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Mark Levine

Mark Levine

Posted: February 16, 2011 01:09 AM

The 48 hours between the expected and actual resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak were a tsunami of emotion, expectation, fear and ultimately indescribable jubilation.

I arrived at Tahrir a little later than normal on Thursday, at around 4. I had spent the day trying to manoeuvre around Cairo by foot and taxi to visit various human rights organizations, to assess the situation they have faced and get their views on the role of human rights - the term in English or Arabic, has hardly been seen in the square - in the protests.

It was very tense when I arrived. Scuffles were breaking out at the security cordon as overwhelmed civil security people tried to maintain security amidst worries that, in the wake of Omar Suleiman's threats to use violence to restore order, provocateurs might try to slip in.

But once inside the tension gave way to an incredible feeling of exhilaration. It felt like Woodstock, or at least what I imagined Woodstock would have felt like. And we were all waiting for Jimi Hendrix to hit the stage, only in this case it was Hosni Mubarak saying ma'a salama, "Good-bye" in Arabic.

As the hours passed the crowds swelled, incredibly, to even larger than they were two days before on Tuesday. As more people came the chants and drumming grew louder, the mood more festive, as everyone waited for what we thought was the inevitable moment when Mubarak would come on television and resign. "He's already in Germany," at least half a dozen people mused.

The bayan al-awwal or first communiqué of the armed forces high command only heightened the sense of expectation, and in the apartment where I was hanging out above the square, people were glued to Al Jazeera Arabic, taking pictures, hugging each other, calling family and friends. The mood moved beyond Woodstock to what a Beatles reunion would have felt like if all four members were still alive. (Note: I had originally refrained from giving details of the location of the apartment and its owner, but today NY Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote about them in his column, "Guru of the Revolution." Photos of the apartment and its amazing owner, Pierre Sioufi, can be seen at my flickr account.)

To pass the time I searched the square for my new friend, Ramy Essam, a great young Egyptian singer. I had first heard him in a video from the square performing a song he had written while living there in a tent for the last few weeks. The song was so powerful it felt like the anthem of the revolution and I immediately downloaded it, and called my good friend and producer, Anton Pukshansky. He created an amazing hiphop drum and bass track underneath the live song, and sent it to me at precisely the moment I found Ramy in the square, somehow, on my third night here. Ramy loved the song and immediately sent out our rough mix to the world. The next day his producer drove down to Cairo from Mansoura and that evening we went into the studio, adding new guitar and vocal tracks to it, so it could be released as a complete track.

But after suddenly becoming musical comrades and hanging deep into the night, we got separated, and I didn't see him again until the morning after Mubarak was gone. We texted and spoke on the phone several times, but even though we were both in the square, such was the chaos that it was impossible to meet.

While I was looking for Ramy, finally, sometime after 10pm, Mubarak appeared. A roar went up that was so loud I thought it would burst my ear drums. This was the moment everyone had waited for, had lived in the square for days, if not weeks, for. And then it all disappeared like a burst balloon.

It is hard to imagine the feeling of hundreds of thousands of people having their hopes crushed in the space of eight minutes. For the first few minutes, Mubarak's words were merely confusing. No one understood what he was getting at. People were shouting "yella" and gesticulating for him to hurry up and finish so that the party could start.

But then he got to the point: I'm not going anywhere, I won't meet your demands, and I dare you to come and get me. The blood ran out of everyone's faces. Smiles turned to twisted rage. Tears of joy became tears of anger, sadness and rage all at once, and then, much more quickly than I would have anticipated, the rage and anger turned to resignation. People hugged each other and got down to work. What do we do now? What is the next step? How do we proceed? "I'm lost," a friend declared. "What more can we do? This is very bad because many people might now see violence as the only way to get rid of him."

Yet the mood was not grim or even desperate as one might have imagined as the night wore on. At 1am the square was still packed. At 3am it was still more than half full and people were furiously drumming and chanting and marching. No one wanted to leave, perhaps because they imagined that tomorrow would be a very bloody day. I would end up sleeping at the square - well not sleeping, but I didn't feel safe to go home during the night. At least in Tahrir I knew I would not be touched; or so I imagined.

