In Cairo’s Tahrir Square earlier this evening, Ibrahim Basateen is leaning against a railing, sipping tea from a white plastic cup. “It’s going to be us or him,” he says, referring to President Hosni Mubarak. Everyone is waiting for a statement from the president’s office, but after last night’s disappointment, no one is expecting anything today. “He’ll probably leave next week,” says Ibrahim, who works in the ministry of petroleum.
Minutes later, the square erupts in cheers. Ibrahim looks around—everyone does—as word spreads: Egypt’s last pharaoh has fallen. After almost 30 years, Mubarak has ceded power to the military. For many young people gathered in the square, Mubarak is the only president they have ever known. Now he is gone.
There’s so much cheering and shouting it’s hard to hear. Everyone grips the waist of the person ahead of him, forming lines that snake around each to move across the square. Whistles sound in some kind of victory Morse code. “The people have taken down the regime,” people chant. Strangers squeeze hands, clasp arms, hug.
Yet there are small groups loitering on the sides of the square, not quite sure what to do with themselves. It is there that I see Omar Mazin, the editor of a Web site devoted to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. He pumps my hand in triumph. He is a big guy, and he is shaking all over; gulping air and rocking on the balls of his feet.
When I wrote about him before, Omar had asked me not to use his real name. “Now you can announce it,” he says. Omar’s real name is Abdel Rahman Ayysh, and he wants you, reading in America, to know it. I double-check to make sure it’s OK. His grin is so wide, I can’t help but think his face is bound to hurt tomorrow. “I’m not afraid of the government stopping me in the airport anymore,” he says. “I’m 21 years old and this is the first time in my life to be free.”
Abdel Rahman wrings my hand half a dozen more times before scampering off to find his friends. He’s going to be in the square celebrating all night.
He and many others like him have spent long nights in the square. Different political groups have set up camp in different parts of the square, forming a mini-city of neighborhoods for almost three weeks. The ElBaradei Association for Change kids are pitched up under a statue on a far side of the square. Some of them are still bandaged from the violence. Magid Hamid has been sleeping there for 14 nights, ever since he was released from 48 hours of detention by the country’s dreaded security services. (Human Rights Watch estimates that about 300 people died in this revolution.)
Tonight, Magid is chain-smoking cigarettes and looking around the square. It’s hard to read his expression. Pride? Awe? “I love this place more than my own home,” he tells me, shrugging. And why not? This is where Egypt made history.
At the base of the statue, about 20 of the group’s members are huddled across blankets, singing and chanting. Around them is a mosh-pit of movement and celebration, as revelers circle from all directions. Magid and I are standing on the outside of the seated mass. We wait for more of his friends to show up. Firecrackers are erupting somewhere in the square.
Tonight’s scene in front of the statue couldn’t be more different than last night’s. When I left this crew yesterday, after Mubarak said he would stay in power until September, they were fuming. Tonight, it’s hard to talk to them amid all the hugging.
Out of nowhere, Hezam El Sisi is back in the thick of things. Last night he was cracking jokes about how short he was. But his voice more than makes up for his stature. It carries over the group. He’s standing and singing in the middle of the seated crowd. He climbs over everyone in an effort to reach me.
“I am so happy, so happy, so happy,” Hezam keeps repeating. “Yesterday I was so sad! You remember?” he shouts. And I do, but before I can answer, Magid seizes him in an embrace. He kisses his shaved head and shoves Hezam over to me. “This is the best moment of my entire life,” Hezam yells. Everyone is yelling. It is the only way to be heard.
Hezam tells me he heard the news of Mubarak’s resignation over the phone from his sister as he was standing outside the presidential palace. He told Tarek Nowar, a friend from college. But they lost each other on the way back to the square, and Hezam isn’t sure where Tarek is. Minutes later—everything seems to be working out for the best today—Tarek appears. “I didn’t believe him,” Tarek laughs. “I kept screaming at him, ‘Are you sure?’”
Last night, after hearing Mubarak address the nation, Tarek looked as if he was about to slit his wrists. “Why didn’t he resign yesterday?” Tarek asks, shaking his head. “What the fuck was he waiting for?”
When I first met Tarek in October, he was a political neophyte. An interior designer, Tarek was moved to participate in politics by the return of Mohammed ElBaradei, the Nobel-winning ex-chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Tarek’s mother didn’t like his newfound hobby, and his wife wasn’t thrilled, either. He told them he didn’t care what they thought and started agitating for change.
I ask Tarek what will happen tomorrow, and he takes it literally: Everyone will clean up the square, he says. No, I respond. What happens to you after all this? Egypt’s youth has been politicized. Can they go back to being doctors, engineers, small business owners?
Tarek isn’t sure. “When I first started this, I remember clearly, I was talking to my friend. He asked me, ‘Are you in politics now?’ I said, ‘No, I just want to change Egypt for the better.’ But now, I’m not sure.” He gestures at the celebration all around him. “I had a role in this,” he says. “My role will not stop here.”
Then I see another face from last night, Mohammad El Tayeb, a natural-born comedian with an expressive face. He runs up to me, shakes my hand and starts flapping his arms. “I want to fly!” he says. Then he runs away. Last night he was almost in tears.
All around us in the square, it’s mass pandemonium—whistling, singing, chanting. It’s hard to talk to anyone for more than a few minutes. I have more questions, but no one is interested in answering them. They’re too busy hugging and cheering. “There’s a proverb in Arabic,” Tarek tells me as I struggle to keep his attention. “Today we party, tomorrow we think.”