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Galvanized, the activists started going door to door, passing out flyers about the Jan. 25 protest. They put up Facebook pages and posted on Twitter. Nour spoke out against the regime in a YouTube video. Others exhausted their thumbs sending out text messages. "Tell your friends," the messages read. "Look at what is happening in Tunisia. This is how people change their country." They even dialed random numbers in the hope that the exhortations to demonstrate would fall on sympathetic ears.
For all that effort, Taha says that in his wildest dreams, he would not have expected to see 5,000 people in Tahrir Square on Jan. 25. He counted more than 10,000. The turnout also caught the Mubarak regime by surprise: police were unable to prevent the crowd from gathering and had to fire tear gas to get it to disperse. By Egyptian standards, the demonstration was a huge success, and it inspired other people to join. "When the older people saw the younger people go out in the street, they started to come out too," says Amer Ali, a lead organizer in April 6. Spontaneous demonstrations began to break out elsewhere.
But Egyptians, long cowed by the heavy hand of Mubarak's police and intelligence forces, needed a crash course in protest. Activists used websites and text messages to pass around how-tos, some borrowed from Tunisian bloggers: Coca-Cola, they said, was good for washing tear gas from one's eyes. The pro-opposition Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper published tips on staying safe in a demonstration: wear comfortable clothes, tie long hair into a bun, bring water. And this: "Be careful whom you're talking to [because] some 'protesters' may be plainclothes police and may arrest you."
The advice was aimed at people like Ahmed Shahawi. The unemployed engineer had been drawn to the Jan. 25 demonstration, and he urged his 122 Facebook friends to join him. It was his first taste of political protest and of tear gas. Afterward, he updated his status: "I'm safe, guys. I'm going back to the Square tomorrow." He was hooked.
Shahawi's Facebook alias is Nicholas Urfe, from the character in John Fowles' The Magus who thought he knew everything but didn't. For Shahawi, the Tunisian revolution was an education. Egyptians his age, born right around the time Mubarak became President, have never known any other leader and never believed change was possible, he says. "Tunisians gave us a live example that, yes, you can change the system, and they gave us the courage to do it."
When the government blocked the Internet on Jan. 27, Shahawi needed to find another way to communicate with people who felt the way he did. "I got in my brother's car and said, 'Quick, let's go downtown.'" In retrospect, he believes the government's decision to shut down the Internet backfired. "When you block the Internet, you are asking people to come on the streets," he says, "and anything can happen."