In Tahrir Square, Egyptians sense they are part of a turning point in history

Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 2, 2011

CAIRO - As thousands upon thousands of demonstrators converged Tuesday on Tahrir Square, and spilled over onto the streets that flow into it, the chants and signs were about their desire to be rid of President Hosni Mubarak. But the mood at times seemed to be one of surprise as much as anything else - surprise that they could do this.

And as more people kept pouring in throughout the day, it was clear that a contagion had set in. This was a place to be, this was a moment not to be afraid of - and even without the benefit of social media, cut off by the government, the message went out through Cairo by word of mouth, what businessman Hatem Azzam called "the oldest, simplest way."

So families brought children, people shared pastries and dried dates, everyone took everyone else's picture.

Even deep into the evening, a dwindling crowd remained, joined in derision as Mubarak announced that he would not be seeking reelection. "We demand his ouster and his sentencing," said Mahmoud Ibrahim, while others waved shoes in the air, a traditional Arab sign of disrespect.

Behind the long day's exhilaration was a sense of free will under a careful and tentative test. Some in the crowd realized that they were on the verge of throwing off more than the shackles of a 30-year autocratic regime; this was a personal moment, too.

"They are thinking about us as nothing," said Abd al-Rahman, a 24-year-old English teacher, referring to the men around Mubarak. "But we have to change ourselves. It's not about Mubarak. It's about the whole culture. Everything."

From the earliest school years, he said, "They are putting our minds in chains." The teacher is god; the professor is god; the boss is god; the president is god. "Well, where is the space I need" - pointing at his own chest - "to make a new thing?"

He looked around. Here in Tahrir Square was the space. And something new was being made.

For Rahman it's about the freedom to ask questions. For others, it's about self-respect.

"I am not poor," Hatem el-Said said. "I have a lot of money. I own my own business. But I see people who can't afford to eat more than one meal a day. I can't accept that any longer."

He went to college in New York - "It doesn't matter which one," he said - and he learned to love American values, even as he believes that America itself has lost faith in those values, at home and especially abroad. But if the United States at least aspires to dignity and freedom and the pursuit of happiness, why, he asked, can't Egypt do the same?

He feels no fear now. "What's the worst that can happen? I'd rather lose my life than go on living this way," he said.

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