Unrest spread throughout the Middle East in January 2011. First, Tunisias president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali stepped down amid widespread protests against corruption, unemployment, and the repressive police state. Demonstrations followed in Yemen and Algeria. In Egypt, opposition groups and activists calling for reform began their protests on January 25—what they called a day of rage, which coincided with Police Day. The movement, organized using cell phones and social media sites, spread, and protesters took to the streets in several cities, including Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez, demanding the resignation of Mubarak, who had been in power for 30 years. The aging president had taken steps for his son, Gamal, to succeed him in upcoming elections.
The protests continued and grew in size and intensity over the next several days, with protesters and police engaged in violent battles. On January 28, Mubarak ordered his government to resign and reshuffled his cabinet, which had no effect on the protests. Mubarak, however, remained in office, and in an apparent move to cement the support of the military, he appointed military intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, as vice president. He deployed the military to help police quell the protests, but days later—in a blow to Mubarak—the military said it would not use force against the protesters. On February 1, hundreds of thousands of protesters assembled in Cairos Tahrir Square. Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian Nobel laureate and former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, returned to Egypt and emerged as the leader of the opposition. He urged Muburak to resign and allow the formation of a national unity government. Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian executive at Google, was a leading force in organizing the protests; he used an anonymous Facebook page and YouTube videos to rally support for the movement. He was jailed for 12 days, and became an unwitting hero of the movement when he acknowledged his role in an emotional television interview after his