The despot departs

Egyptians celebrate the end of Hosni Mubarak's 30-year regime

Originally published in the Independent, February 11th 2011

Just 17 days ago Tahrir Square was reverberating to the sound of exploding tear gas canisters as riot police fended off advancing demonstrators.

Tonight some of those demonstrators were making just as much noise again – only this time it was with flares and fireworks.

Pharmacist Ahmed Ashmawi, 28, was one of the protesters who have been camping out in Downtown Cairo since anti-government activists made Tahrir Square their stronghold on January 28.

As Egyptians danced in the street around him and ecstatic men and women whooped like American Indians, he said: “We’ve made history.

“I cannot believe this moment has come and we are living in it. Many times here over the past few weeks it was announced that Hosni Mubarak had gone – and every time it was wrong.

“I just cannot believe this time it’s true.”

Ahmed was one of the demonstrators dispersed by the police after initially occupying Tahrir Square on the night of January 25th – only to return three days later and break through police lines during the violent clashes which followed Friday prayers that day.

He said: “Before January 25th I didn’t expect people to come in huge numbers. But after what happened that night with the tear gas and the shooting I was hopeful that the movement would grow.”

According to him, the scenes a week last Wednesday, when pro-Mubarak mobs sparked bloody confrontations with anti-government demonstrators to the north of the plaza near the Egyptian Museum, were decisive.

He said: “It was terrible. I think the side which won that battle was going to be the side that won the whole thing.”

Ahmed’s thoughts at the time proved prescient. Many saw the ugly pitched battles between the two sides that night – along with the government’s suspected complicity in them –  as Mubarak’s desperate last throw of the dice.

In the days that followed demonstrators were never truly threatened again. The barricades at the northern side of Tahrir Square were reinforced and multiple rings of security checks were imposed by protestors.

The disappointment of Thursday night, when Mubarak stubbornly refused to step aside after fevered expectations to the contrary, only added to the sense of bewildered euphoria when his resignation was finally announced.

“After yesterday night I was thinking what should be the coming steps,” said Ahmed. “Some thought we should march on the national TV headquarters, others thought the presidential palace.

“But when I heard the news today I was astonished. I was trying to call my friends and family to be sure the news was true.”

When the Egyptian president’s resignation was confirmed just after 6pm Cairo time, cries of “Egypt free again!” and “We’ve finally got rid of the thief” rang through the air in Tahrir Square.

Some kneeled down on the asphalt to thank God, while in the nearby Qasr El-Aini Street others drove at snail’s pace in convoy down the road waving V-signs and honking their horns.

Alyaa El-Salamony, a mother-of-two and a general manager of an imports company, said: “Hosni Mubarak did not listen to the people.

“I feel so happy. I can look forward to a nice future for my children now.”

Mahmoud Aziz, a 25-year-old who had also been coming to Tahrir Square since January 25, said he had never felt so happy in his life.

He added: “I’ve done many things in my life. But this is like the French Revolution. We’re making history in the Middle East and we’ve proved we’re a civilised people.”

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