Police radios crackled with panic the day President Hosni Mubarak’s grip on the nation was shattered.
Reinforcements didn’t arrive. Tear gas ran out. Arms grew weary from swinging batons. And so it was with a rush and a push on that last Friday in January that tens of thousands of protesters advanced and the momentum, like a tide pulled unexpectedly in another direction, changed.
The miscalculations and crossed signals of Jan. 28, a day that one police captain calls “Black Friday,” marked the unthinkable: Mubarak’s 30-year-long reviled police state was overrun by Egyptians no longer intimidated by the sound of boots and the glare of shields.
It was a stunning scene that energized the protest movement and has left Mubarak facing daily demonstrations as international and domestic pressure intensifies for him to step down. If police had held their lines that day, the outcome might have been much different.
“The cops on the ground got spooked and it quickly turned to chaos,” said Ayman, a police captain who asked that his last name not be used because he is not authorized to speak to the media. “The Interior Ministry didn’t have a Plan B. They didn’t think it would get out of hand.
“The hate from protesters was raw. Word came down for police to disappear, to find any spot where they weren’t a target in their uniforms. They were left on their own.”
That was the day “Egyptians sprang back to life,” said Sahar Mougi, a protester in Tahrir Square. “We had been dead for three decades. We rediscovered our confidence, our ability to change. Over the last seven days we’ve learned how to say no to injustice.”
The miscues began a few days earlier, when the April 6th youth movement called for a protest on Tuesday, a national holiday to honor police officers. Tens of thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other cities. Then, following two days of sporadic clashes between security forces and roving young men, the second protest was called Friday as police rushed to stem a gathering revolt.
Those days were crucial to the protest movement which had been organized through Facebook, text messages and word of mouth. Historically, demonstrations against the government were suppressed quickly. The tenor was different this time. Hours before morning prayers on Jan. 28, security forces cut off the Internet and cellphone networks. By then it was too late.
“The Interior Ministry knew days before how big the protests might get,” said another police captain, Ramy, who also would speak only on the condition that his last name not be used. “There was intelligence coming. Tunisia had just happened. But the political leadership played it down like it was going to be another small Egyptian protest. The police have been made the scapegoat.”
Even so, it was hard to know what would later unravel as dusk fell over the capital that day and protesters swelled into Tahrir Square while police retreated, confused, scared and adrift.
Ayman arrived at a command center near the presidential palace. Ramy was stationed at the Foreign Ministry. Both captains described the security forces’ inability to contain what was a largely peaceful demonstration punctuated by gangs throwing stones and fire bombs.
Ramy hunkered down with 35 other street cops and officers as a crowd of about 2,000, mostly teenagers and young men, many with faces hidden behind scarves, approached the Foreign Ministry from three directions. The police fired tear gas, and the crowd, Ramy said, responded with Molotov cocktails and rocks.
“We retreated to the Foreign Ministry for shelter,” he said. “We ran out of tear gas and ammunition. We only had one gun that shot rubber bullets. The other police with me fled. I wasn’t in their unit. I didn’t know where to go. I was alone without any protection. I walked for four hours. Police stations were being attacked across the city. It was a catastrophic picture.”
Police stations, said the captains, were targeted systematically. Files and computers were stolen to wipe out the records of criminals and political prisoners, including many from the Muslim Brotherhood. The captains said the culprits could have been any of a number of police enemies: the Brotherhood, opposition groups or even members of the ruling party. Weapons were looted, leaving police, many of whom fled the stations, without backup firepower.
That became critical, they said, hours later when police trying to hold back protesters called for reinforcements who didn’t respond.
But what overwhelmed the police more than anything was 30 years of pent-up rage. Security forces are despised for corruption, torture, false arrest and intimidation. The face of Mubarak’s repressive rule, they are a network of undercover agents, informants and street officers drafted from the provinces who earn as little as $40 a month.
The rattled government made another tactical mistake last week when it dispatched hoodlums to assault peaceful demonstrators in Tahrir Square. Such images pricked a restive Middle East. If the toppling of the Tunisia regime last month inspired Egyptians to rise up, then it is the Egyptians, who for decades had appeared complacent, who are now inspiring the masses in Jordan, Yemen and other countries to overthrow the once seemingly intractable icons of Arab power.
Eight days after Black Friday, anti-government protesters still hold Tahrir Square, repelling fading attacks by ruling party thugs wielding machetes and brandishing battered road signs. On Saturday, the army began tightening the perimeter of the square and limiting protesters from entering in efforts to establish order across downtown Cairo. Tahrir Square over the last week has had the feel of a medieval battleground, streaked with blood, littered with barricades and echoing, at times, with the sound of a man breaking rocks for ammunition with a sword.
The coming days will test allegiances both within and outside Mubarak’s inner circle.
The protest movement, while emboldened, is a force without a solidifying personality and lacking an agenda other then toppling Mubarak. Opposition leader and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei has risen as a symbolic figure — or at least the one appearing most in the Arabic and Western news media.
The Egyptian military, the nation’s most revered institution, has played the middle ground between the people and their leader. Washington is negotiating with Egyptians and military commanders in an effort to remove Mubarak, a former air force commander. But the army has remained loyal to the 82-year-old president.
“My biggest fear is what Mubarak will do,” said Sayed Gaafar, a shop owner. “He’s trying to maneuver to make all the protesters look like villains as if we’re sabotaging and tearing apart the country.”
But Egyptians on both sides of the divide remember the moment when a nation’s fear dissolved.
Ayman was stationed with a unit at the presidential palace, where as many as 5,000 protesters has amassed Jan. 28. Police cordoned the group and there was no confrontation. Later, Ayman said, he could hear the mayhem on police radios across the city.
“We were under pressure from all directions,” he said. “We were caught between the protesters and the organized attack on police stations. Prisoners were escaping and the word came to use live fire ammunition to protect the stations.... A lot of us knew the demonstration would be huge, but we didn’t expect the anger of the crowd or the assault on police headquarters.”
Police — at least 40 have died since protests began nearly two weeks ago — retreated about 6 p.m. What had been a battle took on the air of celebration as protesters set up camp and some police peeled off their uniforms and headed through the crowds toward home.
Hassan is a news assistant in The Times’ Cairo Bureau.