The discussions kept going. I'm sure that somewhere in or out of the square the main organizers, including some of my friends, were trying to coordinate an action. Two nights before people had spontaneously marched to the parliament and almost took it, but not enough came. The army wasn't there at first, but once they got there in force there was no way to take it, so they decided to camp out and stake their claim, which still stands as I write this.

But the failure to take the parliament when it was still there for the taking revealed a need to coordinate and plan better. And so in the night, thousands of people marched to the TV center, knowing that they probably couldn't take it physically since it was protected by Mubarak's ultra loyal presidential guard, but at least could surround it and keep people from going in or out. Later in the morning an anchor person on Egyptian television had to apologize that it was only him and no guests because, "no one could get in or out". It was surprising to hear him say that, but it was clearly a code to the people watching to let them know what was really going on.

Perhaps the most surreal scene occurred around 6.30am when the square started to wake up. All of a sudden people were organized into exercise groups, and about 100 people actually started jogging briskly in the damp, cold and foggy morning air around the circle at the center of Tahrir. I certainly wasn't going to join them and don't know how people who had literally been living there for weeks had the energy to do this. But such is life in the square.

At around 7.30am I headed back to the Nile island neighborhood of Zamalek across the July 26 bridge that meets the square and took a shower and had breakfast. I met an old friend and musical comrade, Shung, the founder of the Egyptian oriental metal band Beyond East, with whom I headed to the square. He was wearing an Iron Maiden shirt and as soon as we got there I snapped a photo and sent it to Maiden's manager, who has been very supportive while I've been here. It's nice to know that people care even as they are in the middle of the craziness of their own lives, which in Maiden's case happens to be the middle of a world tour. We talked about music and life and how incredible and crazy this was. "It's really metal," was both of our opinions.

We entered the square at the start of the noon prayer. The square was already as packed as on Tuesday. It was almost impossible to move. As we talked past an overflowing mosque along the side of the square, an imam who was leading prayer outside for the thousands of worshippers who couldn't get inside was preaching about remaining peaceful. Shung was moved: "This is what Islam should be, what the true Islam is, finally coming out in Egypt." Walking past another group praying, we caught sight of a man standing on top of a lamp post at least 60 feet in the air, prostrating in prayer. It was amazing. One false move and he'd fall to his certain death. But he completed his prayers without missing a beat, as did at least three to four hundred thousand fellow worshipers.

The square was so crowded that rather than try to make our way to the part of the square we usually hung out in that we moved around the edges, slipped outside the security corridor and went around the back way to a different entrance which was normally not so crowded. Today, however, it took us almost an hour to get back inside the Square. People were squeezing past us with all sorts of boxes of food and water, but the security was very nervous because anyone of them could be a very large bomb. Certainly it would have made sense had one gone off right about then, sending hundreds of thousands of people into panic and bringing the whole Square crashing down upon itself. But thankfully that didn't happen and finally we got past the last level of security and were freely in the square.

The second prayers were done the chanting began. It was so loud and furious, but still peaceful. People seem determined not to lose the spirit of nonviolence even as news filtered in that in Suez dozens had been killed.

We were in a waiting phase. People were moving all over the city trying to take over this and that, especially the presidential palace and the TV center. As the army released a second bayan seemingly backing Mubarak people seemed even more resolved to continue this revolution to the end, bloody or peaceful.

With politics utterly frozen, the next step was clearly up to the army. It was clear which way the soldiers in the square, who'd been living with the people for almost a month, hope it goes. They didn't want violence. They, like everyone else, just wanted to go home.

