The chants, tear gas and violence emanating from Cairo’s Tahrir Square evoke the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak. Protesters talk of a fight to the death with the ruling military council, whose entire transition plan looks shakier than ever.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces may take some comfort from the scale of the protests, which in the past four days have yet to attract the hundreds of thousands who turned out against Mubarak in January and February.
Yet activists resisting efforts to dislodge them from Tahrir are voicing defiance reminiscent of the height of the 18-day uprising that unseated Egypt’s longtime ruler.
Their passions inflamed by the deaths of at least 33 people since Saturday, they show no signs of leaving. There are calls for a bigger protest on Tuesday. A protracted standoff could put at risk elections planned to begin on November 28.
On Monday, crowds chanted “the people want the downfall of the regime,” the main refrain of the anti-Mubarak protest. Some said they were ready to die for their cause, sentiments also often heard during demonstrations in February.
And there were flashes of the volunteer spirit that was vital to the successful uprising against Mubarak.
Youths on motor bikes ferried those wounded in clashes with the security forces to makeshift clinics. Others formed human corridors to clear the way. Medics treated the casualties on the pavement, while volunteers swept away rubbish.
It wasn’t the first time the spirit of the original uprising had returned. Large protests in July are widely credited with prompting the military council to put Mubarak on trial.
What sets this protest apart is the level of the bloodshed blamed on the security forces, which could inflame unrest, just as it did in the last days of the Mubarak era.
“A LOT OF KILLING”
“I came because I saw the situation on the TV. There’s a lot of killing,” said Hussam Mohammad, a 22-year-old history student, among a crowd that had grown from thousands to tens of thousands by late afternoon.
“The thing you can take from all of this is that revolution is still going on. It reminds me exactly of January 25,” he said, referring to the day the anti-Mubarak protests erupted.
Among the Tahrir Square activists, anger has mounted over the way the ruling military council has governed Egypt. The protesters believe the generals are trying to hold onto power and privilege, undermining hopes for real democratic change.
“If people go home now, the whole revolution will have been for nothing,” said Abdou Kassem, a youth activist who had been leading the chants atop the shoulders of other demonstrators.
He pulled from his pocket a bird shot pellet which he said security forces had fired at demonstrators. “Morale is very high,” he smiled, pointing out wounds to his face and leg.
Tuesday’s turnout will likely help shape the military’s next step. A poor showing could encourage it to try to clear the square by force. A large crowd may deter a harsh crackdown.
Not all the Egyptians in the square on Monday were there to protest. As always, some were there merely to watch. Others were urging the protesters to go home. Others, on the fringes, played a more sinister role, provoking violence or looting buildings.
While the activists are confident of popular support for their street action, beyond Tahrir there is more doubt.
Some Egyptians say the activists should be more patient and give respite to an economy battered by a year of political turmoil. They see the elections for a new legislature due to start on November 28 as the first step on the road toward the return of civilian government promised by the military.
“The silent majority now are not the same as the silent majority of January 25. Now, they are not with the Tahrir crowd. Why? Because there are positive steps being implemented,” said Mustafa Ibrahim, 31, from the town of Tanta north of Cairo.
“They must be patient,” he said.
Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Alistair Lyon