In 1952, tensions in Egypt grew with strikes, riots and political intrigues. Then, a group of army officers used their tanks to begin a coup which ousted the monarchy and its ineffectual parliament.That popular uprising six decades ago lead to the one-party rule which has lasted ever since in Egypt. Now the tanks are back on the streets again. But this time, the army is being forced into a passive role as hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens continue demonstrations in Tahrir Square, some of them sleeping around the tanks at night to prevent the vehicles from cutting off access to this important central space.
As protests enter the third week, occurring also in Alexandria and other cities, the movement for change has gained new momentum over the last 48 hours following the release of a young marketing executive from Google. Held in prison for twelve days, Wael Ghonim was unaware of the many protestor deaths since he first helped organise opposition rallies through Facebook. In a moving interview on Egyptian television, Mr Ghonim spoke of what was happening as “the revolution of the youth of the internet, which became the revolution of the youth of Egypt, then the revolution of Egypt itself.” The young executive broke down in tears as photos of dead protestors were shown during his interview. “We didn’t do anything wrong. We did what our consciences dictated to us,” he said, before leaving the studio overcome with emotion. His reaction and subsequent expressions of remorse for the families who lost loved ones have moved the nation. Speaking in Tahrir Square yesterday, Mr Ghonim provided a new rallying point for the crowds and some inside the country have declared him the ‘leader of the youth’.
Young people (aged 15-24) make up the largest component of Egypt’s population and many are hungry for freedom of expression and a better life. There is a general belief that much of Egypt’s wealth stays within elite groups, while the poor still queue for subsidized bread. Government statistics indicate a fifth of the population lives below the global poverty threshold of less than 2 dollars per day, though as many as four-fifths exist on less than 250 dollars per month. And while schools and hospitals are free, they are often grim, overcrowded places, where the quality of learning and medical care is poor.
With the huge losses to the economy as protests continue, the demonstrations are inevitably hurting the poorest Egyptians. Reuters spoke to one taxi driver whose living had been disrupted. Mustafa Fikri’s wife had just given birth, but he could not join her at the hospital. With little money left, he had to keep driving to feed his family; rather than buying his wife flowers, the taxi driver was planning to spend any money he earned on a chicken. But the protesters say they will not leave Tahrir Square until President Mubarak leaves office. Today, in the closest echo to these demands, the US government called for “immediate, irreversible progress that responds to the aspirations of the Egyptian people”.