We hoped their superiors get the message. If they didn't, it seemed that Egypt could suddenly find itself in a sea of blood. Yet Shung remained optimistic. "This is good, all this peacefulness. It's fine, the birth pains of a new Egypt. Inshallah, everything will be okay." I hoped he was right, and we both figured that neither of us would be leaving the square until we found out. In the meantime, somehow a new latrine had been built for people to use. It was named "Mubarak's toilet seat." Humor was a great antidote for the tension. A friend pointed out that despite all the US waffling and the open Israeli support for Mubarak, during the protests not a single American or Israeli flag had yet been burned, and few speakers bothered bringing them into the conversation.

The sun set; beautifully so from our vantage point in an apartment used by activists and journalists as a safe house and place to debrief and meet up (a NY Times reporter profiled the apartment in a video piece for the website; what he didn't explain was the maturity and fortitude of the kids profiled was immensely inspiring, there was an older generation, including the person whose apartment it was, who played an equally important role as advisors and counselors, keeping an even keel on the situation and lending their experience to that of the young people literally manning the barricades).

The mother of Khaled Said, the 28-year-old Egyptian who died in police custody on an Alexandria street last year, arrived. Returning from the square with Shung, where we were filming for the documentary of my book Heavy Metal Islam, Shung looked at the setting sun and said with an air of premonition, "I hope this is the last sunset of the system."

Al Jazeera, as usual, was blasting in the background, seemingly the usual filler as there was nothing much to report. Suddenly there were screams of joy, sheer joy, and everyone ran instinctively, for the TV set. Patriotic music was playing and an announcement was scrolling across the bottom of the screen saying that Mubarak had resigned. Within about ten seconds, somehow, the entire square knew what had happened. The Pharaoh was gone. Everyone started to weep; it didn't matter what country you were from. Suddenly this wasn't just Egypt's revolution, it was the world's, or at least ours, who had been there for all the days and weeks leading up to it.

People in the apartment surrounded Said's mother, she was crying tears of joy while hugging a pillow with his picture embroidered on it. Right away we headed down to the square and as soon as we left the building confronted a tank on which at least two dozen people were standing with the soldiers, shouting and singing and waving Egyptian flags. Amr Khaled, the popular television preacher and host, climbed on top (or at least that is who it appeared to be). Someone quipped: "He's gonna claim credit for it." We left, and we didn't care if he did. It was almost impossible to move. I suppose this was what the liberation of Paris must have felt like.

We were in the square that evening for at least six hours. Everyone was hugging. A deaf man grabbed me and signed to me the history of the last day. I don't know sign language but I knew exactly what he meant. He shook my hand and moved on. The happiest people were definitely the tent people. It is hard to conceive of their sacrifice, even when you've spent nights in the square. They have lived this revolution, and in a very real sense it is theirs. But if the rest of the world is smart, they will claim it too, before it
loses momentum. As several people said to me, in reality, the revolution has just begun.

As Shung said goodbye and prepared to disappear into the crowd, I said to him: "I guess this really is like Woodstock." "Yeah," he replied. "And Hendrix played."

I stayed with some of the kids from the flat whom I'd spent much of the last week with. We tried to reach Ramy, but every time we got to one of Tahrir's half dozen or so makeshift stages, he had already moved on to play the same four songs at another stage. From relative obscurity, It seemed he had become the most famous musician in the country; everyone wanted him on their stage, at least in Tahrir.

Fireworks were exploding above us. And suddenly the security cordon, often five layers deep and staffed by volunteers on an ad hoc basis for weeks, disappeared. The streets around the Square overflowed and sound systems suddenly appeared in various plazas with music blasting. Talaat Harb square, not far outside the Square, was suddenly a hub of celebration and music. Nearby what could only be described as a post-revolutionary mosh pit had formed, with older people making a circle while inside kids and twenty-somethings did traditional Arab dances mixed with a bit of slam-dancing. A bunch of my friends were looking for a place to drink, but Cairo's famous bars, like the Odeon, were either closed or already out of liquor from all the celebrating.

The shisha places were absolutely packed with people. With nothing else to do, and tired of celebration, several of us walked back to Zamalek. Two nights before I had to go past a check point manned by young men armed with homemade swords to get to my hotel. Now flags had replaced swords at the entrances to the island. Luckily, my hotel hadn't run out of beer, but we were too tired to drink more than one.

