Egyptian protesters pray as the ‘day of departure’ demonstration against Hosni Mubarak takes place in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Photograph: Andre Liohn/EPA
The queue was a dozen wide and hundreds deep; it snaked past the pair of bronze lions at the mouth of Qasr El Nile bridge and fanned out across the river. Cairo has witnessed gunfire, molotov cocktails and backstreet anarchy over the past week, but today people flooded in to show the world something different.
“We are the heart of the Egyptian people, the ones who make this country work,” said Samar Atallah, a 29-year-old anti-Mubarak protester. “We’re here for peace. We are not hundreds, we are not thousands, we are millions.”
Peace – alongside solid, stable community organisation – was the hallmark of Egypt’s “day of departure”, an event which produced the biggest turnout yet in Egypt’s 11-day-old national uprising. The target of that uprising was yet to be toppled as night drew in, but at times, amid the impromptu tea stalls, the neat rows of first aid tents and the well-manned security cordons, that almost didn’t seem to matter. At the centre of a city that is rife with chaos, Tahrir square had become an oasis of calm.
As a mark of how secure this anti-Mubarak stronghold has become after days of fierce fighting with armed supporters of the current regime, Egypt’s defence minister walked among the hundreds of thousands who packed the square. Hussein Tantawi was welcomed by the crowds, who chanted ‘Marshal, we are your sons of liberation’.
But after state TV accused those in Tahrir of fomenting unrest and being in the pay of unnamed foreign powers, Tantawi’s message – that the government was responding to the people’s demands and they could now go home – got a colder reception.
“The tragedy is in the lies told about us by the regime,” said Amr, a 32-year-old protester who preferred not to supply his full name. “Do people really believe these lies? It’s propaganda. This is our moment, our time, Mubarak has to go. He will never know how we feel. We want to live, not to struggle.”
Tantawi wasn’t the only diplomatic celebrity in the square. Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, also joined the throng. Moussa is one of those in the frame to succeed Mubarak, who continues to cling on to power despite the rapid draining of international support away from his regime and the continuing paralysis of Egypt’s economy. When asked about any potential campaign for the leadership, Moussa said he was “at the disposal” of his countrymen.
But high-level political manoeuvring was only a small part of Tahrir’s story, as hundreds of thousands of people swept in to make a stand against a three-decade-old dictatorship that is still clinging on for dear life. After the “days of rage” this was something altogether different, a festival of singing, socialising and solidarity, as speakers addressed different corners of the crowd and food and drink was passed round freely amongst those present.
On the fringes of the square though, reminders of the violence that has wreaked havoc across downtown Cairo in recent days still lay scattered across the roadway. “At the height of it all we were dealing with 10 patients a minute,” said Dr Samar Sewilam, one of the dozens of volunteer doctors who have set up field hospitals in the square to treat those injured in clashes with the beltagi – thugs who have stormed those inside the barricades day and night in attacks which appear to be orchestrated by the government.
“Those throwing missiles from the outside are using sharp rocks which split the face into two pieces,” explained Sewilam. “99% of the patients I’ve treated go back to the front line to continue the fight. They ask me to stitch them up and then they instantly return. ‘Just stitch me up and let me go back,’ they always say.”
Nearby, those not reassured by the regime’s public proclamations of reconciliation worked on fortifying the security cordons around the square and constructing crude defensive shields. Some wore dustbin lids taped to their heads, preparations for what they fear could be a renewed night of violence.
“I’m scared of what’s going on, you can see we’re standing here peacefully but look what the government has been doing to us,” said Mohamed Abas, a 32-year-old engineer stationed near Talaat Harb street, where pro-Mubarak supporters congregated in the distance. “They’ve been coming here for us for days, so of course I’m scared.”
Most around him eschewed talk of clashes though, preferring to dwell instead on the positive aspects of the remarkable scenes unfolding in a city where, only two weeks ago, protests of more than a few dozen were virtually non-existent. “You’re witnessing the beginning of the first popular Egyptian revolution,” beamed Mohsena Tawfik, a legendary Egyptian actress. “It’s a symbol against corruption and repression not just for our country but for the whole Arab world.”
The peaceful energy inside the square contrasted sharply with the neighbourhoods surrounding it, where the ongoing absence of police and the presence of pro-Mubarak gangs have left many streets highly volatile. For the second day running foreign journalists were targeted by both the army and vigilante mobs; many protesters reported being physically harassed by those supportive of the regime as they left nearby metro stations and attempted to approach Tahrir.
Inside, as midday struck, hundreds of thousands bent down to pray, a moment of silence to remember the scores of protesters who have lost their lives in the past fortnight. As they rose, the chants against their president that have filled this square for days rang out with renewed energy. “Mubarak leave now!” bellowed Tahrir. “The people want this regime to fall.”
What shape that fall and its aftermath should take is the subject of increased focus amongst protesters, many of whom are aiming to give their demands a firmer shape without compromising the non-hierarchical nature of their uprising so far.
The Guardian has received a copy of four specific demands laid down by a loose coalition of 300 youth co-ordinators who helped plan the initial demonstrations last week against Mubarak and his regime. They include not just the removal of Mubarak but also the disassembling of the entire NDP elite around him, precluding a smooth transition should vice-president Omar Suleiman, a close Mubarak ally, take the helm once the president leaves.
The document also calls for the formation of a committee made up of judges, youth leaders and the military which will appoint a transitional government, plus a founding council of intellectuals and constitutional experts who will draw up a new constitution and put it to the Egyptian people in a referendum. Finally it demands free and fair elections at a local and national level once the new constitution has been implemented.