A day of prayer or a day of rage? All Egypt was waiting for the Muslim Sabbath today – not to mention Egypt's fearful allies – as the country's ageing President clings to power after nights of violence that have shaken America's faith in the stability of the Mubarak regime.
Five men have so far been killed and almost 1,000 others have been imprisoned, police have beaten women and for the first time an office of the ruling National Democratic Party was set on fire. Rumours are as dangerous as tear gas here. A Cairo daily has been claiming that one of President Hosni Mubarak's top advisers has fled to London with 97 suitcases of cash, but other reports speak of an enraged President shouting at senior police officers for not dealing more harshly with demonstrators.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the opposition leader and Nobel prize-winning former UN official, flew back to Egypt last night but no one believes – except perhaps the Americans – that he can become a focus for the protest movements that have sprung up across the country.
Already there have been signs that those tired of Mubarak's corrupt and undemocratic rule have been trying to persuade the ill-paid policemen patrolling Cairo to join them. "Brothers! Brothers! How much do they pay you?" one of the crowds began shouting at the cops in Cairo. But no one is negotiating – there is nothing to negotiate except the departure of Mubarak, and the Egyptian government says and does nothing, which is pretty much what it has been doing for the past three decades.
People talk of revolution but there is no one to replace Mubarak's men – he never appointed a vice-president – and one Egyptian journalist yesterday told me he had even found some friends who feel sorry for the isolated, lonely President. Mubarak is 82 and even hinted he would stand for president again – to the outrage of millions of Egyptians.
The barren, horrible truth, however, is that save for its brutal police force and its ominously docile army – which, by the way, does not look favourably upon Mubarak's son Gamal – the government is powerless. This is revolution by Twitter and revolution by Facebook, and technology long ago took away the dismal rules of censorship.
Mubarak's men seem to have lost all sense of initiative. Their party newspapers are filled with self-delusion, pushing the massive demonstrations to the foot of front pages as if this will keep the crowds from the streets – as if, indeed, by belittling the story, the demonstrations never happened.
But you don't need to read the papers to see what has gone wrong. The filth and the slums, the open sewers and the corruption of every government official, the bulging prisons, the laughable elections, the whole vast, sclerotic edifice of power has at last brought Egyptians on to their streets.
Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League, spotted something important at the recent summit of Arab leaders at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. "Tunisia is not far from us," he said. "The Arab men are broken." But are they? One old friend told me a frightening story about a poor Egyptian who said he had no interest in moving the corrupt leadership from their desert gated communities. "At least we now know where they live," he said. There are more than 80 million people in Egypt, 30 per cent of them under 20. And they are no longer afraid.
And a kind of Egyptian nationalism – rather than Islamism – is making itself felt at the demonstrations. January 25 is National Police Day – to honour the police force who died fighting British troops in Ishmaelia – and the government clucked its tongue at the crowds, telling them they were disgracing their martyrs. No, shouted the crowds, those policemen who died at Ishmaelia were brave men, not represented by their descendants in uniform today.
This is not an unclever government, though. There is a kind of shrewdness in the gradual freeing of the press and television of this ramshackle pseudo-democracy. Egyptians had been given just enough air to breathe, to keep them quiet, to enjoy their docility in this vast farming land. Farmers are not revolutionaries, but when the millions thronged to the great cities, to the slums and collapsing houses and universities, which gave them degrees and no jobs, something must have happened.
"We are proud of the Tunisians – they have shown Egyptians how to have pride," another Egyptian colleague said yesterday. "They were inspiring but the regime here was smarter than Ben Ali in Tunisia. It provided a veneer of opposition by not arresting all the Muslim Brotherhood, then by telling the Americans that the great fear should be Islamism, that Mubarak was all that stood between them and 'terror' – a message the US has been in a mood to hear for the past 10 years."
