Africa

Egypt protest: 'Carnival atmosphere' among demonstrators

Protesters in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt (31 Jan 2011)
Image caption The crowds have defied a curfew to remain in the square

For many in Tahrir Square in central Cairo, the days are starting to take on a familiar pattern.

After nearly a week of demonstrations, many people now sleep here. There are a few tents and pieces of cardboard that serve as beds on a small patch of grass in front of a government building, the Mugamma.

"We get just four hours sleep or so and then we wake up to start the protest again," said Samah al-Dweik, who has not been to her home in Maadi, just outside the city, since Friday.

"We do not know how long we will have to continue. Only if Mubarak goes, will we go home. I am ready to stay a long time. We are all the same."

While shops and restaurants around the square are closed, some entrepreneurs have set up stalls selling the Egyptian rice dish, koshari, and sesame seed snacks.

As demonstrators pour across Qasr al-Nil bridge into the square at lunchtime, many bring bags of sandwiches and bottles of water to hand out. A few families are ready with picnics. It all adds to a carnival atmosphere.

"You can see we love each other and support each other," said one man perched on a wall in the central circle.

"We are all kinds of people but we are all Egyptian people."

Sitting next to him, a man said he had made his journey to Cairo overnight from Menoufiya, a region to the north.

"I spent three hours on the bus," he said. "Tomorrow many more people will come. We will be one million."

'People's movement'

With the internet largely disrupted, few can access the Facebook page for the April 6 Youth Movement, which originally called the first "day of rage" on 25 January.

However, flyers and satellite news broadcasts have spread its call for the biggest mass rally so far on 1 February, to mark a week of unprecedented protest.

Even in a nation of 80 million, the one million figure may be hard to reach with many roads blocked by the military and railways out of operation.

Some people are also reluctant to leave their homes and families unattended amid raised concerns about looting and the need to protect private property.

Yet the goal is helping to keep up the momentum as demonstrators again chant their slogans calling for an end to the Mubarak presidency.

For an activist with the Egyptian Movement for Democratic Change, Wael Khalil, the scene still seems unbelievable.

In recent years most pro-democracy demonstrations he has taken part in, outside the Mugamma, and at other key locations around the city have attracted just a few dozen people.

"Every morning I have anxiety about what it will look like, whether we can keep up the numbers," he remarked, standing with his 12-year-old son who wore an Egyptian flag as a cape.

"But the people are leading with utmost efficiency. This is a real people's movement.

"You see them with smiles on their faces. They are discovering their own strength."

In the past, taking part in political rallies meant risking the attention of the security services and possibly being placed on a watchlist. Now, ordinary Egyptians are expressing their views more freely.

Many want to convey messages to the outside world and carry signs written in English.

They declare: "I'm free" and "Game over" but also demand policy changes from Western countries that have supported the Mubarak government.

"US: we hate your hypocrisy" read one banner, referring to the disparity between American calls for human rights and democracy and its support of their president.

"Listen to the Egyptian people," another demanded.

Despite an official curfew, the numbers in the square swell in early evening and the chants increase in volume.

Protesters are only too aware of the government's hope that by delaying its response to their demands it will drain their energy.

But they say they are determined to prove otherwise.