Originally appeared in The Atlantic.
CAIRO, Egypt — The demonstrators have been calling today “the day of departure” for Hosni Mubarak and, with their mission complete, presumably for themselves, too. Many protesters have been in Tahrir Square for as long as a week — exhausted from stress, from having to sleep body-to-body on cold pavement and patchy grass, and from having to improvise (with miraculous effect) a static defense strategy against an enemy with virtually limitless supply lines.
And yet today it seemed as if many of the protesters want never to leave. The atmosphere a few days ago was doomed but resolute, like the last days of the Alamo. Now it was ecstatic, with an optimism that seemed wholly warranted. “We understand Mubarak’s strategy, and we reject him,” a young man who spent five days in the square told me. “This is a place of liberation [tahrir], not negotiation. Over our dead bodies.” Two days ago those last words might have been sounded prophetic, but now they sounded merely figurative.
Cairenes poured into the square from several directions and in enormous numbers. The most heavily trafficked entry point, Kasr el Nil bridge, had multiple orderly queues, hundreds of yards long, with a wide cross-section of Egyptian society. Until late yesterday, the bridge was held by the Mubarak supporters. This morning, the only sign that the Mubarakites had been there was the disrepair of the base of the statue in the center of Opera Square, at the far end of the bridge from Tahrir. The stone had been broken up for throwing. Now those chunks of pink granite are stockpiled in Tahrir near the protesters’ barricades, ready as ammunition against the next attack.
“This is a place of liberation, not negotiation. Over our dead bodies.”Using a tape measure and chalkmarks on the ground, the protesters organized themselves into neat lines for Friday prayer. So many newcomers appeared in the prayer lines that the bandaged heads were in the minority, although many still wore the headgear — including hardhats and hunting caps — that protected them as they dodged rocks yesterday. I asked a man with a thick callous on his forehead (a zabiba or “raisin,” developed from years of placing one’s forehead on the ground to pray) how he kept performing ritual ablutions without water. He said that when you’re away from water and engaged in a just or holy cause, you can clean yourself not with water but with tayammum, the ritual striking of the earth with the palms. The cause of unseating Mubarak easily qualified, he said.
After prayers, the heads popped up like a hundred thousand jack-in-the-boxes, and fists pumped in the air to the chant of “Leave!” Next came a rendition of “My Country, My Country, My Country,” the national anthem.
Mahmoud Awad, 35, approached me after prayers, with a forwardness that probably served him well in his former business as one of Tahrir Square’s famously pushy tour guides. He wanted to go on the offensive, and said he wouldn’t be satisfied even if Mubarak left. What he wanted was justice. “We will follow him everywhere. We will trap him,” Awad said. “He stole our dreams, and we will never let him go.”
The hatred is of course mutual. A café manager chased me out through his doors a few minutes ago in Zamalek, because a crowd of Mubarakites was on its way through to meet up with another Mubarakite group in Mohandiseen, and he wanted to shutter the business until they passed. Mohandiseen is on the other side of the Nile, in a business-dominated area with relatively strong Mubarak support. So far, Mubarakites have barely arrived at Tahrir to begin the day’s attacks. When they arrive, they will find an opposing force that is physically, materially, and spiritually resupplied, and harder to dislodge than it has ever been.