A Million-Strong Festival for Freedom: Masses Celebrate Mubarak's Waning Power

By in Cairo

Tuesday saw the largest protests yet in Cairo as tens of thousands took to the streets demanding that President Hosni Mubarak step down. As demonstrators partied in the city center, the opposition vowed not to talk to the regime before Mubarak leaves the country.

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Was it hundreds of thousands? A half-million? Or even more? On Tuesday, no one in the Egyptian capital really cared to guess how many people had turned out; estimates put the figure as high as 2 million.

The vast number of people had already begun gathering by mid-day with their giant placards on central Cairo's Tahrir (Liberation) Square. The crowd grew by the hour, with ever more protesters arriving at the scene. They came in groups, many holding posters or signs, going straight to the heart of their revolution. This has to do with everything, they said, and they had one goal: to depose President Hosni Mubarak.

"We can sense the smell of freedom, and no more compromises are possible with Mubarak," said furniture-shop owner Mustafa Amer. "And we will stay as long as it takes for Mubarak to finally leave the country." Amer said it didn't matter to him if a million people had been there or 500,000.

The "march of millions," served as a powerful indicator of just how strong opposition to the president has grown and how weak Mubarak himself has become. In a matter of only days, a full popular movement has grown out of protests that commenced last week with tens of thousands of mostly young male students. On Tuesday, old men, supported by younger ones, struggled to make their way to a square overflowing with people. Women with children also joined in. Entire families came to protest against Egypt's man in power. One day after the army announced it would not use force against the protesters, the president, after 30 years in power, finds himself in a weaker position and more isolated than ever before.

The protesters' dream, at least their first one, appeared to have been fulfilled on Tuesday. The eroding state machinery was unable to stop them -- and that despite tremendous effort. The government again cut access to the Internet in Egypt, it stopped trains traveling to Cairo and it blocked roadways leading into the capital city. In the end, though, the protesters succeeded in sending an impressive signal out with the mass event -- both to their own country and to the world.

Now the protesters are hoping that Mubarak will come to fear the opposition and that the balance of power has shifted in their favor. "Now it is just a matter of time," said Safwan Kehr. The university professor had come to Tahrir Square together with his daughter Nadean and a friend. "The sooner he goes, the faster we will be able to finally transform this country," he said.

A Kind of Freedom Festival

It is important to the demonstrators that their voices are heard abroad. Again and again, they approach foreign reporters asking them for support. "Please tell the truth about how many of us there are here," one young man beseeches. He had just seen the official version of events on state television. Instead of showing video of the masses gathered on Tahrir Square, the channel preferred to broadcast images from pro-Mubarak rallies throughout much of the day. In the afternoon, state TV did finally mention that there had been protests in Cairo, but said only 5,000 people had participated. While such reporting isn't likely to weaken the demonstrations, it does show to what degree Mubarak's regime is still willing to ignore reality.

Those on Liberation Square, for their part, are already celebrating as though Mubarak was gone. The bloody conflicts of earlier in the week have given way to a kind of freedom festival. There are men distributing sesame breads and dates, others deliver package after package of bottled water. Volunteers collect the waste. "Give a donation for the president," says one of the men, carrying a plastic garbage bag. "We'll soon be giving him all the garbage as a going-away present." Just a few days ago, such a joke would have been cause for arrest and abuse. On Tuesday, laughter was the only response.

The remnants of state power spent the day circling low over the square, in the form of a helicopter. The demonstrators below shook their fists and shouted "Go away! Go away!" whenever the pilot passed over. The chant has become something of a slogan for the protest movement, and most often it is reserved for Mubarak. The military, which has parked tanks on the square, has essentially become part of the revolt. The soldiers on duty are primarily focused on crowd control and on searching the arriving protesters for weapons.

'Mubarak No Longer Has a Future'

While the people of Cairo chant in the city streets, opposition leaders have indicated that they will not enter into a compromise deal with Mubarak. Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is seen as a likely leader of a transitional government, said on Tuesday that there would be no talks with the current regime before Mubarak leaves the country. The crowds on Liberation Square cheered his remarks. Not long later, the head of the influential opposition group Muslim Brotherhood took to the airwaves. He too said that Mubarak's departure is the precondition for dialogue with the regime.

The resistance leaders' hardline stance mean that Mubarak's stratagem -- perhaps his last -- has conclusively failed. Just hours before the beginning of the giant demo, Mubarak had his newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, address the country on state TV. Suleiman said late on Monday evening that Mubarak had authorized him to hold talks with all political groups. He even announced far-reaching changes to the Egyptian constitution. But his announcement, which would have caused a sensation had it been made before the revolution in Tunisia, came much too late.

Probably the most important message from Tuesday's protests was that the popular uprising is now unstoppable. "A few days ago, I might have agreed to a compromise," one demonstrator told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "But when I saw the crowds this morning, I understood that Mubarak no longer has a future."

The president himself is keeping a very low profile. Even his appearance on state television offers no proof that he is still in Cairo. Some observers believe that the once omnipotent ruler is already in Sharm el-Sheikh on the Red Sea. From there, it would only be a short boat ride to Saudi Arabia, where he could claim asylum.

A Swift Exit?

But nobody can predict exactly what Mubarak's demise might look like. The news that the president has left the country could be broadcast at any minute. After Tuesday's events, the US can no longer ignore the massive protests, even if up until now it was still clearly hoping to arrange a dignified exit for its close ally Mubarak, possibly through swift new elections without his participation. One of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's top diplomats is currently negotiating behind the scenes, after being hastily flown in. But the US State Department can hardly recommend any other course of action for Mubarak than a swift departure.

The demonstrators, for their part, plan to continue. Admittedly, the planned march to the presidential palace did not take place on Tuesday, at least not before sundown. Nevertheless, Tahrir Square will remain in the hands of the opposition. By Friday at the latest, the protesters want to show their power by marching to Mubarak's stronghold -- assuming the despot hasn't thrown in the towel by then.

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