|Egypt's arduous road to freedom|
More than 300 people were killed in a treacherous, 18-day journey toward ending Hosni Mubarak's 30-year autocratic rule.
Al Jazeera online producer Last Modified: 12 Feb 2011 00:12 GMT
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, outgunned and besieged by an angry horde.
Twelve hours later, almost impossibly, 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 (liberation) Square’s protesters have held their ground, and on Friday, the 18th day of nationwide demonstrations demanding the complete ouster of Mubarak’s regime, they won again.
If Friday came to close with a city-wide street party in Egypt’s capital, it dawned with uncertainty and worry.
Many wondered: What was Mubarak playing at on Thursday night, when he made a rambling, patronising speech – his third since the protests began – that failed to offer even 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 idea? Would the army – stiff armed by Mubarak – go straight for a coup d’etat?
What was certain was this: The protests would continue, and they would only get bigger.
As we woke up on Friday, the crowd in Tahrir Square was already enormous. A sit-in protest at the heavily guarded state television building was swelling, preventing staff there from coming or going, the station’s anchors stated on air.
At the Noor mosque in Abbasia, a middle-class neighbourhood east of central Cairo, worshippers spilled down the steps from midday prayers and immediately 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 asked.
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 such a protest. It’s not a good thing, he said.
I yanked my arm away.
“Go,” he spat.
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 us 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 regime to fall!”
As we reached Ramses Square, the site of Cairo’s central train station, a larger march approached heading in the opposite direction. Thousands of protesters mingled briefly and then, as has happened throughout the revolution, a snap, collective decision was made. Technically leaderless, the march turned around and headed toward the presidential palace.
As we marched, the crowd grew. From time to time, those in front would call for a halt so stragglers could rejoin the main body. At such moments, and every time we passed underneath a bridge or overpass, the protesters would shout in unison for the onlookers to come 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 numerous buildings belonging to Egypt’s armed forces, which collective form a massive business entity and 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 would stop to issue another familiar, hopeful chant: “The people and the army, hand in hand!”
Finally, we rounded a corner onto the road toward Mubarak’s compound. By that point, reports on Twitter had informed us that the man himself had left earlier for the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, presumably with his family in tow. Still, a statement from the presidency was expected, and now hopes were high.
Against a sky that had grown dark and cloudy, occasionally releasing a drop of rain onto the protesters, two military helicopters circled. Barbed wire army barricades backed by tanks with their barrels facing the protesters prevented the crowd from approaching anywhere near even the entrance to the presidential compound, so we 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 makeshift version of the field hospitals arranged in Tahrir Square. Others sat on the edge.
Occasional cheers went up from the barricades: First, the tanks turned their barrels away from the crowd. Then, an officer stood to grab and hang an Egyptian flag to a lamppost.
The moment of freedom
Suddenly, a louder cheer spread through the crowd. The presidential statement had come across the radio. Mubarak was resigning. The noise grew, and the crowd separated into cheering camps. Men screamed at the sky in jubilation, others cried or checked their mobile phones 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 began to move, heading back the way we came, toward Tahrir, the natural meeting point for Cairo’s revolutionary celebration.
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.
A woman driving alone with her baby stopped to pick us up and drive us toward 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 of their cars to take in the scene. Children sold Egyptian flags, and motorcycles and buses sped down the wrong side of the road. Below, the sounds of a jubilant crowd echoed off the pavement. Between towering, decrepit apartment buildings, all the crowds 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 to a sight unlike anything Egypt has ever witnessed before.
A press of celebrating Egyptians crowded every street in the square. A flare lit by one of them threw a red glow onto the buildings where the international press has struggled 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 that it wasn’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, among others, the Obama administration for its restraint, but nobody can predict how it will act in such an unprecedented scenario.
Tomorrow, the worrying begins, but for now, Egypt celebrates