CAIRO, Egypt: Feb 12, 2011
The sounds of freedom continue to ring through Cairo, twenty-four hours after Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign by the awe-inspiring resilience and courage of millions of Egyptians who poured onto the streets in unprecedented numbers for 18 continuous days. After three decades of authoritarian rule, the impossible has come to pass; the hated dictator is gone and his notorious police force has all but vanished.
For the tens of thousands who were in Tahrir, or liberation, square Friday evening, the explosive news of Mr. Mubarak’s resignation spread like wildfire and within seconds, the crowds erupted into screams of unbridled joy and relief. Strangers exchanged congratulatory embraces, their eyes moist with tears of disbelief and pride at the historic change they had effected. All night long, every street in Cairo was alight with celebrations. People streamed into Tahrir square from across the colossal city, waving Egyptian flags, breaking out into song, dance, and poetry, their faces bursting with a delight they had never known before. Loud chants of “The people have brought down the regime” and “Hold your head up high, you are Egyptian!” echoed late into the night.
Egypt’s revolutionaries defeat easy generalizations. They are men and women, young and old, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, Muslim and Copt, atheists and believers, capitalists and workers, peasants and techies, artists and state employees, housewives and professionals, Salafists and socialists, long-time activists and those who’ve always shied away from politics. After their long night of jubilation, the revolutionaries returned to the square Saturday, armed this time with brooms, garbage bags, and a newfound sense of national pride. Thousands swept the dusty streets in and around Tahrir square, pausing at different intersections to recall the bloody battles with state security and thugs unleashed by Mr. Mubarak’s regime. Others applied a fresh coat of paint to the pavements while talking about the freedoms they wanted to enshrine in their rejuvenated country.
The January 25th uprising in Egypt has set an inspiring example to people around the world. Three days into the uprising, tens of thousands of peaceful protesters on Cairo’s Qasr-al-Nil bridge shattered the invincibility of Egypt’s security forces with nothing but their bodies and a neo-Gandhian fearlessness in the face of extreme brutality. When the panicked regime took the police off the streets to intimidate people into staying at home, the people responded by organizing popular committees to guard their neighborhoods. One protester explained to me that if half the family stayed in to watch their homes and streets, this allowed the other half to return to Tahrir square to protest. When the regime unleashed hired thugs to stage pro-Mubarak demonstrations and attack journalists and pro-democracy protesters in the square, thousands fought back with rocks, while others set up make-shift clinics to treat the injured, and distributed food, water, blankets, and tents to all those inside the square. When state television painted the demonstrators as directed by “foreign elements,” everyone inside Tahrir began to wave Egyptian flags, emphasizing how theirs was a patriotic struggle. Soon, even well-known media personalities and employees of state media outlets began to speak out in protest.
Egyptians have paid a heavy price for daring to challenge Mr. Mubarak’s power. According to estimates by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, at least 300 people have been killed in the uprising. An unknown number of people have been detained and possibly tortured by Egypt’s intelligence and military police. Every time Mr. Mubarak or his recently deputized Vice President Omar Suleiman appeared on television, they expressed nothing but contempt for the protesters, announcing piecemeal reforms that did little to satisfy the millions in the streets. Indeed, each day brought a litany of new reasons for the people’s frustrations and rage against the regime to swell. But, incredibly, despite the blatant lack of restraint on the part of Mr. Mubarak’s regime, the pro-democracy protesters did not respond to the constant provocations with violence. Instead, the square rang out with periodic chants of “ours is a peaceful revolution, ours is a popular revolution.”
After two-and-a-half tumultuous weeks of struggle, Egyptians all over the world woke up Saturday to a bright new dawn. But Egypt’s popular revolution is far from over. Serious questions remain about the shape of the post-Mubarak era and who will be allowed to guide the transition to civilian rule. Judging from the scale of the continuing celebrations and the determination to rebuild Egypt anew, these fears have not yet eaten into the tidal wave of hope created by the people’s successful ouster of Mr. Mubarak. But it’s precisely hope and a novel absence of cynicism that’s preventing many from packing up and ceding control over Tahrir square. They have tasted the power of a popular uprising that’s had its foremost demand met and now they can’t imagine giving up until all of their demands are answered. These include the repeal of the emergency law, the dissolution of Parliament, constitutional reforms to ensure free and fair elections, the release of all political prisoners, and justice for all those killed during the uprising. No one knows how quickly these demands will be met, but emboldened by their monumental victory against Mr. Mubarak, millions of Egyptians now believe that if they continue their struggle, anything is possible.
Anjali Kamat is a correspondent for Democracy Now!