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Beyond the excitement of the square, however, life for ordinary Egyptians became harder. The disintegration of the police force meant locals were responsible for maintaining order in their neighbourhoods. Every night, shortly after the curfew started, gangs of youths patrolled their areas guarding against outsiders. Constructing crude roadblocks from planks of wood and rock, they were armed with anything from baseball bats to meat cleavers. 

I met the organiser of a street patrol from Maadi, a district of south Cairo. He explained how everyone attempting to leave or enter was forced to show their identity card which lists their address and profession. If they were a convict, not from the area, or were linked to the police, then the vigilantes detained them and turned them over to the army. These roadblocks were so pervasive they were impossible to avoid. Even the shortest journey became torture.  

At night the rattle of distant gunfire could be heard as looters stormed shopping centres. I inspected the devastation at the Arcadia shopping centre just north of central Cairo the morning after it was attacked by looters. Nothing was spared. Whatever could be picked up and carried away had disappeared. When they were done, the building was set alight.

Beyond the escalation of serious crime, society as a whole ground to a halt. Within days of the unrest starting shops ran out of essential supplies like bread, milk and cooking oil. Long lines formed outside petrol stations as drivers waited to fill their tanks. Elsewhere, banks failed to open while cash machines ran out of notes, creating a cash crisis for many ordinary families. These impositions on everyday life coupled with a wider breakdown in law and order drove many to despair. 

Just as anarchy began to spread, Mubarak delivered his masterstroke. It is hard for outsiders to appreciate just how effective his speech to the nation was following the "million-man march." I must confess to having sneered through it, regarding him as detached and defiant. But that is not what most Egyptians saw. "You have to understand we are a patriarchal society," explained an affluent university sociologist who asked not to be named. "He's the father of our nation. And even though he's been corrupt and bad, he's still a father, you can't just throw him away. He's an old man, it wasn't nice to see him looking so broken."

That sentiment was not untypical. Away from Tahrir Square it was amazing to see how quickly the momentum switched following Mubarak's speech. The perception was that the protesters had won. Mubarak promised to leave. Now what people craved was a return to normality, and for that to happen they needed the protesters to go home. 

But the old mountebank was not done yet. Determined to reclaim Tahrir Square and reassert control, the following day Mubarak unleashed his own version of the Gestapo, the most vicious of Mubarak loyalists. 

They had orders to attack the protesters in the square. Minor initial skirmishes quickly gave way to a full-scale battle which raged for almost 24 hours. The violence was breathtaking. Rival sets of protesters initially hurled stones at one another but Mubarak's supporters had come well-armed. They lobbed Molotov cocktails into the square, many carrying guns which they fired indiscriminately into the crowd. Later, ambulances arrived apparently to carry away the injured. Instead, Mubarak loyalists emerged and fired tear-gas canisters before fleeing in the same ambulances. Despite the extreme violence used against them, the protesters refused to move. Like the Greek sailors enchanted by the Sirens, they had long passed the point of no return. Instead, thousands more rallied to their cause and the following day a new surge of supporters arrived in the square to join its tent city. 

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