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Cairo Dispatch: Can't Touch This

Mubarak's speech only invigorated the protest community in Tahrir Square.

Cairo, Egypt—Early Thursday evening, Tahrir Square was full of optimism. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was going to address the nation, and everyone was debating what he was going to say. People had heard he was going to resign; they thought the movement that has swept Egypt for the last 17 days, shutting down the country, might finally have succeeded. There was a carnival-like atmosphere: People hugged, wrung each other’s hands, bought popcorn and tea from vendors, chanted, and sang songs.

It was a high point for the protest community that has taken root in the heart of Cairo. The sense of elation would soon flag and turn to fury, as the reality of Mubarak’s speech sunk in—but the community, critically, would remain strong.

Tayssir Ibrahim, 31, said he hadn’t been politically active before the protests began on January 25. He said going to a rally on that first day felt like “a big joke,” but he changed his tune after being in the crowd. “I couldn’t sleep that night,” he said. He has come to Tahrir everyday since. “For the first time in my life, I thought this is something to die for.” His friends in the square have become his family.

Also high on the atmosphere of the event, a new friend of Ibrahim’s, Haysam El Maghraby, his tall lanky frame towering over his group of friends, insisted these protests have created a little utopia in Cairo. Friends can mingle, hopes are strong, and everyone has something to eat; even the streets are clean. “We’re going to expand Midan Tahrir, until it’s everywhere,” he said.

When Mubarak finally took the air, people surged toward sound-system speakers set up in the square. The massive crowd fell silent, and some covered their faces. It was a speech that could change everything.

But, soon, they heard what they had hoped they would not: Mubarak announced he would stay in power until elections in September, only delegating some powers to his new Vice President Omar Suleiman. No longer silent, the crowd rippled with anger, hissing as the speech continued—as Mubarak again reiterated his position and pledged to deal with the current “crisis.” When the speech ended, cries of dismay and an immediate chanting of “Leave!” erupted. An argument near me broke out over whether or not to march to the presidential palace immediately—or wait until tomorrow.

The last time Mubarak spoke last week, pro-regime rallies swept the city, ending in violence and an assault on the peaceful, anti-Mubarak protestors gathered in the square. There were concerns that Thursdsay’s speech would spur new violence. “It’s disgusting,” a young man named Mohab Wahby told me. “He’s using the same tactics of divide and conquer. He wants to divide us, but he won’t.”

At that point, El Maghraby ran over. “I’m going to take the glue Mubarak’s using to stay in his seat, and I’m going to rub it all over Tahrir, then I’m going to stay here for thirty years,” he proclaimed. As the crowd seethed, the friends agreed that, tomorrow, they would see each other back in Tahrir.

Sarah A. Topol is a freelance journalist based in Cairo.

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