Tens of thousands of Egyptian demonstrators took to the streets on 25 January, young and old, Muslim and Christian, rich and poor, educated and not so-educated. They all chanted "Long live Egypt", "Life, liberty and human dignity" and "Down with the Mubarak regime".
The day marked for the celebration of Police Day was dubbed the Day of Rage. The protests, which continued through a second day in almost every part of the country, are showing no signs of abating on the third day, with a million-strong march scheduled for Friday. These demonstrations are sending shivers down the spine not only of the regime but of its friends and allies as well.
The scale of the protests came as a blow to all those who have been betting that a sleeping dragon will continue its slumber. For three decades now, Egyptians have been kept on a tight leash, fed more with promises than with bread. They were cajoled into compliance by a media that has the interests of the regime at heart and a religious establishment that owes its allegiance and existence to the state, but were often threatened into submission by the force of the baton if they refused to comply.
Egyptian grievances are numerous. They have seen neither the fruits of peace nor of the huge economic growth that Egypt is reported to be making in international economic indices. What they experience on a daily basis is endless queuing for inedible bread and suffocating traffic congestion as the police force is increasingly burdened with the task of protecting the regime and its men.
There were also demonstrations last month calling for a minimum monthly wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds (roughly £130). Too much, said the government. It could only promise to institute a minimum wage of 400LE (£43). This is hardly surprising from a government made up of businesspeople who no doubt have a vested interest in keeping wages as low as possible. The spokesmen of the regime shamelessly argued that it was a fair wage to expect.
For some years now, the Mubarak regime has been heading for disaster. With rampant unemployment, soaring prices and a 30-year long state of emergency, its popularity has dropped to an all-time low. But more importantly, it has repeatedly shown its total disregard for public opinion, a disregard that would have amounted to political suicide under any other system.
An obvious example is the rigged parliamentary elections of November 2010, which were perhaps the worst in Egypt's history. The ruling National Democratic party had the audacity to announce that these elections were one of the fairest in Egypt's history. Ahmed Ezz, the iron-tycoon-turned-politician and one of the new guard at the NDP, who is known to have masterminded the electoral operation, triumphantly announced the results. He stated that the landslide victory that secured 98% of the parliamentary seats for the ruling party was the result of its popularity on the streets and the fruit of the hard work of its members.
The initial call for the Day of Rage was made by young Facebook activists inspired by the success of Tunisians in overthrowing Ben Ali. The Facebook invitation for the protests received 95,000 positive responses. Other forces and opposition groups later responded to the call, including the Muslim Brotherhood, whose participation has so far been quite low-key.
For the first time in decades, Egyptian protesters went out in unprecedented numbers across the whole country with one slogan: "People want the regime to fall". They made their demands clear. Mubarak should step down, the illegal parliament be dissolved and emergency law be suspended. The call was for the whole country to rally and unite, and there were no religious chants or slogans.
The reaction of the regime to the protests so far has been pathetically inadequate. It shows that this regime is still in denial. While Mubarak kept his silence, the interior ministry took on the task of communicating with the people, in the only way it knows how to. As it cracked down on demonstrators, it issued statements, banning any further protests and repeating the same old excuses. It blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for what it called riots on the streets and blamed their members for infiltrating the crowds in order to wreak havoc. This is supposed to do the trick of scaring the world about the propsect of an imminent Islamist takeover of Egypt – a fear that the regime has painstakingly been fostering. The interior ministry also blamed the ill-defined but frequently invoked "foreign hands" that are always bent on fomenting trouble and inciting people against their loving and God-fearing rulers.
State-controlled newspapers have also shown that their reports are approved, if not written, by the security apparatus. People were shocked to see the headlines of the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper on 26 January, after a day of massive protests in different Egyptian cities: "Widespread protests and disturbances in Lebanon". Egyptian state television was no better. While the streets were teeming with protests, it offered its usual mix of cookery programmes and soap operas. The demonstrations were, no doubt, happening in another country.
The reaction of Arab and international media has also been disappointing. Throughout the first day, there was a near-total disregard of the events happening on Egypt's streets. Al-Jazeera, which always follows important events as they happen, covered the demonstrations rather mutedly at the beginning, while concentrating on Lebanon. When it finally got round to covering the events, the coverage was poor in comparison with Tunisia. Western media, including CNN and the BBC, gave Egypt very limited space.
The so-called free world that prides itself on championing the causes of liberty and democracy seemed rather bewildered at what was happening and official statements took time to appear, if they did at all. The American and European governments' endorsement of the Mubarak government meant that they systematically turned a blind eye to its violation of human rights and its repression of dissidents. All Barack Obama could say in his comment on Egyptian elections was to say that he was concerned at the situation. He expressed no shock, condemnation or blame for the blatant violations of the most basic of democratic principles.
Hillary Clinton has reiterated her belief in the stability of the regime and has asked all parties concerned for restraint. She was probably too busy to follow the news closely. Otherwise she would have learned that peaceful demonstrators were attacked with rubber bullets, electric batons and tear gas, all incidentally made in the US. This is not to mention the new invention by the Egyptian security apparatus, which was reported to have used sewage water in dispersing demonstrators. But to give Clinton her due, she has politely asked Egyptian authorities to unblock Facebook and Twitter, which they did for a couple of hours.
The young people who have succeeded in rallying people around a common cause are out on the streets, reinventing themselves and the whole country. Their voices are loud and clear. The regime is now forced to listen. And the whole world will have to take heed.