CAIRO – They came for a celebration. They brought their children and their nephews and their cameras to revel in what they thought would be a defining moment in their nation’s history.
Instead, the tens of thousands of Egyptians who flocked to Tahrir Square on Thursday night expecting President Hosni Mubarak to announce his resignation were stunned, some near tears, when he didn’t.
On a cool, clear night in downtown Cairo, a hush fell over the crowd. People tilted their heads toward speakers positioned throughout the square, as if trying to wish the words out of the 82-year-old president.
Afterward, there would be debate and confusion over what Mubarak meant when he said he’d delegated powers to Vice President Omar Suleiman. But in the square that’s been the center of 17 days of protests demanding that Mubarak quit, the words that the throngs were waiting to hear never came.
Eyes hardened, and heads shook. One man watching on a big screen took off his shoe and raised it toward Mubarak in disgust. Hundreds immediately did the same.
“He laughed at us,” said Mohammed Mamdouh, a teacher who brought his teenage nephew to what he thought would be a party.
“If he told me that the sun rises, I don’t believe him,” said Salah Shkeb, a lawyer from Mansour, 100 miles from Cairo, who rented an apartment in the capital to join the uprising.
Like many in Tahrir, Shkeb predicted that protests today would be the biggest yet. Minutes after the speech ended, hundreds of young demonstrators began marching out of the square and toward the state television headquarters, which for days has been guarded by tanks.
News reports said hundreds were marching in the direction of the presidential palace, about 10 miles east of Cairo, although the main road in that direction reportedly had been sealed off by the Egyptian army.
“In this square, tomorrow will be a big war,” Shkeb said. “We will go to the palace. He didn’t listen to us.”
Just moments earlier, perhaps the largest nighttime crowd to pack Cairo’s main square had been a festival, with people singing songs, snapping pictures and banging drums in anticipation. Egyptians of all ages and stripes stood shoulder to shoulder. A tall, clean-cut teacher argued passionately with a burly, bearded man in a skullcap about constitutional reform and who would replace Mubarak.
The raucous mood gave way to shock and cries of disbelief. When Mubarak opened by vowing to punish those responsible for the deaths of the people killed in protests – many at the hands of police and Mubarak loyalists – Shkeb looked nervous. When Mubarak said he’d never let foreign elements dictate the course of events in Egypt, Shkeb rubbed his eyes.
Toward the end, when Mubarak invoked his six decades of service to Egypt, first as a military man and then as head of state, the crowd jeered, “Leave! Leave!”
“Only lies,” Shkeb said. “For 30 years he’s been talking about the future. What is this future?”
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