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When Egypt's Revolution Was at the Crossroads: Twelve Moments That Shook the World

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Message Esam Al-Amin
"It is impossible to predict the time and progress of revolution. It is governed by its own more or less mysterious laws."~~Vladimir Lenin

"If this indeed be the hour in which I lift up my lantern, it is not my flame that shall burn therein. Empty and dark shall I raise my lantern. And the guardian of the night shall fill it with oil and he shall light it also."~~Khalil Gibran in The Prophet

When the Egyptian youth in the "April 6 Movement," and "We Are Khaled Said," with the support of the Kefaya movement and others, called for mass protests on January 25, they did not contemplate a revolution. In retrospect, while seemingly quite modest in their scope, when the youth presented their specific demands to Mubarak's government, the regime scoffed at them, dismissing their demands. Nevertheless, they were determined to press on at all costs.

On that fateful day, the protesters raised four simple demands to the regime: to develop programs to address poverty and unemployment; to end the state of emergency and uphold judicial independence; to dismiss the Interior Minister, whose security apparatus was notorious for torture and abuse of human rights; and to carry out political reforms, including the limitation of presidential terms and the dissolution of the parliament following the massive electoral fraud of last November.

Asmaa' Mahfouz, one of the organizers of the April 6 Youth Movement who played a critical role in calling for the mobilization efforts for the January 25 demonstration, was as surprised as anyone when the protest turned into a full-fledged revolution. She admitted as much in a recent interview when she commented upon witnessing the massive demonstrations, "I realized for the first time that the call, which I did not dream would draw more than 10,000 people, had now turned into a popular revolution."

Indeed the transformation from a protest to an uprising to a successful revolution was remarkable. But the ultimate triumph of Egypt's revolution was not inevitable. At different junctures of the eighteen momentous days the revolution could have been aborted or taken a completely different turn.

Here are twelve decisive moments that played a crucial role in maintaining the momentum of the revolution, ultimately changing the history of the region and the world.

January 25: A new mobilization tactic to rally big crowds

Since at least 2004, Egypt has witnessed many protests, led primarily by the Kefaya opposition movement, and more recently by the April 6 Youth movement. But most of the protests drew no more than a few hundred people or at best or a couple of thousands, mainly those ideologically committed or politically active. In every case, the demonstrators were outnumbered by the security forces, which brutally cracked down on them, causing numerous injuries and arrests.

But the Tunisian revolution changed that equation in several ways. First, it inspired Egyptians beyond the activists or elites. Secondly, once the youth organizers decided to take to the streets on January 25, they outsmarted the security forces. (See my article The Making of Egypt's Revolution).

As a ruse, the youth released announcements for people to gather at certain landmarks and intersections knowing full well that massive security forces would be awaiting them there. Instead, they went in small groups to side streets in poor and middle class neighborhoods with no government agent presence to mobilize these areas to join the protests. In the words of Mahfouz, "I was printing and distributing leaflets in popular areas, and calling for citizens to participate. In those areas, I also talked to young people about their rights, and the need for their participation."

She continued, "I went to a street in Bulaq Dakrur (one of the poorest neighborhoods in Cairo), where I and a group of members from the movement intended to start protesting. At the same time, other members were doing the same thing in other areas. When we had assembled, we raised the Egyptian flag and began to chant slogans, and it was surprising when a large number of people joined us. This prompted us to take our demonstration down Gamat al-Dawal al-Arabia Street (main street). With increasing numbers joining us, we stopped for some time in front of Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque (major landmark), and then we led the march to Tahrir Square. We found several demonstrations coming from different areas towards this area, and thus we decided to occupy Tahrir Square."

To the complete surprise of the security forces, the demonstrators reached Tahrir Square numbering over one hundred thousand, which they could neither control nor disperse. Despite the existence of thousands of security forces, this was a new situation that they had not experienced before.

Evening of January 25: Occupying Tahrir Square

The decision by the Interior Minister to crack down hard on the massive demonstration using water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets and eventually live ammunition, did not break it up as expected. Inspired by the Tunisian model, the demonstrators pressed ahead showing courage and resilience.

Again describing these moments Mahfouz said, "We were faced with significant security enhancements -armored cars, riot police, and central security forces. They started to beat us heavily with tear gas and rubber bullets, and I saw young men die in front of me. I was crying and scared, but I said to myself that I could not back down, because the blood of those young men must not be spilled in vain. Many of us resisted and some of us fled, but in the end a large number of us managed to get to Tahrir Square."

Upon reaching Tahrir Square the organizers decided to occupy it and called for open-ended demonstrations designating Friday, January 28, as the "Day of Rage." Describing that evening, Mahfouz said, "Thus we decided to occupy Tahrir Square. However, at around 2 am, we were attacked by the security forces with tear gas and rubber bullets." By that time, the demonstrators "have broken through the fear barrier," Mahfouz added. The more casualties suffered by the protesters the more determined they became, thus raising their demands. That evening the protests turned into a popular uprising.

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