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On the Ground In Egypt: The Speech Ended and Tahrir Square Erupted

On the Ground In Egypt: The Speech Ended and Tahrir Square EruptedThe rumors started flying around Twitter at 6:00PM: Mubarak planned to speak, Mubarak would step down, the army was taking over. I ran out of the apartment and toward Tahrir Square, about a half a mile away. When I arrived the news hadn’t quite reached the thousands of protesters gathered there. They were as adamant as ever. I decided to go home and monitor the situation from the Internet but on my way out ran into an Egyptian journalist who works for a wire service. “You want to miss the celebrations?” she asked me. I went back.

Within a few hours the news had circulated through the square: Mubarak would speak. That he would step down seemed inevitable. I ran into a group of friends (three guys named Ahmed) who were positive that tonight was the last of Mubarak’s rule. “What else could he be speaking about?” Ahmed asked.

The conversation had moved toward what would happen next. A middle-aged man in a traditional Egyptian robe approached the Ahmeds to discuss the situation. Would they support an interim military government? Would they stop protesting if Mubarak left Vice President Omar Suleiman in charge? Similar debates continued elsewhere and a crowd chanted, “Civilian, Civilian! We don’t want a military government!”

In the center of Tahrir Square a team of protesters have begun construction on a bathroom. A cement floor has been laid, plywood walls have been erected. At 10:00PM, the state start time of Mubaraks speech, they continued hammering nails into the beams that support the roof. I thought that maybe the Liberation bathroom wouldn’t be necessary by the next morning.

Images of the first days of the protests were projected on a screen, showing protesters fighting back the army and taking over an important bridge, showing a group of men being shot with a water cannon as they prayed. I thought these would soon be nostalgic, reminders of the glory days of the protest movement that changed Egypt’s history.

Mubarak started speaking a little before 11:00PM. No one where I was could hear him. The speakers were scratchy and his voice was hushed. From those gathered around the sound sytem there was, at one brief point, an explosion of cheering followed by silence. A few minutes later an angry murmur went up from the crowd and people held up their shoes and pointed them at the imaginary president.

The speech ended and Tahrir Square erupted. “Down with Hosni Mubarak!” as loud and as synchronized as I have ever heard. A sense of helpless fury swept over the crowd. They marched back and forth chanting and it was immediately clear that some of the festive atmosphere of Tahrir Square had been sucked away. Families headed for the exits.

An old man with only a few teeth ran up to me. “He didn’t understand?” he yelled in my face and then ran away. Immediately, people I talked to were intent of moving the protests out of Tahrir and toward other centers of power, the state TV building or the presidential palace a few miles away.

“You know a refrigerator?” Abdallah Mustafa, 24, asked me as he sat on a curb near the square. “Mubarak is a refrigerator. You can’t move him.” Mustafa took the whole thing in better humor than people. As I walked through Tahrir I saw a woman wearing a niqab, the full face veil, ranting angrily at no one in particular. “You’ll see. He will leave! He has to leave!”

I reached the barricades that make up the gates to Tahrir Square. The protesters have a Walmart-like system of greeters set up at the barbed wire. “Goodbye. See you tomorrow,” they say to everyone who passes through.

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