There are various clues that the authorities in Cairo realised something was afoot. Several Egyptians have told me that on 24 January, security men were taking down pictures of Gamal Mubarak from the slums – lest they provoke the crowds. But the vast number of arrests, the police street beatings – of women as well as men – and the near-collapse of the Egyptian stock market bear the marks of panic rather than cunning.
And one of the problems has been created by the regime itself; it has systematically got rid of anyone with charisma, thrown them out of the country, politically emasculating any real opposition by imprisoning many of them. The Americans and the EU are telling the regime to listen to the people – but who are these people, who are their leaders? This is not an Islamic uprising – though it could become one – but, save for the usual talk of Muslim Brotherhood participation in the demonstrations, it is just one mass of Egyptians stifled by decades of failure and humiliation.
But all the Americans seem able to offer Mubarak is a suggestion of reforms – something Egyptians have heard many times before. It's not the first time that violence has come to Egypt's streets, of course. In 1977, there were mass food riots – I was in Cairo at the time and there were many angry, starving people – but the Sadat government managed to control the people by lowering food prices and by imprisonment and torture. There have been police mutinies before – one ruthlessly suppressed by Mubarak himself. But this is something new.
Interestingly, there seems no animosity towards foreigners. Many journalists have been protected by the crowds and – despite America's lamentable support for the Middle East's dictators – there has not so far been a single US flag burned. That shows you what's new. Perhaps a people have grown up – only to discover that their ageing government are all children.
Internet and text messages fail in 'facebook revolution'
Egyptian authorities last night disrupted internet services and mobile-phone text messaging in efforts to stop protesters keeping in touch on social networking sites. The measure was taken as members of an elite counter-terrorism police unit were ordered to take up positions in key locations around Cairo in preparation for a wave of mass rallies today.
Among the places where they are stationed is Tahrir Square, where one of the biggest demonstrations took place. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social networking sites have played a vital role in Egypt's protest movement, just as they did in Tunisia, enabling demonstrators to keep in touch and to organise rallies.
Who could succeed Hosni Mubarak?
Protesters on the streets of Egypt aren't just rallying against the 30-year-reign of President Hosni Mubarak, they are also taking aim at his son Gamal Mubarak, 47, an urbane former investment banker who has scaled the political ladder, prompting speculation that he is being groomed for his father's post.
The youngest son of Mr Mubarak and his half-Welsh wife, Suzanne, Gamal was educated at the elite American University in Cairo, going on to work for the Bank of America.
He entered politics about a decade ago, quickly moving up to become head of the political secretariat of his father's National Democratic Party (NDP). He was heavily involved in the economic liberalisation of Egypt, which pleased investors but provoked the ire of protesters, who blame the policies for lining the pockets of the rich while the poor suffered.
Although he has always denied having an eye on his father's throne, a mysterious campaign sprung up last year, with posters plastered across Cairo calling for Gamal to stand for president in elections scheduled for later this year. His 82-year-old father has not yet declared his candidacy.
Certainly the protesters appeared unhappy with the chosen son, chanting "Gamal, tell your father Egyptians hate you" and tearing up his picture.
Protests in Egypt today will be different from the others that have swept the Middle East in recent weeks in one important way. Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), landed at Cairo airport last night to lead rallies against Hosni Mubarak's rule.
The 68-year-old was born in the Egyptian capital, from where he launched a legal career. He joined the IAEA in the 1980s, becoming head of the UN body in 1997.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq thrust Mr ElBaradei into the public consciousness. He demurred on the US rationale for attacking Saddam Hussein, describing the war as "a glaring example of how, in many cases, the use of force exacerbates the problem rather than solving it". The award, jointly with the IAEA, of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize further rankled with the Bush administration.
He has long been urged to challenge the 82-year-old President, but hitherto has bided his time, insisting first on electoral reform, but his participation in today's protests indicate he is ready. Recent speeches, including recently at Harvard, when he joked that he was "looking for a job" have done nothing to dissuade his supporters, but at 68 his presidency would surely be only a short-term fix to Egypt's problems.