The news rippled through the crowd slowly at first. Shouts erupted: "He's gone! He's gone! He's out!" Some people were more cautious, after so many false alarms over the past few days. "No, no," said one man, shaking his finger disbelievingly. There had been immense anger and disappointment in Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak had refused to step down the night before. This might be more reason to despair.
But despite overwhelmed phone networks, it quickly became apparent that the news was true: Mubarak had stepped down. A 30-year-old Middle East dictatorship had fallen. Elation spread through the crowd. "Freedom! Freedom!" people shouted, jumping up and down and almost knocking one another over. Soon another chant eclipsed the cries of liberty. It was one that had been used earlier, more as a mantra of hope as tension gripped the country, but now as a confirmation of the truth: "The army and the people are of one hand."
As the Arab's world's most populous country exploded into an impromptu celebration party, complete with fireworks, horns and even a fire breather, the picture that the coming days would bring remained fuzzy. "This is not victory it is just the first step," says Khamis Desouky, 31, an imam from Alexandria who spent the past two weeks in Tahrir Square. "Mubarak and his regime must be held accountable. Victory will be when we have democracy, freedom, justice, liberty and equality."
Shortly after thousands touched their heads to the asphalt for the evening prayer, Vice President Omar Suleiman spoke to the nation in a brief address, saying Mubarak had resigned and that the military was in control. But it was unclear what the Vice President's role would be. As Mubarak's right-hand man, largely seen as an extension of the old regime, Suleiman had been widely vilified by Egypt's revolutionaries. Many said they would not tolerate a Suleiman-led government. But others believed that possibility was already out of the question. "The regime is gone," says Khaled Tantawy, a member of Egypt's largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. And that includes Suleiman: "I think the army will not allow him to rule. We were expecting yesterday that Mubarak was going to leave, but it seemed like there was a struggle between Mubarak and Suleiman on one side and the army on the other."
If that was the case, then what happened in Egypt could be considered a coup. And Egyptians were already cautioning that the military's role would have to be temporary. "I think the next period will see a lot of changes, especially in the constitution," says Tantawy, who believes that the army will be true to its promise to oversee constitutional reforms that will pave the way for a freer presidential election with judicial oversight.
Will that be enough to end Egypt's revolutionary protests on their 18th day? While many in Tahrir Square said it was time to pack up and go home, others offered the reminder that the fall of Mubarak was just one of the protesters' demands and that more work was still to be done. "Until the people's assembly steps down, until the emergency rule is removed, until we have a civilian government, the people in Tahrir Square will keep protesting until their demands are met." Says Desouky, the imam: "We may not stay in the square, but if these demands are not met, we will be back."
Beyond the military cordons surrounding the square, jubilant protesters moved along lines of soldiers, shaking their hands and hugging them. Men who wore flags as capes and women who had their faces painted the colors of the flag stood with soldiers to have their pictures taken. Protesters congratulated one another, and young men danced and sang excitedly in the square. "Welcome to the new Egypt," said one.
Egypt's fractious opposition, which had displayed rare unity since November's rigged parliamentary elections that had seen a ruling-party sweep, had yet to indicate a game plan as of Friday night, Feb. 11. But the Brotherhood's Tantawy predicts that the opposition will stay quiet for at least the next few days to allow the army to secure the country.
For weeks, Mubarak's allies in Washington and Jerusalem have anxiously watched Egypt's uprising unfold, fearful that a post-Mubarak Egypt could rattle regional stability and long-held alliances. But President Barack Obama struck a congratulatory tone in his speech Friday night, promising Egyptians that the United States would be "a partner" on the road ahead. And the protesters, for their part, said Egypt would be more stable without a dictator. "For 20 days, we were always peaceful. We were never violent. In this square, there is no discrimination, class or religion here. We are all Egyptians, and we did this together," says Desouky.
Egypt's military toed a fine line in its address to the nation following Suleiman's announcement, thanking Mubarak for his years of service while simultaneously expressing admiration for the many "martyrs" who died in the weeks of unrest.
But having the military step in is only, as many hope, a temporary measure, one that does not guarantee that democracy has been achieved. "No one is going home until we have a civilian government, not a military government," said Mohammad Ali, a government bureaucrat, in the moments after the news broke. "No," shouted Mohammad Abdel Salaam, "we have to have elections first. The army has to rule for 60 days." As the two men faced off, a debate ensued around them, foreshadowing the challenges Egypt will face in the weeks ahead.
But on Friday night, most people were absorbed in the moment. Within the hour after the announcement broke, thousands poured into the square, showing up by the vanload to join the party. Yasmin Nassar, along with her sister and extended family, was among them. "I was watching TV, and I heard," Nassar says, her green eyes twinkling through the slit in her black veil. "We are here to celebrate. This means freedom. Before, it was like we were not humans. You couldn't say your opinion freely." Inside the square, Imam Desouky gives in to the spirit of the moment. "After I am convinced that all my demands are met, I will leave," he says. "I will go back to Alexandria, to my mosque. But here I am only an Egyptian. I want to go out and kiss some girls."