CAIRO — The “Day of Departure” brought hundreds of thousands of protesters into the muddy, rubble-strewn, trash-filled square that has become the epicenter of the revolt in Egypt.
But this day had less of the violence and the menacing clashes that have occasionally marked the historic protests here over the last 11 days.
It was a sunny, warm Friday, the Muslim holy day, and the protesters finally had some time to bask in the fact that they have, at a minimum, exposed to the world the corruption and brutality of President Hosni Mubarak and made it perfectly clear that they want him to go.
There were families of all generations, including small children, who came to see history in the making. The square itself was relatively peaceful, but the clashes between Mubarak loyalists and the more fierce elements of the opposition continued on the side streets.
Inside the square itself at least, the “Day of Departure,” as the opposition dubbed the gathering, was a moment for the many different shades of opposition to quite literally have a national dialogue about the future.
That Mubarak’s 30-year reign would be ending was a certainty, the only question remaining is when.
A man held up a hand-written sign in English at the center of the square that summed up the crowd’s answer: “Game Over!”
But questions as to when Mubarak would step down and what shape an interim government might take still hung heavy in the air.
The hulking tanks at the entry to the bridge and the roads that lead into the square were a physical statement that the military will be part of whatever future lies ahead.
And a big fear among many protesters in the crowd was that the large and powerful Egyptian military may assert its authority to restore order and eventually seize control of the government.
“We are really afraid that the military is allowing us to gather on this nice warm day and shout against Mubarak while they know they are going to move in and take over,” said Wesam Masoud, an executive chef at a restaurant in Cairo, who walked to the square with several friends to be “part of history.”
Another voice that is certain to be heard in the future of Egypt rose up from the square through the call to prayer over the loud speakers in a nearby mosque. The Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed Islamic opposition movement, will inevitably be a player in Egypt's life after the revolt.
Mubarak outlawed the group, but leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is known for its good public works in poor neighborhoods, have done well running as independents in recent elections. And polls show that they have wide support if they were ever allowed to be part of the political process.
“For years he (Mubarak) scared us of the Muslim Brotherhood, but not anymore. We’re not buying it anymore,” said Farida El Keiy, an Arabic teacher who came to the square with several family members.
“At first, I wanted him (Mubarak) to go out with pride, but not any more. Now I just want him to go. Now he has shown his real face. He is a tyrant,” she said.
Fatima said that she herself is more supportive of secular opposition but that she believes all of the different opposition groups will have to work together in the transition.
“I’m here for the future of country and my children,” she said.
Nawal El Saadawi, who is 80 years old, made her way through the crowd and smiled as she was helped along by a few young relatives.
A well-known author and activist, Saadawi is a grand dame of the secular opposition. She has protested and been jailed in the past and her walk through the square seemed a victory march.
“For me, this is a dream,” she said, looking up at the sky and then shaking her head, overcome with emotion.
“I’ve waited for this moment for all of my life. I protested against King Farouk and against Sadat and against Mubarak. And now we are finally doing it. It’s a dream,” she said, brushing away a tear.
Saadawi said that she and other leading intellectuals had created a committee to present 10 names of opposition candidates they believe should be considered in the transition government, if indeed one takes shape. And there were other similar movements among young people online, including a social networking community that had just been started at the blog spot www.shabab-masr.com.
“We have to come together now and decide, the young and the old. It can’t be anyone from his regime. It has to be the new face of leadership and we don’t know who those leaders are yet. They’ve all been kept down,” she added.
Walid Ahmed, a teacher in a nursery school in the Shobra district, which is the heart of the Muslim Brotherhood, stood nearby Saadawi.
“We are one color and there are many colors that make up all of Egypt. We know we all have to work together to make a future, “ said Ahmed, 36, who has been in the Muslim Brotherhood almost his entire adult life.
He was holding up a copy of the pro-Mubarak government newspaper, The Republican. It showed a photograph of the huge protest march calling for Mubarak’s resignation on Tuesday. But it carried the headline: “Demonstrators show support for the president.”
He pointed to the newspaper as he said, “What they’ve been stealing from us is not just money, but the truth. The editor is a liar, the photographer is a liar, the whole message is a lie. And that says everything about the regime.”