Glen Johnson

From dark days to frenzied joy

February 13, 2011 Herald on Sunday

Midan Tahrir had turned into a seething crush of bodies. A deafening blur of sound and light. People jumped up and down on the spot. One elderly man grabbed my head between his hands, enraptured, and let out a long yell: “Mabrook” (congratulations). Then he began hitting the top of his head, chanting “mabrook, mabrook”.

Ten minutes earlier Hosni Mubarak had resigned and Cairo had exploded.

In the square it was impossible to move at will. People beat hand-drums, chanting “Allahu Akhbar”.

A young man put his arms around me, offering a cigarette “Egypt’s best cigarette”, he said before saying this was the first free moment of his life.

“I have freedom. I know what freedom is,” he screamed.

Someone in an apartment above the square leaned out a window, igniting spray from a deodorant can, to cheers from the crowd.

Young men hung off the top of street poles, waving Egyptian flags. Laser pointers darted across the surfaces of buildings. A young woman told me that “the dog has gone”.

Leaving the square I headed east then cut down towards the Ministry of Interior.

On day five of the protests, these streets had been a place of terror. I had hid in an alley, while the remnants of the security forces fired riot guns – essentially shotguns that fire non-lethal ammunition.

The street had been thick with tear-gas as men, keffiyeh wrapped around their faces, clashed with the riot police.

Now, a group of women ran down the street, waving flags. Smiles spread wide. Hundreds of people danced in the street, taking up chants.

Heading up to Talaat Harb, north of Midan Tahrir, I saw an older woman standing on a parked car, screaming, head faced to the sky, as fireworks exploded above her. A crowd chanted and clapped their hands around her.

Heading west, I passed hundreds celebrating near one of the fortifications people built to protect themselves from attacks by Mubarak’s supporters on days nine and 10.

Every 5m lay a pile of stones, hundreds of chunks of torn street, a stockpile of weapons in anticipation of any violence.

At the north end of Midan Tahrir people were eating popcorn. Dancing in circles.

One man had wrapped Egyptian flags around himself, from his feet to his head. A young woman tapped me on the shoulder, then hugged me.

I headed as far north as I could and looked at a building.

On day 10 I had stood on the roof of the building, the main frontline of the clashes below me. The stink of petroleum, from the hundreds of petrol bombs thrown over the past few hours, lingered in the air.

I headed back to Talaat Harb and along downtown Cairo’s main street. It was filled with cars. Hundreds of flags waving from windows. An unbelievable blaring of horns. Celebratory gunshots.

I headed east to a human rights centre I had visited a few days earlier. The door had been kicked in, computers wrecked and papers strewn around.

But now I saw two elderly women – one wearing the abbayya and niqab, the other with a modern haircut and denim jacket, arm in arm.

Finally, I walked to a street I had visited on day two of the protests. A woman wearing the niqab passed me. Through the small slit in the garment, her eyes beamed.

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