They did it.
The screams of joy and relief rended the air just after 6pm. I was standing in front of the ochre domes of Cairo’s parliament, one of the latest fronts in 18 days of peaceful anti-regime protest, when a muffled cry rose from a small group of young men. “He’s gone! He’s gone!”
There was a moment of utter disbelief, of murmured doubt. The hundreds strong crowd swarmed across, checking their phones for confirmation of news they dared not believe. A few seconds later the street exploded in raucous cheers, ecstatic protesters hugging friends and strangers alike. After 30 years of brutal emergency rule that had prized ‘stability’ over freedom, President Hosni Mubarak had stepped down.
Young men and women leapt in the year, fists to the sky, screaming and then wept with joy. Groups trailing flags began to roar a revised version of the weeks-old chant: “The people have brought down the government.” With that they headed to Tahrir square, the beating heart of Egypt’s anti-Mubarak demonstrations, where they joined the heaving masses, numbering in the tens of thousands.
Legions more were converging on the square, hooting taxis and private cars thronging the nearby streets, passengers hanging from windows and sunroofs, whistling, yelling. Fireworks burst above streets that had been battlezones just a week before. Pounding music burst from the offices of Egypt’s reform parties, balconies lined with flag-waving youth. Absolute euphoria.
Thursday night was very different. Mubarak’s TV address, turning over presidential powers to his recently-appointed deputy Omar Suleyman but retaining his title, was met with howls of derision among the frustrated populace of Tahrir square. The mood had soured, from celebratory to stricken and embittered. “He just doesn’t understand,” said one furious young man in the seething crowd, echoing a common chant. “Go means leave – now! We don’t want him and we don’t want his people, his regime.”
From the square several hundred surged the mile or so towards the TV tower, already surrounded by tanks, troops and barbed wire, and a hated symbol of the state’s ability to distort events and turn Egyptians against each other. Nile News, its main channel, had been spreading lies for days: that protesters were in the pay of foreign powers, that they were robbing and looting, that – absurdly – KFC was providing free meals to Tahrir square. (The birth, perhaps, of the Million Man Bucket?) By Friday morning, it too had become a makeshift campsite. Visitors were ID-checked and frisked, supplies were coming in and the army had established cordial relations. A smaller contingent had marched on the palace where a tense stand-off ensued with military guards. It seemed time was ticking down. Soon the military would have to chose between cracking down on protesters or ousting Egypt’s pharoah itself.
Mubarak’s resignation, which had many of the hallmarks of a military coup, changed everything. Within hours the tight cordons of security around Tahrir had wilted, the fear of brutal reprisals had gone. Soldiers, stationed in Tahrir square since the early hours of January 29th, posed for photos with protesters from practically all sectors of society. It may have started with Facebook-clicking youth but by the time Mubarak fell, the poor and uneducated were standing alongside Egypt’s upper-middle classes. A unique moment – and one that some were already beginning to fear may not last.
“We need to watch what the military does,” an activist hardened by running battles with Mubarak’s thugs told me. “If they don’t make the change they promised quickly then we will be back on the streets.” An older professor at the American University told me Mubarak’s leaving was just the start, “Now the battle is to build a fair and democratic system.”
The occupation of Tahrir square continued well into Saturday. With checkpoints gone, several square miles of central Cairo were effectively holding a street party for free-strolling crowds, with food stalls and tea-stands ubiquitous. Fireworks crackled over the gleaming opera building and Qasr- en-Nil bridge, a scene of a vital win by the protesters in the battle to control the streets on the 28th.
The celebrations stretched into the night, even as diligent activists swept the streets, rebuilt the pavements and painted new traffic markings. It was as if the Bastille had been trounced, then rebuilt and treated to a quick spruce-up. The city centre was cleaner and more orderly than I’d seen it for almost two months. It wasn’t quite business as usual, but a series of communiques from the supposed ‘caretaker’ military council, headed by Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, suggested a slow march towards free elections was in the offing.
But another wave of thought has been growing in the last week, centred on the savvy machinations of the army, the supposedly fair moderator in the war between the NDP-fronted regime and the people. Recent days have seen numerous reports of the involvement of the military police and intelligence services in detention, beatings and torture.
Mikhael Nabil, a young activist, was picked up, interrogated and held for two days by army officers. Blindfolded, he heard the sounds of torture around him. The Guardian’s Robert Tait wrote a chilling report of his hours in captivity which painted a similar picture. But the idea of army neutrality persists. “The army still controls the media, so nobody will know about people tortured like me,” says Mikhael. “I hope that in the coming days the media becomes more free so that I can provide the other view.” A photographer colleague, subjected to a harsh beating last Thursday, recognised the man who cracked his ribs among the military police standing watch over Tahrir.
The army’s high command, surely instrumental in persuading Mubarak to leave, share many of his interests, politically and economically. While younger recruits may side with the people, fears are growing that what we’ve seen is a cunning power-play by the generals to reshuffle the deck. Hardly the ‘fall of the regime’ the crowds were demanding.
The situation soured on Sunday morning as small clashes broke out between a hardcore of protesters and soldiers tearing down remaining tents and demanding they leave Tahrir by tomorrow. When I arrived around 10am, a line of military police, backed by rifle-totting soldiers, had encircled a few hundred protesters and a series of arguments flared.
Police, who most activists hold responsible for the estimated 300 deaths of the last few weeks, were back on the streets. Some have been holding their own protests, demanding wage-increases and guarantees of their jobs – a larger scale event is planned in the western area of Doqqi tomorrow.
For a few moments, several police offices even entered the crowd, borne aloft by activists yelling, in a new development, “The people and the police – one hand”. But the anti-Mubarak crowd was divided, with many screaming that the ‘murderers’ had no right to be there. One protester’s placard summed up this view: “The police are not Egyptians.” The call was already out, summoning protesters back to Tahrir to stand against the latest threat to their democratic dream.
A new edition of Ash-Shorouk newspaper added to their concern, its front page lamenting the presence of many of Mubarak’s old guard in the caretaker government.
“You have to destroy all the snake, not just the head,” said Ragi Ghali, 23, a teacher who stayed at home until Saturday, partly convinced by the state media’s smear of the protesters until a visit to Tahrir converted him.
“The people here want to know that the country will take the next steps according to what we asked. They won’t leave until we see that happening.”
Yesterday afternoon’s announcement from Egypt’s new military rulers defused much of the tension in Tahrir square. The higher military council’s decision to dissolve parliament and suspend the constitution was greeted by many long-term protesters as a clean break with the despised former regime.
Enthusiastic crowds flowed around a slowly-moving truck commandeered by two soldiers as it edged its way out of the square. Former protesters roared their support with the return of the old chant, ‘The people, the army – one hand!’ A middle-aged doctor, still wearing a tag that identified him as one of the protesters’ improvised security network, was visibly moved as he described the promise of a new written constitution.
That morning’s cordons of military police had melted away. Traffic and pedestrians shared the massive plaza, army and citizens working together to control the flow. By evening, the square was once again host to hundreds of celebrating families, the latest wave of fireworks bursting in the sky above.
Despite this, many remain cautious. The military government is already in talks with the youth movements that kick-started the revolution, but it will rule by martial law until elections promised for late summer.
There are also suggestions the military’s patience for further demonstrations is limited. It clashed with protesting police yesterday and is expected to release a communique today effectively banning strikes and threatening a crack down on those creating further ‘chaos and disorder’.