Originally appeared in The Atlantic.
CAIRO, Egypt — Unless you count the dummies that they’ve been hanging in effigy from lampposts for the last week, the protesters in Tahrir Square have been remarkably nonviolent in the imagery they’ve used against Hosni Mubarak. Tonight that equanimity began melting away. Not long before Mubarak came on television to speak, two men carried into the crowd a banner depicting Mubarak as Pharaoh. In one image he wore a King Tut/Yul Brynner headdress, and in the other he was dead and mummified.
Between the two images is a Koranic verse, implying that in death, Mubarak’s corpse would serve as a reminder to other tyrants:
So today We will save you in body that you may be to those who succeed you a sign.
There is an established history of comparing Egypt’s secular leaders to the pharoahs. When Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated, the killer’s first words after emptying his AK-47 into Sadat’s body were, “I have killed the pharaoh! I do not fear death!”
As Mubarak started his speech tonight, the crowd hushed and was ready to hear him out. They wanted celebration, not blood. They seemed ready to cheer and exult, and would surely have done so even if all Mubarak said was that he intended to resign immediately. He wouldnt even have had to agree to a fixed date for elections: A simple “I’m going” would have sufficed. Instead the crowd murmured in disbelief as Mubarak droned on, defiantly granting no substantive concession whatsoever.
Nervous tics in the crowd surfaced, and young mothers with toddlers up past their bedtime started packing their things in case the scene turned ugly. Tears gave way to anger in about 90 seconds, and by the end of the speech no one cared what Mubarak was saying. The protesters heard only themselves, yelling “Irhal,” or “Go away.”
Cellphone camera flashes had been popping like fireflies through the night. Now they ceased completely, and a few people looked angry at me when I took a few shots of my own. When Nasser cracked down on dissent, Egyptians used the phrase “zuwaar nuss al-layl,” or “midnight visitors,” to describe the knocks at the door by secret police. Were people suddenly worried that the crackdown might happen, and that snapshots would go into a secret police scrapbook somewhere? They were certainly worried about something.
I filed out of Tahrir with a crowd that kicked up dust as it went, like a cattle stampede. By now it was nearly midnight, and many who had come to watch history being made went home filled with rage. Others, in a group of a few hundred, marched to the state TV station — a heavily guarded building about a kilometer away — and were, as of a few minutes ago, chanting “Irhal” so furiously that one could hear them across the Nile and up and down the corniche.
If Mubarak hadn’t delayed so long, perhaps the protesters would still have had the energy to take the TV building outright. I have not seen the faces in the Square seem so bitter or fuming before; they looked like they wanted to overturn cars. Tonight was the closest Mubarak will ever get to a graceful exit.