By Nadia El-Awady
“I’m an Egyptian revolutionary! And I helped topple a dictator!”
That was the message I tweeted to the world soon after hearing that Egyptian President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak had finally stepped down.
The rush of emotions I have felt since hearing those words has been almost crippling at times.
The Egyptian people had lived under a single dictatorial ruler for 30 years. It took less than three weeks for this regime to crumble.
For 18 days, more than 300 had died at the hands of the police and thugs reportedly leashed by the regime itself. Thousands were injured. Hundreds camped out inTahrir Square, a majority with not much more than a single blanket to protect themselves from the elements. And yet millions of others marched day after day, voicing their demands that Mubarak and his regime leave.
During those 18 days, I marched, ran from tear gas and live ammunition, filming all the while, and then I marched some more. I visited Tahrir Square almost every day and went round and round and round, taking pictures at times, filming at others, and protesting myself at other times.
For the most part, when they were not being attacked, the mood among protestors was almost like a party; Tahrir Square felt like a carnival atmosphere. On every corner, people sang, danced, recited poetry, discussed politics and, of course, marched round and round and round and round calling for an end to the regime.
Many displayed the sense of humor for which Egyptians are known all over the Arab world. One man held up a sign that said: “Leave now. I really need a shower.” Others acted out comedic plays and sketches. A protester dressed up like a soccer referee and walked around the square blowing through his whistle and waving a red card that said “leave”.
Another group of protesters who had come to Cairo from Sharqiya, a region 50 miles north of the capital, took off their shoes and used them to spell the word “leave”. Showing the sole of your shoe has long been considered an insult in Arab culture.
On the night of Thursday, February 10, Mubarak made his third speech to the Egyptian public. All day, rumors had filled the square that he would resign that night. People all over the capital left their homes and headed towards Tahrir in anticipation of reason to celebrate. When he said instead that he would not step down until he had presided over a transition of power himself, almost every single man, woman and child who was at Tahrir Square raised their shoes in indignation. Mubarak was not listening.
Many woke up Friday expecting the day to turn into a blood bath. Mubarak and Omar Suleiman, the long-time head of the Egyptian intelligence services who Mubarak appointed shortly after demonstrations began as his vice president, implied that they would not tolerate a continuation of disruption in the country. Since the police had not yet appeared back on the streets, this left only the army to impose an end to the protests.
But the people had absolutely no intention of backing down.
Like so many others, I left my home Friday morning not knowing whether I’d live to return. I was equipped with nothing but my camera and a bandanna to protect myself from tear gas.
If any force was used against the protesters, they had nothing to protect themselves with. We had already seen so many die at the hands of police and thugs. Nevertheless, protesters left their homes armed only with their determination and the will to make a better country for themselves.
I arrived at around noon in front of the Presidential Palace, where hundreds of protesters had gathered. For the most part, the day was uneventful. People socialized, stopping to chant every now and then. Numbers began to swell in the mid-afternoon when thousands more poured in from Tahrir Square, 20 kilometers away. Some waved flags and chanted, but mostly people waited in anticipation. Several times protesters chanted, “The people and the army are together as one”, as if urging the military to stay on the side of the people.
At 5:41 pm, the call for prayers rang out in the square in front of the presidential palace. Hundreds gathered to pray while others stood around, watching and waiting. We had heard news earlier that the president’s office was going to make a statement. After Mubarak’s speech from the night before, protesters weren’t expecting much.
I called my family at home and asked that they call me and place the phone near the TV as soon as the statement started so that I could hear along with them. Sunset prayers ended and only minutes afterwards my phone rang. It was 6:03 pm. Just as my phone rang a roar exploded in the crowd. I could not hear my sister on the other end. No one near me knew exactly why the crowd was roaring.
It took a minute or two of struggling until my sister’s words finally broke through: “The President has resigned.”
I can’t even remember shutting the phone. My best friend Arwa, who was among the throngs, ran up to me in tears saying, “He’s gone, Nadia. He’s gone!” We hugged and cried, then hugged complete strangers and cried with them. We roared and sang and chanted along with the thousands in front of the Presidential Palace, “The people…indeed…have toppled the regime.”
The throngs almost immediately left the square in front of the palace and started marching towards Tahrir Square. Chants of “Here are the Egyptians…here, here, here,” and “Egyptians, raise your heads and be proud,” rang everywhere on the streets of Heliopolis, where the presidential palace lies.
Fireworks erupted from apartment building balconies, cars took to the streets and people honked their hearts out. Flags were everywhere. People hugged army officers as they passed; it was the most jubilant scene I have ever witnessed or taken part of in my life. And over and over, one chant was repeated: “Martyrs, you can now rest in peace”.
As jubilant protesters marched, we all reiterated to each other that we have honored the blood of those who had died. We had done this for them and for the future generations of Egypt.
Tahrir Square was a bees-hive of activity. By the time I arrived, the exhaustion of three weeks of protests had begun to set in. I made a quick round of the overcrowded square. I only stopped once. I saw an elderly couple I had photographed three nights earlier in the square. That night they were holding hands waving the Egyptian flag in support of protesters. On Friday night, they were walking through Tahrir, holding hands, waving the flag, a huge smile on their face.
I went to them. “I saw you the other night. I was so proud of you. I wanted to come to you now and say congratulations,” I told them. We all hugged and cried and congratulated each other. We took pictures together. The smiles on their faces were priceless.
I walked home from Tahrir Square with my friend Arwa waving what was probably the 13th flag she had bought in as many days. We greeted cars on the way and sang with people riding in them.
The second I arrived home, my legs gave way. For 18 days, I marched and marched and they carried me through. But they now needed a rest.
I slipped into a deep sleep and got up around 6 o’clock on Saturday morning to pray the dawn prayers. As I tried to go back to sleep afterwards, I shed tears for the Egyptians who had died for their country.
I felt proud to have stood with them shoulder to shoulder. I felt proud to have stood my ground when things got rough in the following days of the revolution. I felt I had honored their deaths. I felt proud that my children finally had a chance to live a life of freedom. My greatest sense of pride came from how my fellow Egyptians handled themselves through those toughest of times, honorably, in style, with a great sense of humor. Egyptians had shown the world that we were a peaceful nation, even at times of revolution.
Today, and everyday henceforward, I am proud to be an Egyptian.