Shiraz Maher in Tahrir Square

Shiraz’s must read, on-the-ground account of the Egyptian revolution is a must-read:

Facebook may have spurred Egypt’s affluent youth into action, but the protesters occupying Tahrir Square represented all walks of life: the rural poor, the elderly, the upwardly-mobile middle classes, Christians and Muslims. The real strength of new media has been its ability to provide a platform for previously disparate groups to come together and decide on coordinated action. The people involved were not necessarily new, but groups like Ghonim’s were suddenly in touch with members of the “April 6 Youth Movement” founded in 2008 in response to industrial disputes in El-Mahalla El-Kubra, a large industrial town nestled on the Nile Delta. Yet it is easy to overstate the role of social networking sites. When the government suspended mobile phone and internet access following the Friday “day of rage”, thereby smothering the role of Facebook and Twitter, protesters responded by mobilising more than a million people across Egypt the following Tuesday.

In this way, the protesters proved themselves to be resilient and capable of evolving in response to Mubarak’s intransigence. Their ability to assemble a broad cross-section of society despite government clampdowns made the movement almost impossible to understand. When I asked protesters in the square about it, they simply replied, “No one has organised this, the people have done it.” It is hard to be sure who drove the revolution forward, or how mass rallies could be repeatedly staged without some kind of obvious leadership. Even Egypt’s political leaders seemed bemused.

In downtown Cairo, I met Mahmoud Abaza, the charismatic former chairman of the Wafd party. “This was totally a movement of the youth. No party and nobody can claim they organised it,” he told me. “Now the next step is to ask these young men and women to express themselves and build a new regime. If the current regime wants to negotiate then it should be with the youth and not with the [established] parties.”

In Tahrir Square, Dr Osama al-Ghazali Harb, President of the Democratic Front Party and an erstwhile member of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, was equally keen to distance the established parties from the uprising. “This is not a product of the political parties, we failed to do this,” he said. “The traditional parties are not here.”

This was the most remarkable feature of the protests. No political party had tried to impose itself on the movement or claim it as their own. In many senses, that is where its strength came from. The uprising was immune to partisan fissures or cults of personality precisely because political parties were not involved. Protesters were instead organised around symbols of national unity, including the flag and national anthem. The extent of nationalist sentiment was evident during the so-called “million-man march” on February 1, when I encountered a Spanish national residing in Cairo who came to express her solidarity. She was not alone in this regard; I had already met Canadians, Germans and a Frenchman doing the same. When the lady unveiled her banner — a Spanish and Egyptian flag crudely tied together by safety pins — she was politely asked by an Egyptian protester to take it down. “But I’m here to support you,” she said. “And we thank you for it,” the protester replied. “But today is about Egypt, and there should only be one flag flying.” Her Egyptian flag, emblazoned with the words “Viva Egipto” was allowed to remain.

Read on.