Atlantic Monthly

“Hold Up Your Head!” An Egyptian Festival

Originally appeared in The Atlantic.

CAIRO, Egypt — One longs to know what finally convinced Hosni Mubarak to relinquish his office. What, as of this afternoon, did he see that he could not have seen before? By the end of January, he must have known that his people were desperate to be rid of him. By the end of last week, they showed they were prepared to fight and die. And by yesterday night, after his weird and deluded speech failed to mollify crowds and instead pumped them full of wrath, he must have known that the movement would metastasize beyond Tahrir Square, and that by staying in power he was only making things worse.

One theory: He was watching his own state television network. This afternoon around three o’clock, a crowd of about 1,000 people had the entrance of the building blocked, in an effort to send a message that could penetrate even the waxy ears of official State media. The crowd’s cheers were led by a girl, no older than six, but with the lungs developed far beyond her years. Riding the shoulders of a man, probably at her father, she screamed the familiar incantations of Egyptian democracy, and the crowd screamed with her. Five minutes after she started, I saw her thwack her dad on the back, like a horse: she wanted not to face the crowd, but instead to face the M1 tanks and freshly stretched razor wire that stood between her and the state television building. If Mubarak was looking at the live raw feed from the windows of that building, he would have seen the glare of a child, fixed with bravery and loathing, and leading a crowd of thousands. How can one look back at that and continue in office is beyond me, and perhaps proved beyond him, too.

Tonight, when the announcement of Mubarak’s resignation percolated through Cairo’s alleys, car horns confirmed the news before Twitter did. For the last several hours, the horns have not stopped. Not only in Tahrir, but also parts of Cairo so-far untouched by rioting, the refrain is “We are Egyptians: Hold up your head.” This is entirely apposite, for a movement that Mubarak tried to slander as a foreign plot. But it’s also something one has heard in Tahrir for many days. A man with a bandage told me he had applied for a visa to Canada but no longer had any intention of using it, because of the pride he felt in his country. Mubarak, he said, had defamed and befouled a great civilization. “Now I will never leave this place,” he said. “This is my country. I finally discovered this.”

There are, now, few reminders of the squalid last moments of Mubarak’s dictatorship. The curfew, imposed as an inconvenience to make the protests unpopular, is completely ignored. The bridges I once scurried across furtively late at night in hopes that I wouldn’t be noticed and arrested, are now packed with cars and crowds, who are setting off firecrackers and engaging in light celebratory pyromania. Pieces of sheet metal crinkle underfoot: These were the barricades, now disassembled and trampled. The song of choice, played no fewer than five times in succession this evening near Talaat Harb Square, is Shadia’s “Ya Habibti Ya Masr” — “Oh Egypt, My Beloved.”

And where to now? When the sun rises tomorrow on an Egypt that is so much closer to democracy, it will shine first on Sharm al Sheikh, where Mubarak fled this afternoon and is, one presumes, on the phone at this very minute to verify reports that his family assets in Swiss banks have been frozen. I’ve met almost no one in Tahrir willing to countenance amnesty for 30 years of corruption and tyranny, not to mention a crowning week of thuggery and murder. The crowds today are celebrating. Perhaps tomorrow will see a mass road trip to the Sinai.

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