Quiet Acts of Protest on a Noisy Day
CAIRO — The retired general in the blue suit walked alone, with a cane, as hundreds of Egyptian protesters surged past him, chanting and holding signs. He stopped to catch his breath, grabbing the railing of a bridge so he could look out at the Nile.
The general pointed to his throat, signaling that he was mute, but on this day of protest he intended to be heard. So he grabbed a pen and wrote.
His name was Maj. Gen. Ali Ibrahim al-Gafy, 71, and he had fought in several of Egypt’s wars with Israel. He had walked about one and a half miles from his home in the Dokki neighborhood to be part of Tuesday’s grand gathering in Tahrir Square. He looked at the tanks in the distance, noting the warm reception the soldiers received. “People like the Army and hate the police,” General Gafy wrote.
Then he jotted down a few words about the man who had inspired the protests, a fellow veteran of Egypt’s armed services: the country’s president.
“Down with Mubarak.” he wrote. “Traitor.”
General Gafy’s scribbles were the quietest expressions of anger on a loud day.
Hundreds of thousands of his fellow Egyptians, brimming with confidence after days of protest, traveled like pilgrims to gather at Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, to speak freely and to be heard.
They said that President Hosni Mubarak had never listened to their complaints, aspirations or opinions. So on Tuesday they made noise, carrying banners, painting their faces and singing their slogans. Later that night, it was clear that Mr. Mubarak, who announced he would not run for another presidential term, had been listening — though he might not have heard.
There was no mistaking what the protesters wanted. “Go already,” read one sign held aloft for Mr. Mubarak. “My arm’s starting to hurt.”
The protesters started arriving in the morning, by minibus and taxi, on motorcycle and foot. There were more families than in the previous protests, a development that seemed linked to a sense of safety. The army had said it would allow the demonstrators to protest peacefully.
They were all armed with grievances, though some conceded that they had fewer complaints than others. “I don’t have economic problems,” Tarek Tohamy, an engineer, said as he walked toward checkpoints that led to the square. “I have a nice car. I have a villa.”
But Mr. Tohamy was alarmed by Egypt’s dismal condition, and concerned about the country he was leaving to his daughter.
At one point during last week’s protests, he said, he started to feel sorry for Mr. Mubarak, saying he was a war hero. “He’s part of our history,” Mr. Tohamy said.
That feeling did not last long, and before Tuesday night’s announcement, Mr. Tohamy found himself needing a clear signal of Mr. Mubarak’s intentions.
“We can go into history, or we can go in the garbage of history,” Mr. Tohamy said.
The gathering was a carnival with an edge. A teenage girl led her friends in a chant: “Egypt’s free, and Mubarak’s out.” A crowd gathered around a man who said he was a former political prisoner, leaning in to listen as he talked about the insects in the prison food. There were several good-natured arguments, and at least one scuffle, after a crowd confronted a man they said belonged to the secret police.
A group of men said they had been sleeping in the square for days.
“In liberation, until liberation,” one of them said. His friend, playing on a familiar theme, begged Mr. Mubarak to leave so he could go home.
The gathering spilled its banks, as small demonstrations moved to nearby Talaat Harb Square. There, Ahmed Zidan held a sign that said “This is Egypt, not Iran.” He said he meant that Egyptians had no interest in an Islamic state, an assertion repeated by a number of protesters, many of whom also said any government should include members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mr. Zidan, who edits the Mid-East Youth Arabic Web site, also had a theory about the swelling crowds. When the government shut off the Internet, he said, it left young people with nothing to do but go out.
There were chants about the United States and Israel, but most of the anger was directed at their alliance with Mr. Mubarak. Some posters demanding that Mr. Mubarak leave were written in Hebrew, and one of the most popular slogans was that he had a place waiting for him in Saudi Arabia. And the cries of a generation ago were revived for an event as climactic as any in the young people’s lives. “Revolution until victory,” they chanted. “Revolution in every street of Egypt.”