On the night of February 8, 2011, I was sitting in a dorm room at the American University in Cairo, watching on my laptop the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who were flooding the streets to celebrate the stepping down of then-President Hosni Mubarak.
The previous weeks, and in particular the last several days, had been filled with confusion, fear, and frustration throughout the entire country. It was hard to know what to believe anymore. As I watched the live-stream on Al-Jazeera, my phone rang. My friend Mads, one of two Danish journalism students I had gotten to know during the protests, told me that he and Frank would be heading into Tahrir (literally, "liberation") square, the epicenter of Cairo's downtown and the focal point of Egypt's revolution movement. He asked if I would like to join them.
I was apprehensive at first. I had had some bad experiences downtown just a few days earlier, and there were reports of foreign reporters or westerners in general being beaten or kidnapped. I told Mads to call me back when he was leaving, just in case. I sat back down and watched the scene unfold.
The entire square and downtown were packed with people waving flags, cheering, and singing. I knew I had to go down and see it. Just days ago the entire country had been disappointed by Mubarak's televised refusal to step down. Now it had finally happened, and they were reveling. I grabbed my wallet and jacket and ran outside to catch up with Mads, Frank, and our friend Adam.
On our way out of the campus we ran into our Egyptian friend, Said. For us, that night's announcement gave us hope that we might finally begin the semester we thought would never start. For Said, however, Mubarak's leaving meant much more - the triumph over a tyrant. For him, it was a celebration.
Outside the campus gates we all piled into a small green car. We weren't sure it was a taxi, but the driver seemed thrilled to be headed downtown. We took the long way into the city, hoping to avoid traffic, and ended up on the other side of the river from Tahrir in a suburb called Dokki. Along the way we saw cars decorated with lights and people screaming and singing out the windows. As we got closer, the traffic became so congested that people just parked in the middle of the street and began walking.
By then the street was loud with honking. Everyone was punching their horns in a rhythm that we would hear throughout the night. Somehow our taxi driver was able to drive while simultaneously filming everything around us with his phone. Fathers drove with children on their laps, who were waving flags. Entire families inched their way through the parked cars, and cameramen frantically ran around trying to capture the march into the city.
Eventually, we started walking as well and began to make our way toward the bridge that led across the Nile River into the center of Cairo. People were everywhere. Every child had an Egyptian flag. Anti-Mubarak signs and graffiti were all over the streets. There were also anti-American and anti-Israeli posters, condemning the powers that had come to be associated with Mubarak's oppressive regime. The military tanks, stationed throughout the city, were mobbed with people climbing up and taking pictures. Some soldiers were waving and smiling themselves, even taking photographs for other Egyptians.
We crossed a short bridge onto the island of Zamalek, in the middle of the Nile, where it only became more crowded. Traffic came at us in both directions - people moving toward the center and others leaving downtown. Said explained that many of those leaving were probably among the original protestors, men and women who had been inside the square for weeks, protesting every day. They were finally going home to rest after their victory.
When we reached the Qasr al-Nile Bridge, marked by four imposing lion statues stationed at each end, we stopped to take pictures of the crowds. Just five days earlier we had stood at this very spot, unsure of what lay ahead across the bridge. The tension we had felt that day was now gone. People asked where we were from - we were the only white people visible - but they were smiling and laughing, and we were shaking hands and saying, "Mabruk, mabruk," which meant "congratulations."
I took a photograph of Said and Mads atop a tank. A soldier was sitting among 40 or 50 Egyptians, who were all singing and chanting, "Enta masri, irfaa rasak fo!" ("You are Egyptian, raise your head high!") Some held drums, and many waved flags. Every military vehicle was covered with people. Even the lions at the bridge had people on top of them.
As we made our way toward the square, the crowds were overwhelming. I had never seen - nor likely will ever see again - so many people in one place. Back near the bridge, some cars had still tried to make their way forward. Here, it was only people on foot.
We slowly made our way into Tahrir, and Said kept pointing around, saying, "Look, look at all these people, it shows how much we all really hated Mubarak." We were lightly searched by protestors as we made our way down the boulevard and slowly pushed along into the square. Said, Mads, and I all locked arms to stay together, but in the considerable jostling and commotion we got separated Frank and Adam.
Our goal was to get inside to the very center, where the grass rotary had virtually become a tent city, a home to protestors during the long encampment. Pushing our way forward, we found a less crowded spot facing the main administrative building and tried to look for our friends. Cell phones were useless in the chaos we had stumbled into.
Packed with so many people, Tahrir almost resembled the Ka'ba in Mecca during the annual hajj, with people circumambulating the center of the square, swarms of people on the outside standing and watching or moving out onto the side streets. By the time we were able to make some calls and eventually spot our friends in the crowd, we had spent almost three hours walking around, squeezing our way through the thousands of celebrating Egyptians. I was exhausted. We decided to head back to Zamalek to get something to eat.
A week earlier, turning the corner off the Qasr al-Nile bridge onto Zamalek was like passing between different worlds, leaving the confusion of the protests and entering into the rich, calm, green streets of Zamalek. But that night we turned the corner only to find more Egyptians, a continuation of the celebration.
On our march through downtown we had seen such diversity of people in the streets - women in designer clothes, carrying designer handbags and walking with their husbands; groups of teenage boys in jeans and dirty football jerseys; Muslims and Christians; those who lived downtown and those who had traveled hundreds of kilometers to witness the historical event.
As we started walking north in Zamalek, we saw richer Egyptians in horse-drawn buggies, waving flags and wanting to join in the festivities. There were also younger, wealthy Egyptians dancing outside their parked cars to blaring radios, or riding around on motorbikes honking their horns. But the crowds finally diminished as we made our way north toward the Zamalek neighborhoods, with green streets lined by embassies. The chanting and screaming and dancing dissipated. Even the rhythmic honking was gone. On the night Mubarak resigned, the wealthiest streets of Cairo were silent and empty.
We met up with friends at a hotel bar packed with people. Some still had their Egyptian flag headbands or remnants of red, white, and black paint smeared on their cheeks. Everyone was talking about what had happened, what it would mean for the future, how things would change. For some reason, on the way back to the campus, our taxi driver decided to cross the 6th of October bridge, which leads into downtown. It was completely mobbed, but from the elevated highway we could see the blackened National Democratic Party building, burned down two weeks earlier in the Day of Anger. We spoke out our windows to those around us. Everyone was still cheering and honking, although their cars couldn't move in the traffic. The jubilation continued around us on the highway almost all the way back to the university campus.
That night we probably walked five miles, and I couldn't begin to guess how many people we saw. It seemed as if the entire world had come to Cairo. The experience was especially significant for Said, who was so happy to hear the news. A graduate student at AUC, He had studied hard to get a scholarship and become an engineer, and he was now a graduate student at the American University in Cairo. But under the Mubarak regime, he said, you had to have connections with the government to get good jobs, to get positions to move ahead. His plan had been to leave Egypt once he finished school. "Now I can stay," he kept saying. "Now I can stay."
Greg Williams '10, an anthropology and history major at Gettysburg College, is currently pursuing a master's in Islamic art and architecture at the American University in Cairo. He expects to be there for two years and plans then to go on for a Ph.D. in archaeology. "I hope to work in the Middle East as an archaeologist of medieval and Islamic periods," he said. Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.