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.
The pressure from all sides was immense, and at some point Friday afternoon, as the sky dimmed, Egypt changed forever. The tanks at the presidential palace swung their barrels away from the protesters, and a soldier hoisted an Egyptian flag atop a turret, to riotous cheers. Shortly past six in the evening, a waiter burst into a restaurant near Tahrir Square and screamed, “Hey youth, it’s over! He resigned!” Everybody in the restaurant ran into the street, leaving their unfinished food, their unpaid bills. Thousands were running toward Tahrir Square. Some men crumpled to the ground in tears.
I went to a decaying office atop a storefront near the square, which was a meeting place for one of the three main committees directing the protests. Men and women gathered around a blurry TV set, watching Vice President Omar Suleiman’s announcement of Mubarak’s resignation over and over on various channels, as if they could not believe it. Some erupted into a debate as to whether Mubarak should be allowed to leave or be put on trial. “There’s only one way to deal with him,” a woman interjected, and slowly drew her finger across her throat, to applause.
All of downtown Cairo erupted into a mass celebration. Almost a dozen people mounted a tank perched at one entrance to Tahrir, waving flags and chanting that they had defeated “Obama and Mubarak.” One shouted into his phone, tears streaming down his cheek, that they undid thirty years in a mere eighteen days. “We were dwarves under Mubarak,” said another protester. “Now we are giants.”
Cairo’s streets, tense for weeks, burst into a cacophony of song, honking horns, cheers and firecrackers. As they celebrated, a number of people told me how they were no longer afraid, how they had a new understanding of their power. The revolution had forced them to imagine the impossible. “Just the thought of change was unthinkable before,” an activist told me. “But now there is a sense that the old way of doing politics has changed.”
As the sun rose over Cairo on Saturday, revelers were still streaming through the streets. But while the ebullience simmers, the first questions of the post-Mubarak world are emerging. Mubarak’s resignation will likely deeply divide the protesters, according to organizers. Many will see this as the end of their struggle, while others as only the beginning. “I’m not leaving until this regime is put on trial,” said Muhammad Ibrahim, who has been living in Tahrir for more than a week. Some are calling for patience. “We need to give a chance for the government to reform itself,” a young woman told me.
Others are pushing to deepen the revolution, calling for a redistribution of wealth and greater social justice. Indeed, the worker strikes that started earlier this week show no signs of abating. “I make a few hundred [Egyptian] pounds a month,” said a striking worker at the Telecommunications Ministry. “I can’t survive on this, and the minister is a corrupt supporter of Mubarak.”
And what role should the army have? I spoke to many people who supported the military’s takeover, but almost all insisted that it should be a temporary step until free elections can be held. But the army also announced Saturday that it will keep the current cabinet, most of them powerful businessmen who are members of Mubarak’s hated ruling party.
Many have gone home from Tahrir, but they say they are forever changed. “I’ll leave and stop protesting,” a young man whirling an Egyptian flag told me. “But if I’m not happy with how things are going, I know my way back to Tahrir.”