CAIRO—Late Thursday night, one could hear the sound of hundreds of thousands of people hushing each other. In Tahrir, the central square that has become the heart of the Egyptian revolution, they jostled, they craned their necks toward the soundstage, they inched closer to the giant TV screen, to listen to dictator Hosni Mubarak.
When he finally appeared on screen, the square fell silent. Mubarak began by sympathizing with the martyrs of the revolution, and acknowledging that the protesters’ demands were “legitimate and just.” He spoke about putting the interests of Egypt ahead of his own. The crowd shivered in anticipation. But the words so many desperately wanted to hear never came. “I will not leave,” he said defiantly, “until I am buried in the ground.”
The square erupted in fury. A thunderous chant resounded across Tahrir: Leave! Leave! Leave! I saw three protesters rushed to the clinic after fainting in exhaustion and shock. A group of protesters immediately left the square to head straight for the presidential palace, about a two-hour walk away. Word quickly went around that another protest would depart for the palace in the morning. “I will join that demonstration, even if it means I die,” said a young man, wearing an Egyptian-flag tricolor headband and glistening in sweat. Others rushed to the state TV headquarters, which spewed hated regime propaganda, and set up camp to protest through the night. The mood in the square shifted from joyous and hopeful to fiery and determined. Protest organizers had originally dubbed the protests on Friday, the following day, as the “Day of Patience,” a show of resolve to the regime, but after Mubarak’s speech, this was changed to the “Day of Confrontation.”
On Friday, the crowds came to the square early. Like previous days, it defied easy categorization: young and old, working-class and professional, men and women. Women appropriated popular wedding songs, modifying them into songs of protest. Men did the same with soccer chants. A retired brigadier general spoke to the crowd, pledging his support to the revolution. By the close of midday prayers, Tahrir filled to the brim and the crowd began spilling into the side streets. Men and women stumbled over each other, pushed here and there by the waves of people. Around the city, there was a sense of the momentous possibilities the day held. In cafes, sheesha-puffing men gathered around small television sets, watching like it was the World Cup.
Within the ruling establishment, there were divisions on how to proceed. The army, keen to avoid what it saw as spiraling chaos, had given Mubarak an ultimatum early on Friday: leave or be forced out, in a coup d’état, according to government officials. On the one hand, the army sought to preserve its image as a truly national institution, above the corrosive politics that had rent the nation. On the other, with its considerable financial holdings—factories, construction, luxury estates on the Mediterranean—millions of dollars were at stake. Workers’ strikes had slowly spread during the week, reaching military production factories south of Cairo by Wednesday.
And protesters were forcing the issue in downtown Cairo. By Friday afternoon, they had completely overwhelmed the cordon of tanks and armored personnel carriers at the state TV building, and soldiers could no longer stop the flow of protesters pouring through the concrete barricades. “The army and the people are one, united,” the crowd chanted, as soldiers looked on nervously. Near the president’s palace, demonstrators had grown to the thousands.