My Love, Egypt

How sweet is the air of Egyptian freedom.

In all of Cairo and Egypt, a nation exalts in its liberation. Through the evening and into the early morning, I stood in Tahrir Square with tens of thousands of Egyptians as they sang and danced, flashed V-signs and prayed, and laughed and cried. "This is my country, my beautiful country," Mahmoud Hamid, a 25-year-old engineering student, told me in a voice choked with emotion. "I am proud to be Egyptian. Nothing can stop us now."

Nothing could stop the celebration. For hours and hours, Egyptians kept pouring into Tahrir: whole families, fathers with small children on their shoulders, throngs and throngs of jubilant young men and boys, committed activists and health and safety volunteers, rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, all floating in a sea of Egyptian flags.

I swayed with the crowd as over and over the organizers played "Bismallah," a patriotic song from Egypt's 1973 war with Israel that had Egyptians chanting the lyrics and breaking out in Arab folk dances. "Habibti ya Masr," another deeply patriotic song, provided a wonderfully fitting addition to the Tahrir revolution's soundtrack:

O, my country! The most beautiful country of countries, my country!
For you, my country, I and my children are willing to die!
O my love, my Egypt!
He who hasn't seen hope in the eyes of the boys and girls of the country,
He who hasn't seen the hard word and determination being born,
Who hasn't seen the Nile surrounded by trees,
Hasn't heard the songs and poetry in the nights,
He hasn't been to Egypt
He hasn't seen men who remain strong no matter what,
Hasn't seen stubbornness in the eyes of the children
Hasn't seen determination in their eyes,
It says "We're free," and "We must win."

Speakers repeatedly honored the 300 slain victims of the Egyptian revolt. Posters demanded accountability for the misrule during deposed President Hosni Mubarak's 30-years in power. Yet there was scant vengeance in the air, rather an overwhelmingly joyous assertion of freedom, pride and dignity. "I am a man!" shouted Ahmed Hassanein, a 25-year-old laborer, whose entire face was painted in the red, black and white colors of the Egyptian flag. "All these years under Mubarak, we felt like we were donkeys. Now our country can be great again."

Nearly everyone I spoke with throughout the night talked about the future, about rebuilding Egypt. "We proved to the world, after the false image of Arabs being terrorists, that we brought down a dictator through peaceful means," Yumna Madi, 27, who works with a solar energy developer, told me. "I'm so proud that we took charge of our country. Now we have responsibility and will build the future."

Her friend, Dana Omran, 29, a consultant at the World Bank, has also virtually lived in Tahrir for the past two weeks. She was disappointed that President Barack Obama had not shown stronger support for the revolution, but said that it didn't really matter to her. "This is about Egyptians doing something for Egypt, not about what foreigners say or do," she explained.

I saw the soaring hopes in the eyes of Mohammed Fattouh, 20, a history major at Cairo University. "We faced so many bad things under Mubarak," he told me as he walked into Tahrir with a group of friends. "Everything was forbidden or impossible. No freedom, no education, no work, not easy to get married. Now, we are finally able to take our first steps into our future. Finally, we can breath in our country."

Across the Kasr el-Nil bridge in front of the Cairo Opera House, dozens of young men clamored above an Egyptian army tank. They were hugging the young soldiers in camouflage and singing, "The people and the army are together!" "I'm so happy," said Gamal Askari, a 43-year-old Cairene without a job, as he stood at the base of a monumental statue of Saad Zaghloul, hero of Egypt's struggle for independence against British colonialism. "We don't want to fight anybody. We don't want to destroy anything. We just want to have our democracy."

With the streets still filled with revelers at 2 a.m., I ran into two of Egypt's greatest men entering a nearby hotel. Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian-American, won the 1999 Nobel Prize in chemistry, and Alaa al-Aswany, is the author of The Yacoubian Building, an acclaimed novel about Egypt's decay during years of dictatorship. "It is such a great day," al-Aswany said, holding both my hands tightly and for once seeming at a loss for words. Zewail then took my arm, looked into the night sky, and said: "Smell the air. It smells very good tonight."

Scott MacLeod, Time's Middle East correspondent from 1995 to 2010, is managing editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs and a professor at the American University in Cairo.