesters, but the turnout had already surprised all sides and officially taken Mubarak's regime into uncharted waters. "By the end of that night, I naïvely thought we had already won and that Mubarak was gone," Wahby recalled. "You went home and you were thinking, 'I'm coming back tomorrow no matter what.'"
Organizers, sensing the initiative was on their side, called for Friday, Jan. 28, to be a massive "Day of Rage" protest. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians would take part across the country, thwarting the Mubarak regime's last-ditch attempt to quell the protests through shutting down Internet and mobile phone services. Pamphlets widely distributed among protesters the following day clearly conveyed that sense of unprecedented confidence and momentum.
"We have started an uprising with the will of the people, the people who have suffered for 30 years under oppression, injustice, and poverty," read the Arabic language text. "Egyptians have proven today that they are capable of taking freedom by force and destroying despotism."