Twenty-eight hours in Tahrir

Mark LeVine describes the sense of exhilaration among Egyptians at Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

28 hours in tahrir
Within about ten seconds of the announcement that Hosni Mubarak had stepped down, the whole square seemed to have heard the news [EPA]

I arrived at Tahrir a little later than normal yesterday, at around 4. I had spent the day trying to manoeuvre around Cairo by foot and taxi to visit various human rights organisations, to assess the situation they have faced and get their views on the role of human rights – the term in English or Arabic, has hardly been seen in the square – in the protests.

It was very tense when I arrived. Scuffles were breaking out at the security cordon as overwhelmed civil security people tried to maintain security amidst worries that, in the wake of Omar Suleiman’s threats to use violence to restore order, provocateurs might try to slip in.

But once inside the tension gave way to an incredible feeling of exhilaration. It felt like Woodstock, or at least what I imagined Woodstock would have felt like. And we were all waiting for Jimi Hendrix to hit the stage, only in this case it was Hosni Mubarak saying ma’a salama.

As the hours passed the crowds swelled, incredibly, to even larger than they were two days before on Tuesday. As more people came the chants and drumming grew louder, the mood more festive, as everyone waited for what we thought was the inevitable moment when Mubarak would come on television and resign. “He’s already in Germany,” at least half a dozen people mused.

The bayan al-awwal or first communiqué of the armed forces high command only heightened the sense of expectation, and in the apartment where I was hanging out not far from the square, people were glued to Al Jazeera Arabic, taking pictures, hugging each other, calling family and friends. The mood moved beyond Woodstock to what a Beatles reunion would have felt like if all four members were still alive.

To pass the time I searched the square for my new friend, Ramy Essaam, a great young Egyptian singer. I had first heard him in a video from the square performing a song he had written while living there in a tent for the last few weeks. The song was so powerful it felt like the anthem of the revolution and I immediately downloaded it, and called my good friend and producer, Anton P. He created an amazing hiphop drum and bass track underneath the live song, and sent it to me at precisely the moment I found Ramy in the square, somehow, on my third night here. Ramy loved the song and immediately sent out our rough mix to the world. The next day his producer drove down to Cairo from Mansoura and that evening we went into the studio, adding new guitar and vocal tracks to it, so it could be released as a complete track.

But after suddenly becoming musical comrades and hanging deep into the night, I haven’t seen Ramy since. The last time I heard from him was at 3am this morning; he was by the museum, but there was no way to find him

While I was looking for him, finally, sometime after 10, Mubarak appeared. A roar went up that was so loud I thought it would burst my ear drums. This was the moment everyone had waited for, had lived in the square for days, if not weeks, for. And then it all disappeared like a burst balloon.

It is hard to imagine the feeling of hundreds of thousands of people having their hopes crushed in the space of eight minutes. For the first few minutes, Mubarak’s words were merely confusing. No one understood what he was getting at. People were shouting “yella” and gesticulating for him to hurry up and finish so that the party could start.

But then he got to the point: I’m not going anywhere, I won’t meet your demands, and I dare you to come and get me. The blood ran out of everyone’s faces. Smiles turned to twisted rage. Tears of joy became tears of anger, sadness and rage all at once, and then, much more quickly than I would have anticipated, the rage and anger turned to resignation. People hugged each other and got down to work. What do we do now? What is the next step? How do we proceed? “I’m lost,” a friend declared. “What more can we do? This is very bad because many people might now see violence as the only way to get rid of him.”

Yet the mood was not grim or even desperate as one might have imagined as the night wore on. At 1am the square was still packed. At 3am it was still more than half full and people were furiously drumming and chanting and marching. No one wanted to leave, perhaps because they imagined that tomorrow would be a very bloody day. I would end up sleeping at the square – well not sleeping, but I didn’t feel safe to go home during the night. At least in Tahrir I knew I would not be touched.

The discussions kept going. I’m sure that somewhere in or out of the square the main organisers, including some of my friends, were trying to coordinate an action. Two nights before people had spontaneously marched to the parliament and almost took it, but not enough came. The army wasn’t there at first, but once they got there in force there was no way to take it, so they decided to camp out and stake their claim, which still stands as I write this.

But the failure to take the parliament when it was still there for the taking revealed a need to coordinate and plan better. And so in the night, thousands of people marched to the TV centre, knowing that they probably couldn’t take it physically since it was protected by Mubarak’s presidential guard, but at least could surround it and keep people from going in or out. Later in the morning an anchor person on Egyptian television had to apologise that it was only him and no guests because, “no one could get in or out”. It was surprising to hear him say that, but it was clearly a code to the people watching to let them know what was really going on.

