Dispatch

‘We Need to Drag Him from His Palace’

Mubarak's not leaving and the joyous protests today in Tahrir square have turned angry. Will tomorrow bring a return to violence?

MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

CAIRO — Around 9 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 10, Cairo’s Tahrir Square was seemingly one of the happiest places on the planet. The tens of thousands of people packing the square were beyond euphoric as they reveled in a sense of hard-fought communal victory. In one section of the vast public space, a group of flag-draped young men danced around in a sort of modified conga line, chanting, "Hosni’s leaving tonight! Hosni’s leaving tonight!"

Elsewhere, a second circle danced to a live drum as a young man sitting on someone’s shoulders led them in chants of: "We’re the Internet youth/We’re the youth of freedom."

A flurry of early evening developments had stoked anticipation that this would be the night that President Hosni Mubarak would finally surrender to the demands of the protesters who had occupied Tahrir since Jan. 28 and announce his immediate resignation. State television had announced that Mubarak would address the country at 10 p.m., and several respectable news outlets were reporting that he would resign. Thousands more people continued to stream into the square, determined to be in Tahrir to witness the historic moment.

I spoke with a young, veiled woman named May Gaber, a journalist who writes for Ikhwanonline, the official website of the Muslim Brotherhood. Gaber was sporting a large bandage on her face, thanks to a car accident on Thursday morning. When she heard the news reports, she left the hospital and came to Tahrir along with her mother and sister.

"I feel like we are halfway down the path. Of course it makes me very happy," she told me. "I used to be almost embarrassed to be Egyptian; now at last I am truly proud."

Mubarak’s departure seemed to be such a done deal that many protesters had already moved on to a discussion of what a post-Mubarak Egypt should look like. Several people told me they automatically rejected the idea of Vice President Omar Suleiman assuming power. "We don’t want Suleiman either. We want to choose our own president. That’s the whole point," said Mohammed Abdel Salam, a 32-year-old small-business owner.

Perhaps the most prescient person in the crowd was Mahmoud Salem, a 29-year old IT professional who blogs under the name Sandmonkey. "I’ll believe it when I see the tape. I want to see him say it," Salem said.

I watched the speech from the northeast corner of the square across from the Egyptian Museum. A sheet had been hung from lampposts to serve as a projection screen for the live broadcast of Al Jazeera. The sound quality was terrible, so few of us could actually make out what Mubarak was saying.

But as the president’s speech went on and he failed to say the magic sentence everyone here was waiting for, you could feel a sense of stunned realization settle over the crowds. Even the dozen or so soldiers clustered on top of a tank watching the speech seemed grim.

About halfway through Mubarak’s speech, one guy behind me yelled out: "Does that look like someone who’s leaving? He won’t go until he’s removed. So we’ll remove him!"

The mood in the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s speech was difficult to define — equal parts deflation, determination, and a mounting sense of rage. "I feel hatred. I feel like we need to drag him from his palace," said Mayada Moursi, a schoolteacher in her early 30s. Another man, 25-year old Mahmoud Ahmed, simply shrugged and said: "I feel like our president is stupid."

The Tahrir protesters clearly feel that despite more than two weeks of widening public unrest, they still haven’t actually managed to deliver their message to Mubarak in a manner he understands. So now the question becomes: What will they do next to ensure he gets it and goes into early retirement?

Within an hour of the conclusion of Mubarak’s speech, there were reports of protesters staking out new ground and making moves that could potentially bring them into conflict with the Army. One group of protesters was moving to surround the Information Ministry, located near Tahrir. Another group seemed determined to make the several-mile trek to the presidential palace in the outlying district of Heliopolis. Both locations are heavily fortified by the Army, and it’s unlikely the soldiers will let either be taken. But can they do so while also keeping their repeated promises not to harm the protesters?

Even before Thursday night’s bizarre non-resignation, Friday was shaping up to be an angry day; mass symbolic funerals were planned for the estimated 300 protesters killed since the civil unrest campaign began on Jan. 25.

But Thursday’s events seem certain to add an extra level of intensity and frustration. There is now a real possibility for violence. Former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei put out on ominous message on Twitter: "Egypt will explode. Army must save the country now."

But within a half-hour of Mubarak’s speech, some protest organizers were already working to tamp down the rampant emotions of the enraged crowds. One man pleaded through a megaphone: "Please people, I’m begging you. Tomorrow’s protest must be peaceful, no matter how much they provoke us."

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