First a deafening cheer erupted and echoed to the minarets. Then protesters leaped in the air, kissed strangers, banged on barricades like steel drums, and fell to their knees in prayer. A dozen burly men saluted the Egyptian flag and sang the national anthem, tears streaming down their faces.
Soon fireworks lighted the sky, veiled women ululated from balconies, men danced atop burned out vehicles, and grinning soldiers stuck flags in their rifles. Cars honked in joyful processions along the Nile, impromptu parades clogged the streets, and songs of freedom filled the night air.
“Egypt is free,” the revelers chanted. “The tyrant is gone.”
That’s what the frenzied celebration — no, the sheer pandemonium — looked and felt like here Friday night when President Hosni Mubarak finally stepped down after three decades of autocratic rule.
To Paris 1945 and Berlin 1989, history books can add Cairo 2011.
In Tahrir Square, epicenter of the extraordinary 18-day revolution, the unexpected news of Mubarak’s resignation — a day after he had defiantly refused to quit, enraging protesters and sparking fears of violence — jolted the teeming throngs into pure delirium.
“In 30 years, I haven’t felt freedom,” said Salah Amad, a steel worker, one of several men who kissed a reporter on both cheeks. “Now we have hope for the future.”
“It’s like I can finally breathe fresh air for the first time,” said Somaia Shakeer, wearing a veil, as her toddlers waved flags and grinned.
“I feel like today is the day of my birth, the day when I became a true Egyptian,” said Mohammed ElRaouf, a poet and folk singer who said he was beaten and jailed for three months last year for his anti-Mubarak verses.
Protest organizers said the demonstrators who have occupied the heart of Cairo and riveted the world’s attention since Jan. 25 will be urged to go home. But not yet.
“We will celebrate seven days and seven nights,” promised Mohammed Abbas, one of the organizers. “We have suffered 30 years of humiliation and torture.”
One of the world’s oldest civilizations, Egypt has never enjoyed a democracy, and no one knows how the most populous Arab nation will handle the challenge. Hopes seemed impossibly high, and the nitty-gritty of forming a new constitution, electing a parliament and other matters still lie ahead.
A few people expressed concerns, nervous that the military — which stood on the sidelines until finally ushering Mubarak to the exit — may not surrender power. Military strongmen have ruled Egypt since 1952.
“We have to trust the military,” said Mohamed Abdallah, 40, a professor of computer science. “But we need to see what’s next.”
And a few were melancholy, cherishing their time on the square and the fellowship they found on the front lines.
“I’m really sad because these people are going to leave,” said Mahmood Mohamad Abdulaziz, 16, a factory worker who sat away from the cheering crowds. “We’re more than brothers here.”
But for at least one crisp, clear night, the dreams of a beleaguered generation were improbably fulfilled, and that’s all that counted.
“Our injustices will disappear,” said Zaynab Hesham, a 24-year-old computer student, her voice filled with optimism. “Political prisoners will be freed. All the people will be proud that we have our dignity again.”
“I am unemployed,” said Mohamed Fahd, 35, who stuck an Egyptian flag in his hat, and had painted his face red, white and black to match. Then he beamed with confidence. “But I’m sure now I will find a job.”
At an entrance to the downtown square, revelers gleefully banged rocks on metal sheets that had served as barricades at a checkpoint. The pounding electrified the crowd with the rhythm of a rave.
A group of boys, perched precariously atop a large electric utility box, acted as back-up singers. “So long, so long, oh you thieves, so long,” they hollered. Nearby, women responded with high-pitched trills.
Every so often, the euphoria was interrupted as announcers read verses of the Koran for those who were shot, stabbed or clubbed to death during the protests. At least 25 were killed in Tahrir Square, and at least 300 died nationwide, according to human rights groups.
Members of the Committee of 14, the informal coalition of activists who helped organize the people power triumph seemed as stunned as anyone else.
Six crammed into a small camping tent and, using flashlights, scrawled their official victory communiqué on a slab of cardboard torn from a box of Nestle Pure Life water bottles.
“A New Egypt,” Islam Lotfy, 33, a human rights lawyer and member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, wrote in large Arabic letters at the top. Then he added, “The people have finally toppled the regime.”
Others in the group weighed in and he scribbled, “We are on the brink of a new era that we have always dreamed of, an Egypt free of oppression and tyranny… This is a great awaking. We will never again allow a tyrant to lead.”
Later, after others had copied his words, translated them into English and French, and read them aloud for radio and TV, he clutched the tattered cardboard to his chest and vowed to give it to the national museum. Was he worried about the future?
“We will keep fighting,” he declared. “We won the fight against the dictator. We will fight for a new Egypt, a better Egypt. But first, we party!”