x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Protesters and soldiers dance in the streets

Even members of Egypt's military could not resist joining the protesters to celebrate the end of Hosni Mubarak's nearly 30 years in power.

CAIRO // They had mostly stood aside, little more than onlookers to events that have changed Egypt's history. But last night, even members of Egypt's military could not resist joining the protesters to celebrate the end of Hosni Mubarak's nearly 30 years in power.

Some soldiers stepped away from their tanks and armoured personnel carriers, took off their helmets and embraced their fellow Egyptians in Cairo's Tahrir Square. They also sang along with the chants denouncing Mr Mubarak and joined the protesters, singing, hugging and boasting huge smiles.

"He's gone! Wallah [really], I can't believe he's actually gone," yelled 20-year-old Mustafa Shalabi, who was jumping up and down with two friends, all of them students at Cairo University.

"We've been here for 17 days! And the people won!"

The bridges leading out of the square were packed with people, waving flags and set on celebrating through the night. Youths hung from the windows of their cars, flashing peace signs and grabbing hugs from passing pedestrians.

Later, fireworks lit the sky above the square where so many people had made their homes in their determination to change Egypt's political landscape.

Some soldiers remained on top of tanks, guns in hand, watching the droves of people moving in and out of the square with vigilance. Perhaps in a sign of tensions to come, protesters chanted to these soldiers, shouting: "The people! The army! One hand!"

"The people are like a big bonfire that keeps having gas thrown on it. The more the government denied us our rights, we kept exploding. And look at us now," said Ali, 37, who works in the petroleum industry.

The festive mood followed perhaps the most disappointing evening for protesters during the 18 days of demonstrations that have gripped Egypt's 80 million people. Less than 24 hours earlier, Mr Mubarak had rebuffed the protesters and vowed to stay on until a new leader was elected in September. That made yesterday's news of his exit from power all the more dramatic.

For some, the moment was met with relief. Ahmed Mustafa, 33, simply dropped to his knees and kissed the cold, hard concrete. "Now I can say that I own this land," he said calmly. "Egypt is mine".

Earlier in the day, many had been speaking about a war of attrition. While determined not to give in, they acknowledged that their president was also determined to cling to power.

They began devising new strategies to cripple the pillars of his rule, such as sit-ins at the presidential palace and demonstrations in front of the Egyptian state television building.

Swarms of people began storming the area around the building of the state-run television network, located on the corniche. There, the groups also hoped to carve out a piece of territory they could occupy in the same way they had taken over Tahrir Square.

The idea, apparently, was to cordon off and eventually isolate the remaining employees and prevent them from continuing to work at the television building, while avoiding clashes with the soldiers guarding the building.

The mood yesterday seemed a long way from the violent scenes of the previous week. One man, leading a group of demonstrators to the television building, approached several soldiers guarding the road. He kissed them on the cheek, and they let the crowds pass.

But for some, the jubilation was tempered by worries of what lies ahead for Egypt.

In the moments following the announcement that Mr Mubarak was standing down, Omar Helmy, an 18-year-old English literature student, convened an informal meeting with his friends in the square. Asked why they were so serious, Mr Helmy spoke about issues related to building democracy, such as the constitution and elections.

Then he spoke of the military. "We respect the army, but we need the next step to be one that pushes the people away from military rule," he said.

"We've only reached the beginning."