I thought I would sleep well given how long it had been since I had done so, but I was up early the next morning, and by around 9am my other journalist friends staying at our little hotel were in our common room, on their computers, almost all chain smoking (it's hard to do a revolution without smoking a lot, even when you normally don't smoke) while they scanned the world's newspapers online and prepared to file stories to their editors about the events of the last 24 hours.

Around noon one of my fellow journalists, Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor, and myself along with two of the kids from the Square whom I had bought a hotel room for the night before (they had spent the last 2 weeks sleeping in the square; it seemed the least I could do), walked back to Tahrir. The scene was surreal, every tank had young children on it, while their parents took pictures from below. Men, women and children were all sweeping up the streets and cleaning up garbage. Traffic was beginning to move closer to the square, and for the first time the main entrance, which was generally harder for foreigners and even Egyptians to get in through, was flowing freely with people.

Inside, the economy of the square, which during the course of the occupation had grown as petty merchants set up stalls to sell food, water, tissues and other necessities for life inside, had exploded. Popcorn sellers were there. Books that were banned the day before were suddenly openly sold, especially if they were about Mubarak. Egyptian flags were being sold by the thousands. Families were everywhere. It was, quite probably, the biggest party in Egypt's history.

I reached a few friends on the phone and tried to hook up. As the sun went down the celebrations really kicked into high gear. Ramy was booked solid, almost every hour it seemed he was on a different stage. Dan Murphy and I followed him to one stage, which couldn't have been more different than the last time I was with him when he played, at around mid-night four days or so before, when he entertained a few hundred of the die hard camp dwellers (music often went deep into the night in liberated Tahrir). Now throngs of young people were chanting for him, but a religious faction, I'm not sure organized by whom, essentially took over the stage and wouldn't let him on until prayers were over and their speakers had lectured the crowd about being better Muslims for at least half an hour before organizers managed to cajole them off the stage. A colleague of mine would later joke that the Brotherhood "came late and stayed after the party." I'm not sure if it was the Brotherhood officially who had sent people to try to take over the stages, but it was clear that the solidarity of the last 18 days was already breaking apart. I guess that was only natural, but another 24 hours of perfect harmony would have been nice.

I was going to play with Ramy, but it didn't feel right. This was too much an Egyptian moment. Foreigners were neither needed, nor even wanted. Indeed, one couple tapped me on the shoulder and asked where I was from and why I was there. They even asked to see my ID, but I refused to show it to them. They go angry but in the swell of people I was able to move away from them. But even as people celebrated and sang all the words to Ramy's newly famous songs, Dan and I could feel a kind of tension in the air. Along with the jubilation there was clearly a lot of anger beginning to come out, the way toxins come out of your body after a particularly hard exercise. Somewhere around 11 or so we decided to leave the square with some friends and go have a few drinks.

Cairo was utterly alive. For the first time in weeks, downtown stores were open and the lights from the windows gleamed off the newly cleaned sidewalks and asphalt. Cairo was opening for business, not a moment too soon. And the bars had managed to restock during the day. We bar-hopped for a while and then, exhausted, headed back for Zamalek. Before doing so, we stopped into the apartment to say good-bye to our comrades, but when we got up there it was empty. Everyone was out celebrating. What 24 hours before was one of the centers of the revolution was, perhaps fittingly, back to being just a very large and spacious apartment.

As we left the square people were folding up the banners and posters. A motorcycle and then a car suddenly entered the previously hallowed and pedestrian-only ground. streams of people were, for the first time in weeks, marching out, over the bridge, and onto their homes. No one knew what the next days would bring, but everyone knew that they had been part of something incredible, which no one would be able to take away from them. After centuries of Ottoman, British, monarchical, and military rule, Egypt was free--at least for a night.

Portions of this post appeared first in my February 11 al-Jazeera column, "28 Hours in Tahrir Square."