While sensational headlines have played up the story, the cumulative total of protesters so far in about 30 countries appears well under 100,000. At Tahrir Square on Friday, wide angle overhead shots (rather than the tight, ground shots favored by TV news producers) showed a sparse group reminiscent of Mubarak-era political protests (when people ran a major risk of going to jail for simply shouting slogans) and not the hundreds of thousands that have routinely come out to protest against their own government in the past year-and-a-half.
And if you expect the occasional mass freakout like this, as I do, there's actually a small sign of progress in these protests. The protests over the Danish cartoons mocking the prophet Muhammad in 2006 were larger and more violent, and there was far less in the way of condemnations of the violence and apologies from Muslim-majority states than there have been this go around.
Ashraf Khalil, whose judgment I trust, estimated about 1,000 protesters at Tahrir on Friday, with a further 300 football hooligans picking a fight with riot police nearby. That's in a city of 15 million people, at least 90 percent of them Muslim. In Jakarta, Indonesia, a few hundred protesters clashed with police (who outnumbered them by 3 or 4 to 1) near the US embassy. Jakarta is, like Cairo, another sprawling Muslim majority city.
I've seen big protests in both – the popular uprising that ended the US-backed dictator Soeharto's reign in 1998, and the popular uprising that ended the US-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak's reign in 2011 – and by those standards these were not protests at all.