It was no accident that the protests coincided with Police Day, as youthful activists sought to focus attention not on a sham holiday but, instead, on the systematic brutality associated with Mubarak's security services. Egyptians in Mahalla in particular have smarted since three people were killed there by police in 2008 during massive protests that followed months of strikes.
The big question now is how loyal the armed forces are to Mubarak and what role, if any, they will play should the protests escalate. Thousands of citizens set up camp in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Tuesday and vowed to occupy the space until Mubarak resigns. News reports from journalists and Twitter updates early Wednesday morning indicated that at about 1 a.m., security forces began forcibly emptying the square, spraying tear gas and arresting people. Protesters have promised more demonstrations.
For years, Western observers of the Arab world have effectively helped shore up the dictators by stating as fact that Arabs don't revolt. Much to Egyptian pain and chagrin, analysts would point to our country, where protests have been the preserve of a small, dedicated but not always connected group of activists. Mubarak, the longest-serving ruler in modern-day Egypt, would smartly give in to enough of workers' demands as necessary to appease; then his security forces would beat and detain the street activists who persevered.
Whether tensions ran high over rigged elections, food shortages, Internet censoring, media repression or police brutality, the conventional wisdom has held that Mubarak would sleep without worry until thousands of Egyptians took to the streets.
Finally, on Tuesday, feet were on the ground. Thousands turned out in Cairo, Alexandria and across the country as the anti-government fervor fired up not just activists but families, too.
Watching Tunisians make possible what Arabs have always been told was impossible burned away the apathy that bound Egyptians - and revealed decades' worth of smoldering rage. It also destroyed the myth of youth "slactivists" who some alleged were content with organizing on the Internet and speaking out only on social networking sites.
Young Egyptians, like their Tunisian counterparts, are the majority of the country's population. They have known no leadership other than what they see as Mubarak's occupation.
Since becoming president in 1981, Mubarak has kept Egypt under a "state of emergency" that allows him to suspend regular laws. He has turned our country into a police state where torture and brutality often go unpunished, and he has jailed an estimated 12,000 to 14,000 political opponents.
Mubarak accused his main political opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, of provoking police violence on Tuesday, but the Islamist movement did not collectively join in. Although many individual members took to the streets, the Brotherhood said it would symbolically support activists' call to protest but would not ask its members to mobilize as a movement. That's a wise step in countering regime accusations but could affect its credibility with youth activists disaffected by politics.
Unlike Tunisia, Egypt is a major U.S. ally. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday that the Obama administration's "assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people," she showed once again how out of touch she is with popular anger at Mubarak. She also alerted Egyptians that Washington was as concerned about the protests and the potential "Egypt effect" as Mubarak must be.
Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born writer and lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.