“Free - dom! Free - dom!”
Mission Accomplished: Jubilation reigns on the streets of Cairo
After the astonishing speech delivered by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak last night, my husband, Nabil, and I were determined to shake off our disappointment by taking to the streets this morning. Heartened by our conviction that Egypt’s military was going to do the right thing — but not at all sure when — we set off to see how things were developing at Tahrir Square.
We arrived at the Talat Harb entrance to the square minutes before Friday’s congregational mid-day prayer. Security volunteers told us to hurry in or wait for the prayers to end, so we rushed to the barricades where our IDs and persons were checked. It’s quite a ways from the security entrance to the actual square, so although we were past the checkpoint, the road between Tahrir and us was blocked by several rows of men, and one of women, praying in unison. I noticed that many were using Egyptian flags as prayer mats.
It’s impolite to walk in front of people praying, so only a few people along the sides were moving towards the square. The others were willing to wait, but I got impatient and decided to head off on my own.
When I finally got to the edge of the actual square I discovered that this was as close as I was going to get. The #Jan 25 tweets had said to meet at Tahrir after the prayer, but it was already jam packed.
I’m not a big fan of crowds, so when the prayers ended and everyone began chanting slogans full throttle and squeezing in closer, I started getting a bit claustrophobic. So, while they were shouting, “We will stay! He will go!” I started to push my way back through the advancing multitude.
Instantly, people moved to either side, creating a path to let me through. This spontaneous gesture was exactly what I had come to expect from the ever-gracious demonstrators at Liberation Square.
Nabil was waiting for me at the edge of the crowd and we decided to join one of the marches building momentum downtown. First, though, we had to gear up. The street merchants had cleverly capitalized on the growing excitement with some pretty decent merchandising.
There were four sizes of Egyptian flags to chose from, so we bought the biggest. Then, to hang around my neck, I got a laminated flag with the hokey, and mildly fascist slogan, “Egypt above the people.” The vendor explained excitedly, “This is the Egyptian flag. Not the Mubarak flag!”
To me it looked like a backstage pass to the revolution. A couple of red, white, and black armbands and we were ready to march.
In no time, we were on Ramses Street with the march to Maspiro, the Egyptian television building. The demonstrators had decided to topple the state-run propaganda mill with the rest of the regime. There were too many people to know where the beginning or end was, so we just went with it.
Then I heard my favorite interfaith chant so far. English doesn’t do it justice, but what they were singing was, “Hey Mohammed go tell John. Egypt’s going to be Heav - en.”
I remembered the woman in full niqab who was carrying a small child with a cross and crescent painted on her forehead. And the guy I had seen earlier sitting on a sidewalk in Tahir holding a huge orthodox cross in one hand and in the other, a sign with the classic Muslim proclamation of faith, “La ilaha il Allah” (There is no god but God).
Once again, the same message. This is about country, not about religion.
By 4 p.m., we were back home, watching television, waiting to hear something significant from the army. What we got instead was a brief speech from the vice president, and within minutes we had our patriotic gear back on, huge flag in hand, and were back out in the streets.
Horns honking, flags waving, people back and forth singing and cheering. Celebration is too tame a word. Jubilation is more like it.
People were pouring onto the streets with their families and video cameras congratulating each other. One guy was offering everyone chocolate from a huge box. Someone started shooting off fireworks and everyone went wild.
I remember the streets of Paris when France won the World Cup in 1998. This was 10 times the commotion.
Some of the rhyming slogans get stuck in your head after chanting them a few hundred times and at one point I turned to Nabil and sung out, “Hosni barra wi ehna henna!” (Hosni’s out and we are in!)
Without missing a beat, everyone within earshot chanted the same phrase right back at me. I kept it up for a few more rounds and then we all dissolved into giggles.
As we were being swept into Liberation Square by a jubilant wave of revelers dancing and chanting, “Free - dom! Free - dom!” I saw a middle-aged man with a blanket-wrapped bundle walking calmly out. I bet that after 17 nights in the square he was surely thinking, “Mission accomplished. I’m going home to take a shower.”
Native Houstonian Victoria Harper is a Cairo-based consultant and writer. Read her previous letters from Cairo: