Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Day Mubarak Left

Al Jazeera
by Evan Hill

More than 300 people were killed in a treacherous, 18-day journey toward ending Hosni Mubarak's 30-year autocratic rule.

CAIRO - Nine days ago, Egypt's revolution dangled on a precipice.

Peaceful and unarmed pro-democracy protesters who had shed blood to occupy central Cairo's Tahrir Square less than a week before fled from armed assailants on horse and camelback. They huddled behind makeshift barricades under a hail of rocks and Molotov cocktails thrown by loyalists of longtime president Hosni Mubarak.

From a distance, the embattled protesters looked like medieval villagers - outnumbered and besieged by an angry horde.

Twelve hours later, impossibly it seemed, they emerged victorious. Through a smoke screen billowed from the rear of a speeding tank, and with high-calibre automatic gunfire ringing out in Cairo's darkened streets, the Mubarak supporters fled into the night.

From then on, Tahrir Square's protesters have held their ground. On Friday, the 18th day of nationwide demonstrations demanding the complete ouster of Mubarak's regime, they won again.

Uncertainty reigns

If Friday closed with a city-wide street party in Egypt's capital, it dawned with uncertainty and worry.

Overnight, the mood in Cairo had swung from joyous expectation to anger and disbelief.

What was Mubarak playing at with his rambling, patronising speech the night before – his third since the protests began – during which he failed to offer protesters the slightest new concession?

Was he running a clever game, hoping to chip off Egyptians who might be on the fence about his rule, or was he scrambling for survival? Did anyone in Cairo, Washington DC, or elsewhere have any clue? Would the army – stiff armed by Mubarak – go straight for a coup d'etat?

This much was certain: The protests would continue, and they would get bigger.

As we woke, the crowd in Tahrir Square was already enormous. At the heavily guarded state television building nearby, a sit-in protest had swelled overnight and was preventing staff and guests from coming or going, according to the station's own live broadcast.

Ten minutes to the east, at the Noor mosque in the middle-class Abbasia neighbourhood, worshippers spilled down the steps from midday prayers and launched into a protest. Half of the crowd stood watching from the other side of the street, some uncertain, some angry.

A man grabbed my arm forcefully.

"Where are you from, why are you here?" he demanded.

By now, after days of state television fear-mongering about foreign and Al Jazeera interference in Egypt, such aggressive questioning had become commonplace. I told him I was from Canada. He again asked why I wanted to film the protest. It's not a good thing, he said.

I yanked my arm away.

"Go," he spat.

"Revolution until victory"

From the mosque, hundreds of protesters marched down a main street toward Tahrir Square, preceded by a car with two men sitting on the trunk, holding up a giant poster showing one of the revolution's "martyrs," a young man named Mahmoud Tariq.

Under a clear, blue sky, men linked arms to keep our procession orderly and allow traffic to flow to the right. Families leaned over their balconies many floors above to gaze at the protest. Others watched from side alleys; some smiled and waved, most stared vacantly. The familiar chants echoed off the brick: "Revolution, revolution until victory!" "Egypt! Egypt!" "He goes, we're not going!" "The people want the fall of the regime!"

As we reached Ramses Square, the site of Cairo's central train station, a larger march approached from the opposite direction. Thousands of protesters mingled. Within the leaderless crowd, a snap, collective decision - the kind that has driven and served the revolution so well - turned the march around, in the direction of the presidential palace.

The road to Heliopolis

As we marched, the crowd grew. From time to time, those in front called a halt to allow stragglers to rejoin the main body. At every bridge or overpass, the protesters chanted for the onlookers to come down and join them.

The closer the march got to Heliopolis, the upper-class neighbourhood home to the presidential compound, the larger it became. We wound slowly past sprawling, walled-off compounds housing various arms of Egypt's armed forces, which collectively form a massive business entity that reaches deep into the country's manufacturing, agricultural and real estate sectors. The armed forces will play a crucial role in the coming weeks and months, now that Mubarak has delegated his power to a high-ranking council of military officers.

