Middle East

Cairo: Relaxed crowd, stern message

Families join protest in Tahrir Square. 1 Feb 2011
Image caption The army's promise not to attack protesters encouraged families to venture out

If Hosni Mubarak is hoping that the uprising against his government is starting to lose steam, then Tuesday's massive demonstrations will come as a rude shock.

They have been by far the biggest yet. How big is hard to estimate.

In Cairo, Tahrir Square is jammed from end to end. So is the embankment along the Nile in front of the foreign ministry.

And so too are streets stretching far away from the square towards the old Islamic city.

From what I saw I would guess there were at least 200,000 people out in Cairo, but it's only a guess. It could be much more. Regardless, nothing like this has ever been seen before in Egypt.

The atmosphere of the demonstrations has changed too. The tension and violence of the weekend has gone.

Today was more like a carnival. With the police gone and the military promising not to fire on protesters, whole families came out.

Shukri and Fawzia - a slightly nervous middle-aged couple - had been persuaded to come out by their three daughters.

"I'm 61 and I have never been on a demonstration in my life," said Shukri. "But now we have the confidence to come out."

Searched for weapons

The demonstrations were also much more organised.

On every street leading to the square, lines of young men and women blocked the way.

They insisted, politely, that everyone show an ID and be searched for weapons.

As I was patted down the young man apologised profusely for the inconvenience.

But if the atmosphere has changed the message has not.

A huge banner stretched across the middle of the square read: "The People Demand the Removal of the Regime."

"Mubarak is the head of the snake," Mahommed, a middle-aged teacher told me.

"If you cut of its head the snake will die."

"We have one demand," said Adel Abdullah from Giza. "Mubarak get out of Egypt."

Beyond that immediate demand several themes have started to emerge. One is that people in Tahrir Square think it is time for the West to take a stand.

On a street corner I met Sama Sadurhi, the dapper-looking former Egyptian ambassador to Sweden.

"We need pressure from America and Europe to make Mubarak go," he told me.

Image caption Even as night fell, Tahrir Square was filled with demonstrators

"The West always talks about human rights. Now is the time for Obama to say: leave. All people here are against him."

Alla, from Cairo, put it more bluntly.

"We do not hate America," he told me. "But we have spent 30 years under the boot of Mubarak. If America continues to support Mubarak we will hate America."

Many people said it was not enough just for Mr Mubarak to go. The whole regime must change.

"We will not accept any military men any more," Hani Kedri told me.

"The military has controlled this country since 1952. Enough!"

In other words the protesters will not accept a take-over by the new Vice President of Egypt Omar Suleiman, or any of the other senior military elite.

Nor are many I spoke to keen on Mohamed ElBaradei, the former International Atomic Energy Agency chief, and the man many in the West would like to see take over.

"We do not support ElBaradei," another man told me.

"We have made these events ourselves. We own this. We will choose our own leaders ourselves, not have them imposed on us by others."

'Gone by Friday'

Another powerful emotion from the event today is pride. Egyptians are proud that after so long they have had the courage to stand up to a regime many have hated for a very long time.

"A month ago I could not imagine this," said a man out with his whole family.

"But people saw what happened in Tunisia, and we said to ourselves - if they can do this, so can we."

Asked whether they thought Mr Mubarak would go there was mixed reaction.

"He will be gone by Friday," one man told me confidently.

But Hani Kedrih was not so sure.

"Mubarak has cheated us and lied to us many times before," he said.

"He will try to stay in power for as long as he can. So we must stay here until he goes."