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CAIRO — For Gamal Hassanein, it began with a slap.
The unemployed 24-year-old was arguing with a police officer when the man struck him across the face — a blow that seemed to sting for months.
“He stole my dignity with that slap,” said Hassanein, who does odd jobs to make money. “We could never stand up to those officers before because we were afraid. But we’re no longer willing to be silenced by our fear.”
The tens of thousands of protesters who have thrown Egypt’s 30-year-old regime into tumult come from all walks of life — conservative Muslims and Christians, yuppies and the unemployed, young and old. For many, the protests demanding that President Hosni Mubarak step down were a catalyst for years or decades of repressed anger at mistreatment at the hands of the state.
One after another, they describe a moment buried in their memory that came gushing to the surface as they saw others taking to the streets.
Hossam, a 23-year-old Cairo resident from the upper-middle-class Maadi neighborhood, said he thought of his cousin, who drowned seven years ago after falling out of a pedal-boat on the coast. Emergency services did not respond to a call for rescue after learning that the victim was not a Western, said Hossam, who declined to provide his last name for fear of official retaliation.
“Why are we treated like this?” he asked. “We will get rid of this regime.”
The personal humiliations are exacerbated by a sense of national shame at a series of failures that throw into relief Egypt’s slide from cultural and political trendsetter of the Arab world to a country besieged by poverty, illiteracy, corruption and official incompetence.
A ship sinking in the Red Sea left more than 1,000 dead. The national football team lost a World Cup game to Algeria. The government has failed to reconcile warring Palestinian factions, and appears unable to influence Israel’s actions in the Middle East.
For years, though, the anger had no outlet.
Egypt’s traditional opposition groups — socialists, liberals and Arab nationalists — have been marginalized by Mubarak’s years of restricting their freedom while buying their cooperation with parliament seats and other patronage.