It was dusk in Cairo when the rumors began to circulate: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak would be addressing the nation, and sources quoted in the American media suggested he would step down. Drums were beaten. Chants were sung. High-fives were slapped. But underneath the jubilation and excitement was anxiety.
By a statue on the side of Tahrir Square, the ElBaradei Association for Change had set up shop. The youth group formed after Mohammed ElBaradei, the Nobel-winning former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, returned to Egypt. The evening was turning into a party, and Mohammed El Tayeb his friends were cracking jokes to entertain the crowd.
Mohammed listed some of America’s presidents in his lifetime: Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush. “It’s not fair,” he yelled, jabbing the air with the staff of a miniature Egyptian flag. “You have all these presidents and I’ve only had one!” Mohammed, 29, has been arrested five times in the last year. He was agitating for change even before the Jan. 25 protests began. “Mubarak doesn’t understand the people,” he shouted to the crowd. “Obama has a Facebook page, Mubarak doesn’t even have e-mail!” It’s a funny line, but I wasn’t sure he was joking. His face was earnest.
Hezam El Sisi, another activist, chimed in. “There’s a Mubarak college, Mubarak school, Mubarak hospital, Mubarak airport, and a Mubarak train station,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like this guy married my mother. He’s everywhere.”
Hezam and Mohammad weren’t speaking so much as yelling. Everyone was. The youth of Egypt’s revolution were running on some kind of fatalistic do-or-die adrenaline, pulling all-nighters for two weeks straight, drinking six cups of tea and then trying to make sense of everything to a foreign journalist. It was the kind of humor that only happens when someone is on his deathbed. When it’s either laugh or weep.
The group of about 20 young people posed for a photograph—something to remember tonight by—even though no one knew, then, what kind of memory it would be. We were all waiting to hear Mubarak address the nation, and no one actually knew what he was going to say.
The ElBaradei kids had taken up vigil, spread out across blankets, waiting. It was like the calm before a storm. Then someone in the crowd shouted: Mubarak is about to speak! The guys pulled out their hand-held radios, plugged in their headphones and shared the earphones. Hezam backed out of the cluster and crouched on the blanket. “I don’t want to listen,” he told me. “I’m afraid of what he’s going to say.”
The square around us suddenly went quiet. People shushed their neighbors. Tarek Nowar, another activist, and Mohammed were sharing a radio. Hezam stood up to join them. Tarek put his arm around Hezam’s shoulders; the two have been friends since college. Like everyone else, they strained to hear the transmission. It turned out to be the national anthem. Tarek and Mohammed started singing along. Everyone smiled and joined in.
This was taking forever. Mohammed cracked a joke: “I’m worried my battery will die before he speaks.” The girls nearby giggled. “I bet he’s not talking because he’s in the bathroom,” Hezam said, to more laughter. Tarek pulled off his headphones in disgust. Everyone sat back down. There was to be more waiting, more jokes.
“It’s hard to describe how I feel,” said Tawfik Gamal, a medical student. “I don’t think, having a dictator like Mubarak, [that] you can really foresee anything. He keeps slapping us and we don’t really know why.”
Suddenly another hush rolled over the square. Mubarak had started speaking. Everyone gathered around Tarek, who was listening from his headphones and trying to repeat what he heard. But he was too nervous. He couldn’t breathe, he was shaking, he kept messing up the speech.
Then, just as suddenly as the hush, a voice filled the square. It sounded like the voice of God. As thousands stood with heads bowed in complete silence, straining to hear the omnipotent voice booming across the expanse, Hazem held his hands over his face. Tarek held his arms up, fingers laced through his hair. Mohammad stared at me, shaking his head.
As the speech continued, people began breaking off to cluck their disapproval. Their neighbors quieted them. A little girl sitting on her father’s shoulders energetically waved a flag, but few noticed. As Mubarak continued to speak—his speech lasted 17 minutes—people sank into themselves. The crowd was literally deflated. As soon as he was done, one chant went up through the crowd: “Leave!”
But Mubarak had just explained that, though he will hand over power to Vice President Omar Suleiman, he will remain in office until the elections scheduled for the fall. “I don’t know how I feel,” Tarek said. “I feel like I’ve been cheated. … He said he’ll continue until September, so he’ll still fuck those people until September.” The giddy excitement of earlier in the night was gone. His eyes pleaded with me: No more questions tonight.
As I leave the square, I ask for any final thoughts. The guys near the statue can only think of one thing to tell me in English: “Motherfucker.”
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