Cairo, Egypt—I grew up in Egypt. I spent half my life here. But Saturday, when my plane from JFK airport touched down in Cairo, I arrived in a different country than the one I had known all my life. This is not Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt anymore and, regardless of what happens, it will never be again.
In Tahrir Square, thousands of Egyptians–men and women, young and old, rich and poor–gathered today to celebrate their victory over the regime’s hated police and state security forces and to call on Mubarak to step down and leave once and for all. They talked about the massive protest on Friday, the culmination of three days of demonstrations that began on January 25th to mark National Police Day. It was an act of popular revolt the likes of which many Egyptians never thought they would see during Mubarak’s reign. “The regime has been convincing us very well that we cannot do it, but Tunisians gave us an idea and it took us only three days and we did it,” said Ahmad El Esseily, a 35 year-old author and TV/radio talk show host who took part in the demonstrations. “We are a lot of people and we are strong.”
In Cairo, tens of thousands of people–from all walks of life–faced off against riot police armed with shields, batons, and seemingly endless supplies of tear gas. People talked about Friday’s protest like a war; a war they’d won. “Despite the tear gas and the beatings, we just kept coming, wave after wave of us,” one protester said. “When some of us would tire, others would head in. We gave each other courage.” After several hours, the police were forced into a full retreat. Then, as the army was sent in, they disappeared.
The military was greeted warmly on the streets of Cairo. Crowds roared with approval as one soldier was carried through Tahrir square today holding a flower in his hand. Dozens of people clambered onto tanks as they rode around the square. Throughout the day people chanted: “The people, the army: one hand.”
While the police and state security forces are notorious in Egypt for torture, corruption and brutality, the army has not interacted with the civilian population for more than 30 years and is only proudly remembered for having delivered a victory in the 1973 war with Israel. A 4pm curfew set for today was casually ignored with people convinced the army would not harm them. The police were a different story. Their brutality the past few days–decades in fact–has been well documented.
Saturday, some of the police forces were holed up inside their headquarters in the Interior Ministry building near the end of a street connected to Tahrir Square. When protesters neared the building, the police began firing live ammunition at the crowd, forcing them to flee back to the square. Three bloodied people were carried out. “The police are killing us,” one man yelled desperately while on the phone with al Jazeera from outside the building. When the firing stopped, defiant protesters began approaching the building again. In the background, the smoking, blackened shell of Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party headquarters served as an ominous reminder of their intentions.
At this point it seems clear the people are not leaving the streets. They own them now and they are refusing to go until Mubarak does. They chanted, “Mubarak, the plane is waiting for you at the airport,” and “Wake up Mubarak, today is your last day.”
At one point, a rumor spread through Tahrir Square that Mubarak had fled the country. A massive cheer rippled through the crowd. People began jumping up and down in joy. One man wept uncontrollably. When it turned out not to be true, the cheers quickly ended but it provided a brief glimpse of the sheer raw desire for Mubarak’s ouster. Reports now indicate that Mubarak’s two sons and his wife, Suzanne, have fled Egypt, as have some of his closest business cronies. Many people believe that is a sign that Hosni will not be far behind.
There is a great sense of pride that this is a leaderless movement organized by the people. A genuine popular revolt. It was not organized by opposition movements, though they have now joined the protesters in Tahrir. The Muslim Brotherhood was out in full force today. At one point they began chanting “Allah Akbar” only to be drowned out by much louder chants of “Muslim, Christian, we are all Egyptian.”
As the sun set over Cairo, silence fell upon Tahrir square as thousands stopped to pray in the street while others stood atop tanks. After the sunset prayer, they held a ‘ganaza’–a prayer for those killed in the demonstrations. Darkness fell and the protesters, thousands of them, have vowed to stay in the square, sleeping out in the open, until Mubarak is ousted.
Meanwhile, across Cairo there is not a policeman in sight and there are reports of looting and violence. People worry that Mubarak is intentionally trying to create chaos to somehow convince people that he is needed. The strategy is failing. Residents have taken matters into their own hands, helping to direct traffic and forming armed neighborhood watches, complete with checkpoints and shift changes, in districts across the city.
This is the Egypt I arrived in today. Fearless and determined. It cannot go back to what it was. It will never be the same.