By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 11, 2011; 10:25 PM
CAIRO - It was sparked on social-networking sites, and inspired by a revolution in Tunisia. In 18 days, it grew into something astounding - a leaderless people's movement that at every turn outsmarted a government with an almost unblemished 30-year record of suppressing dissent.
On Friday, pro-democracy demonstrators achieved through peaceful and determined protests what only a month ago had seemed impossible: They forced President Hosni Mubarak from office.
"Mubarak thought he was God," Ali Asam, 50, said as he stood just outside Tahrir Square, named after the Arabic word for liberation. "He killed the people, he beat the people, and we won."
In the end, images of riot police and pro-government thugs attacking and killing unarmed civilians are what broke Mubarak. Rather than force people off the streets through intimidation, the violence simply galvanized more to join the revolt.
The government's efforts to control the message by cutting off the Internet and phones, and by arresting scores of journalists and activists, similarly backfired. Each day, ever greater numbers of Egyptians turned out to the square to see for themselves the movement reshaping their country.
"They wanted to scare us," said Al-Marwa Mostafa Fahray, 33. Her face beamed as her two young daughters chanted with the crowd.
Fahray had never been politically involved before the past 18 days. She had a comfortable life with her husband and children. But she watched the security forces detain hundreds of people and kill hundreds more. She could no longer sit back, she said.
"I knew even if I had to die, or even if my kids had to die, I should come and fight with the people; you have to sacrifice to get something great," she said Friday night as impromptu dance parties broke out across the capital.
Despite the government's efforts to sow violence that could be pinned on the demonstrators, the vast majority did not take the bait.
In the first days of the protests, they were attacked with high-pressure water hoses, tear gas, birdshot, rubber bullets and live ammunition. Protesters responded with rocks, but also with pamphlets instructing demonstrators to appeal to the police as fellow Egyptians.
When police withdrew from the streets and prisoners were released from their cells, Egyptians formed security committees to protect their neighborhoods. And when pro-Mubarak forces - many of them thought to be paid thugs and undercover police - attacked anti-government demonstrators, the protesters fought back but did not escalate the violence.
More than 300 people were killed over the past 18 days, with each death giving the movement more momentum. In Tahrir Square, posters of the dead grace every corner. A curly haired girl named Sally, a man named Hassan, a boy named Mohammed.
"You will not be forgotten," many of the posters say.
On Friday night in Tahrir Square, the euphoria was intoxicating and the joy unparalleled, as women and men made up songs to celebrate their victory. The Qasr Al Nil Bridge that leads to the square was filled with people blowing horns and swaying to the music blasting from cars.
"Hold your head up high. You are Egyptian," protesters chanted after the announcement that Mubarak would step down.
People wept for the dead, but with pride and a sense of nationalism that they said they had never had before. A circle of men and women chanted to the beat of a drum, "You can sleep peacefully now," a reference to those who were killed.
"This is the holiest place on the planet," said Hassan Abu Baqr. The university professor came to the square from the hospital, where his granddaughter had been born just as Mubarak's ouster was announced. He calls her the "liberation baby."
He stood on the side of the road and congratulated each person who passed him.
"Where else on the planet do you have a people that overthrow their dictator completely peacefully," he said.
Nearby, Marwan Saleh, 34, stood silent and absorbed every moment. By phone, he updated his Facebook status to tell people about the joy, the flags waving in the air and the songs being sung about the love of Egypt. For now the battle was over. The battle was won, he said.
"Today, finally, after all these days, after all the injustices, after all the killing. Now it's time to enjoy and celebrate," he said. "We will never forget the people who died for this."