On the night of February 1, Cairo was on a knife’s edge. The deaths of so many protesters on January 28 had shaken the public’s confidence, leading to larger demonstrations around the country. And for three days running, the Egyptian government had taken the dramatic step of shutting down the Internet, hoping to avoid a repeat of Tunisia.
The move backfired. Not only did protesters find ways of getting around the shutdown, it caused countless other Egyptians to leave their homes and gather with their neighbors to find out what was going on. People who might not otherwise go onto the streets were now doing just that.
As tens of thousands of protesters got ready to spend another night in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Mubarak gave a speech on live television. While he acknowledged the protesters were peaceful, he said they were being exploited by people who wanted to cause violence. He promised to step down at the end of his term, but that would be later in the year; he’d remain in power for now. Mubarak ended the speech by insisting that he would “die on Egyptian soil.”
In the early morning hours of February 2, groups of Mubarak supporters began to rally outside Tahrir Square. One group that arrived on motorcycles chanted, "With our blood and our souls, we will defend Hosni Mubarak."
Just past 3am local time, New York Times commentator Nicholas Kristof returned from a visit to Tahrir and tweeted about the tension there.
Up the road from Tahrir, along the east bank of the Nile at Egyptian state TV headquarters, CNN’s Ben Wedeman observed another group of Mubarak supporters. They looked like they were itching for a confrontation.
As I went to bed, I worried I’d wake up hearing about reports of assaults on protesters. Never would I have imagined that it would escalate into a siege.
By the time I got online the next morning, it was just past afternoon prayers in Cairo. Typically, things would be relatively quiet each day until afternoon prayers, when thousands of people would assemble. Once the prayers ended, anything was possible. On this particular day, it quickly turned into chaos.
One of the first tweets I saw came from Nick Kristof:
Mobs brought in on buses? Machetes and clubs? Someone with close connections to Mubarak - if not Mubarak himself - had apparently unleashed the hounds.
As I scrolled through my Twitter stream, the situation around Tahrir Square came into focus. Mahmoud Salem, a widely-read Egyptian blogger who goes by the name @sandmonkey, sized up the pro-Mubarak crowd:
- Activist Gigi Ibrahim, who was nearby, had the same sense of foreboding. She captured a picture on her phone and tweeted it.
Writer Mohamed El Dashan (@TravellerW) was right in the middle of the confrontation, also taking pictures:
Ali Seif (@BloggerSeif), a Lebanese-Canadian college student visiting Cairo, had already been intimidated by one of the Mubarak supporters:
I went to Al Jazeera’s website, hoping they’d be streaming live coverage. After several failed attempts to connect, the stream began to play. The first thing I saw was a swarm of men on horseback, some of them armed with batons and what appeared to be swords, charging up one of the streets leading into Tahrir Square.
“It is an intense battle here,” an Al Jazeera reporter said. “Honestly to God, I thought I’d never see camels charging.”
Did he say camels?
Mubarak thugs were making a cavalry charge – and a medieval one at that. Horses weren’t exactly an unusual site in Cairo, but typically they were hauling carts of metal scraps or whatever, not intentionally careening into pedestrians. And as for camels, Cairo isn’t exactly an Arabian Nights fantasy come to life. The closest camels were nearly an hour away southwest in Giza, waiting for hordes of tourists to mount them for overpriced photos in front of the pyramids.
My local contacts seemed about as shocked as I was. @WaelAbbas, one of the best-known bloggers in the region, couldn’t believe what he was witnessing:
Another local blogger, @Zenobia, feared the army forces that had been protecting the protesters were now allowing them to be attacked. She tweeted tersely: