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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.

Anti-Mubarak protesters had already occupied Tahrir Square for a week before Mubarak  did eventually try to reassert his authority. Until then the situation in Cairo had been calm and relatively safe. Even the violence that ensued during the Friday "day of rage" was only focused against government buildings and the police. 

The atmosphere remained light-hearted in downtown Cairo. A sprawling tent city sprang up in Tahrir Square with field medical centres, pharmacies, charging points for mobile phones, recreational facilities for children, and sound stages for music concerts at night. One evening a football tournament was even held.

At times, the carnival atmosphere made it easy to forget the brutality of the regime whose orders these men and women were so brazenly defying. Following the "million-man march", I walked through Tahrir Square and saw how food was distributed communally as bread rolls, dates, and bottled water were thrust into my hands. On the grass verges old men brewed pots of qahwa, a thick Arabian coffee sometimes called "the wine of Islam", in bruised copper kettles over crackling log fires. A young boy ran over and offered me a miniature cup of the heady brew. Around him, almost everyone huddled under threadbare rugs to shield them from Cairo's plunging winter temperatures. 

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