Anti-government protesters wait to hear President Hosni Mubarak speak on television in Tahrir Square., Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images
A flickering candle inside a paper bag rose high above the crowd of thousands in Tahrir Square shortly after sunset and drifted away on the wind. Below, the crowd chanted in unison, “The people demand the fall of the regime!”
The scene was almost straight out of a Hollywood movie, but that seemed appropriate: the events that unfolded in Cairo on Tuesday did have a touch of the surreal to them. In the span of one week, a protest movement that mostly coalesced through the Internet has shaken the regime of President Hosni Mubarak and could potentially change the face of the Middle East. Late Tuesday evening, Mubarak took to the airwaves to announce that he wouldn’t run for president again in the elections coming up in the fall. The news was met with thunderous jeers from the late-night crowd in Tahrir Square. The "Million Man March" on Tuesday was a clear turning point. As many as 250,000 people poured into the streets of Cairo—the largest protest in recent memory—to demand the ouster of Mubarak and his cronies. Mohamed ElBaradei, who has emerged as one potential leader for the protesters, summed it up well in a recent statement: “There’s no going back.”
2/1/11: NEWSWEEK's David Botti snapshots the ebb and flow of protests on a single street off of Cairo's main downtown square during several days of revolt., Video muted: click volume for sound
Early Tuesday morning, the crowds began drifting into Tahrir Square, where they joined hundreds of protesters who had spent the night. Some had even pitched tents in a central green space; one tent had a handwritten sign that read, “Freedom Motel.” Smaller protests in the past few days felt tense, as the specter of violence from either the Army or police was always lurking in the background. That tension was gone Tuesday after the Army announced Monday night that it would not turn its guns on the protesters, a clear green light to the crowds.
Tens of thousands of protesters of all stripes jammed the square by noon. Young women chanted slogans perched atop the shoulders of young men. Nearby, a group of men in traditional dishdasha robes pumped their fists and chanted the same slogans. Ahmad Bakri, a burly 53-year-old businessman holding a “I [heart] Egypt” sign, came to the protest with his three daughters. “We’ve come for freedom and democracy,” he said. “Mubarak must go now!”
Some of the protesters had come because of the abuses they’d suffered at the hands of the regime. Lotfi Kamal, a 34-year-old merchant, was arrested at 19 and spent 11 years in jail for his alleged ties to an Islamic militant group. He was beaten with electric cables and kept in solitary confinement for long periods. “I want to participate in the elimination of the ruling party,” he said, clenching his teeth in anger. “We want democracy and civilian rule.”
Many protesters were clearly trying to schmooze the troops. Huda Rady, 40, a tour guide decked out in fashionable black glasses and an orange headband, was holding a sign that read, “The People and the Army Are United.” “We truly hate the police,” Rady said. “So we have to have the support of the Army.” On more than one occasion, couples propped up their babies on the front of the Army’s cream-colored tanks in the square for a photo op. One eager father even shoved his young daughter up in a turret with a soldier. Near the Egyptian Museum, a handful of protesters bombarded a group of soldiers on a tank with chocolate bars. Almost every tank and armored vehicle in the square was covered with anti-Mubarak graffiti and bunches of flowers.
The protest had a carnival-like atmosphere as the day progressed, with vendors pushing carts through the crowd, selling sandwiches and nuts. And the insults to Mubarak seemed to get more creative, too. One man carried a broom and dustbin with a picture of Mubarak inside. Another had a sign with a picture of Mubarak next to a dried mummy’s head with the caption, “The fate of all pharaohs and tyrants.” There was even a touch of Woodstock after sunset, when Azza Balbaa, a well-known singer, hit a makeshift stage and sang political songs. Another young man strummed a guitar slightly out of tune while leading the crowd in chants of “Down, down with Hosni Mubarak.”
Mubarak’s announcement that he would essentially step down is a historic moment for Egypt. But is it enough to appease the protesters? Their answer was clear: only minutes after Mubarak’s announcement, the crowds in Tahrir Square chanted, “Leave! Leave!” Abdul Hamid Ramadan, 48, an English teacher who’s been sleeping in the square for three nights, said: “We totally reject his statement, because our main demand is for him to leave power.”
—With Mandi Fahmy in Cairo
This article originally appeared on The Daily Beast.