Atop and outside each compound – the defence ministry, the armed forces hospital, the armed forces technology institute – soldiers watched us cautiously, cradling their AK-47s. Often, the crowd stopped to issue another familiar, hopeful chant: "The people and the army, hand in hand!" It was as much a plea as a statement of fact.

Finally, we rounded a corner onto the road toward Mubarak's compound. By then, those in the crowd who could access the Internet on their phones knew from reports on Twitter that Mubarak had already departed for the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, presumably with his family in tow. Still, hopes were high: a statement from the presidency was expected shortly.

The moment of freedom

Against a sky that had grown dark and cloudy, occasionally sprinkling the protesters with rain, two military helicopters circled. Barbed wire army barricades backed by tanks with their barrels facing the protesters kept the crowd hundreds of meters from the entrance to the presidential compound. Instead, people waited outside the gate of the posh Heliopolis Sporting Club.

A friend held a radio to his ear, antenna fully extended. Protesters set up a small, curbside medical clinic - an even more ramshackle version of the field hospitals arranged in Tahrir Square. Others sat on the edge of the Heliopolis tram line, rendered functionless by the army barricade stretched across it.

Occasional cheers went up. First, the tanks symbolically turned their barrels away from the crowd. Then, an officer stood to grab and hang an Egyptian flag from a lamppost.

Suddenly, a louder cheer spread through the crowd. The presidential statement was coming across the radio. Mubarak was resigning. The noise grew. Flags began to wave. Disbelief turned into reality. The crowd separated into cheering camps; men on the shoulders of their friends were swamped by seas of blue mobile phones, recording the moment for posterity.

Protesters screamed at the sky in jubilation, others wept or called friends for confirmation, a few prayed. High up on a balcony, a man lit fire to an aerosol spray, sending a flash of yellow light out over the street.

Suddenly, the crowd of thousands surged, heading back the way we came, toward Tahrir, the natural rallying point for Cairo's revolutionary celebration. Young men sprinted through the grassy, tree-lined median separating the wide boulevard trailing Egyptian flags behind them. Grinning drivers waved and honked their horns.

Down a side street, where army barricades had suddenly been removed, two armoured personnel carriers sped back in the direction of the palace. Dozens of soldiers sitting on top waved, their hands in peace signs. Officers gathered outside the entrances to the military compounds we passed earlier watched us with amused curiosity.

A woman driving alone with her baby stopped to pick us up and take us to Tahrir. As we approached the 6th of October bridge, the site of deadly clashes between pro- and anti-government demonstrators just a week before, traffic slowed to a crawl.

Men driving cars held their babies on their laps. Taxi drivers stopped and jumped out to behold the scene in amazement. Children sold flags, and motorcycles and buses sped down the wrong side of the road. From the street below the flyover, the sounds of a jubilant crowd echoed off the pavement. Between towering, decrepit apartment buildings, lit by the soft orange glow of Cairo's streetlamps, everyone streamed toward Tahrir.

At the square, the barricades, so essential to the defence of the revolution, had gone down.

Visitors streamed in, stepping atop the fallen metal construction barriers with a racket. The line of civilian guards checking identification and patting down visitors at the Egyptian museum had disappeared. Atop piles of broken rocks – the armouries of the revolution, where dead protesters had been carried days before – men and women carried their children on their shoulders toward a sight unlike anything Egypt had ever witnessed before.

A press of celebrating Egyptians crowded every street in the square. A singer strummed a new but already well-known protest song, though the lyrics had changed: "The people have already brought down the regime," he sang.

A flare threw a red glow onto the buildings where the international press had struggled against a government crackdown to keep a spotlight trained on the protests. Fireworks blew multi-coloured explosions into the night; it took a few before the crowd was confident they weren't gunfire.

At the entrances to the square, army officers crowded atop their vehicles to watch the celebrations. Some were kissed by protesters, others shook hands; one took a toddler from a man and held it for a photo, before waving my camera away.

Egypt's military now holds the reins of government. It has been praised by the Obama administration for its restraint, but nobody knows how it will act with absolute power in such an unprecedented scenario.

Tomorrow, the worrying begins, but for now, Egypt celebrates.

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