CAIRO — I’ve been in Egypt the past few days to witness the Egyptian people’s indignation at their president, Mohamed Mursi. But where best to watch? On Sunday I joined a march from a metro station in Cairo’s Heliopolis district to the presidential palace. My fellow journalist Abdallah Hassan thought Tahrir Square would be jammed full early, and that the palace would be where the real action — different from what preceded the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak two and a half years ago — would be.
It proved to be, in part. The two or three thousand of us who had debouched from metros in the early afternoon heat swelled to many tens of thousands in the evening. Marchers came from every direction, packing into the wide boulevard before the palace complex. In all of Egypt’s cities, the same scenes were repeated. It was one of the biggest, best coordinated protests of our times, much larger than those that swept out Mubarak. Reuters quoted a military source who estimated as many as 14 million turned out countrywide.
It was a party, a joy ride, an effusion of spirits. It was led by young men who went down a list of rhyming couplets while seated on the shoulders of sweating comrades. “Shout, Mursi! This is your last day!”; “We don’t want the military! We don’t want the Brotherhood!”; “Shave your face and you’re like Mubarak!”; “You spare tire! We’ll send you back to jail!” and “Look and see! The revolution, you sheep!” (They rhyme in Arabic.)
The day was remarkable for its complete lack of police or army. Only at one gate to the palace, with steel barriers and barbed wire coils, were half a dozen presidential guardsmen in riot gear standing behind it. As the demonstrators screamed, officers wore expressions of unworried contempt. Helicopters circled low overhead at intervals, presumably recording the crowds.
As dark fell, the screaming, fireworks, blowing of horns and the banging of drums attained, at times, a perfect wall of infernal sound. It was as if the demonstrators were seeking to exorcise a demon, not force a president out. It reminded me of the biblical Joshua at the Battle of Jericho, who by the blow of his horns and the shouts of his army caused the walls to tumble down. By this time, the slogans had been narrowed down to one shout, over and over: Leave!