Egyptians' Tahrir Square celebration turns bitter as Mubarak refuses to leave

By Ernesto Londono and Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 10:53 PM

CAIRO - The mood shifted quickly in Tahrir Square on Thursday night, from euphoria, to quiet, and then to anger.

Until President Hosni Mubarak began to speak, there had been kissing, hugging, even dancing, with a feeling that victory was near.

The crowd fell silent to listen to the president, but it was only a few minutes before the demonstrators recognized that their hopes would not be met.

"He's not leaving," people muttered. Their shouts grew louder and their fury rose, many lifting shoes in the air, the rudest Arab insult. "Leave! Leave! Leave!"

For 17 days, emotions have ebbed and flowed in Tahrir Square. But Thursday, the sentiment swung more wildly than ever, from exultant joy to the most bitter contempt for a regime has stubbornly clung to power in the face of a popular uprising.

The crowd had begun to gather near sunset, fueled by rumors and government statements that seemed to suggest that Mubarak was ready to accede to protesters' demands and announce that he would step down, ending his nearly 30 years of authoritarian rule.

The square was so crowded that it was difficult to move. But many Egyptians felt safe enough to bring their children. Kids sat atop their fathers' shoulders, waving flags and swaying to the beat of drums.

Mohammed Abdul Magd, 31, brought his wife and their two toddlers to the square when he heard that Mubarak would be addressing the nation.

He wanted them to bear witness to what he thought would be his country's rebirth.

"Today is like their birthday," he said, holding his little girl Joweriyah, 3.

A folk singer sang to the crowds that "victory was coming."

Commemorative T-shirts were being sold for $2.

Some had painted their faces in red, white and black - the colors of the Egyptian flag.

"Tonight is your last night!" they shouted to Mubarak.

Some chants turned urgent, derisive and crude. Effigies of Mubarak were hung from lampposts, with a noose around the neck.

One protester displayed a montage including a photograph of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein being walked to the gallows.

For all the simmering anger, the crowd sang along when the national anthem was played on scratchy speakers. And it fell silent when the president's image appeared on a crooked white sheet strung between two light posts in the square.

But it quickly became clear that Mubarak was not going anywhere.

Long before he finished speaking, people were yelling at the screen in anger, and some vowed to escalate their campaign with a march scheduled for Friday.

"Tomorrow afternoon we will demolish his palace!" people chanted.

"Where is the Egyptian military?" others cried out angrily, referring to a statement issued earlier in the day by army commanders that had seemed to suggest the military might push the president out of the way.

Magd's wife, Zaineb Ahmed, held her daughter in her arms.

"My hopes and dreams just collapsed," the woman said.

Just after the speech, Tarek Waheed left the square with his head down.

Mubarak "doesn't understand. I feel that something terrible will happen," he said.

Another man, Salah Shbek, laughed bitterly from his perch in the crowd.

"I don't believe this dirty man," the lawyer said of Mubarak. "Tomorrow there will be war."

londonoe@washpost.com fadell@washpost.com

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