Perhaps the most surreal scene occurred around 6.30am when the square started to wake up. All of a sudden people were organised into exercise groups, and about 100 people actually started jogging briskly in the damp, cold and foggy morning air around the circle at the centre of Tahrir. I certainly wasn’t going to join them and don’t know how people who had literally been living there for weeks had the energy to do this. But such is life in the square.

At around 7.30am I headed back to the Zamalek neighbourhood across the July 26 bridge that meets the square and took a shower and had breakfast. I met an old friend and musical comrade, Shung, the founder of the Egyptian oriental metal band Beyond East, with whom I headed to the square. He was wearing an Iron Maiden shirt and as soon as we got there I snapped a photo and sent it to Maiden’s manager, who has been very supportive while I’ve been here. It’s nice to know that people care even as they are in the middle of the craziness of their own lives, which in Maiden’s case happens to be the middle of a world tour. We talked about music and life and how incredible and crazy this was. “It’s really metal,” was both of our opinions.

As we entered the square it was time for the noon prayer. The square was already as packed as on Tuesday. It was almost impossible to move. As we talked past an overflowing mosque along the side of the square, an imam who was leading prayer outside for the thousands of worshippers who couldn’t get inside was preaching about remaining peaceful. Shung was moved: “This is what Islam should be, what the true Islam is, finally coming out in Egypt.” As we walked past another group praying, we caught sight of a man standing on top of a lamp post at least 60 feet in the air, prostrating in prayer. It was amazing. One false move and he’d fall to his certain death. But he completed his prayers without missing a beat, as did at least three to four hundred thousand fellow worshippers.

The second prayers were done the chanting began. It was so loud and furious, but still peaceful. People seem determined not to lose the spirit of nonviolence even as news filtered in that in Suez dozens had been killed.

We were in a waiting phase. People were moving all over the city trying to take over this and that, especially the presidential palace and the TV centre. As the army released a second bayan seemingly backing Mubarak people seemed even more resolved to continue this revolution to the end, bloody or peaceful.

The next step was clearly up to the army. It is clear which way the soldiers in the square, who’ve been living with the people for almost a month, hope it goes. They don’t want violence. They, like everyone else, just want to go home.

Let’s hope their superiors get the message. If they don’t, Egypt could wake up tomorrow in a sea of blood. Yet Shung remained optimistic. “This is good, all this peacefulness. It’s fine, the birth pains of a new Egypt. Inshallah, everything will be okay.”

I hope he’s right, and quite likely neither of us will be leaving the square until we find out.


It is now about one hour since Mubarak’s resignation was announced. I had just finished filming Shung above the crowd in an apartment used by activists and journalists as a safe house and place to debrief and meet up. The mother of Khaled Said, the 28-year-old Egyptian who died in police custody on an Alexandria street last year, arrived. The last thing Shung said as we were filming him, with the sun setting behind the Intercontinental Hotel, was: “I hope this is the last sunset of the system.”

Al Jazeera, as usual, was blasting in the background, seemingly the usual filler as there was nothing much to report. Suddenly there were screams of joy, sheer joy, and everyone ran for the terrace. Within about ten seconds, somehow, the entire square knew what had happened: The Pharaoh was gone. Everyone started to weep; it didn’t matter what country you were from. Suddenly this wasn’t just Egypt’s revolution, it was the world’s, or at least ours, who had been there for all the days and weeks leading up to it.

People in the apartment surrounded Said’s mother, she was crying tears of joy while hugging a pillow with his picture embroidered on it. Right away we headed down to the square and as soon as we left the building confronted a tank on which at least two dozen people were standing with the soldiers, shouting and singing and waving Egyptian flags. Amr Khaled, the popular television preacher and host, climbed on top (or at least that is who it appeared to be). Someone quipped: “He’s gonna claim credit for it.” We left, and we didn’t care if he did. It was almost impossible to move. I suppose this was what the liberation of Paris must have felt like.

We have been in the square for a couple of hours. Everyone is hugging. A deaf man grabbed me and signed to me the history of the last day. I don’t know sign language but I knew exactly what he meant. He shook my hand and moved on. The happiest people are definitely the tent people. It is hard to conceive of their sacrifice, even when you’ve spent nights in the square. They have lived this revolution, and in a very real sense it is theirs. But if the rest of the world is smart, they will claim it too, before it
loses momentum. As several people said to me, in reality, the revolution has just begun.

As Shung said goodbye and prepared to disappear into the crowd, I said to him: “I guess this really is like Woodstock.”

“Yeah,” he replied. “And Hendrix played.”

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.