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Web-Exclusive ReportFebruary 11, 2011 19:44

Cairo: "The First Day of a New Egypt"

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ABOUT Charles M. Sennott

A longtime foreign correspondent for The Boston Globe, Charles M. Sennott is the executive editor of GlobalPost and is reporting for FRONTLINE from Egypt for a broadcast that will air on Feb. 22.

MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

AUDIO

(1:31) "We announce we are on the brink of the new Egypt we have always dreamt of" --A communiqué from a young coalition group we've been following as part of our report.

CAIRO -- In the early hours of the first day of a new Egypt, revelers are still marching, mingling and dancing around the traffic circle in Tahrir Square.

There are young people posting updates of the events on Facebook and Twitter accounts, the digital generation that really got the ball rolling in this revolution.

And there are families with children hoisted high on shoulders to witness history in the making. And there are poor farmers from Upper Egypt and well-heeled elites from Cairo itself.

They are all still here, partying right into the dawn.

Fireworks streak through the night sky and you can hear the chants of the crowd and the blaring versions of the national anthem, "Biladi," which translates as, "My Country."

It was just about nine hours ago when Tahrir (Liberation) Square exploded with joy as the news was announced over loudspeakers that President Hosni Mubarak would step down after 30 years of brutal, corrupt rule.

To be there on the ground to see history unfold was the most exciting and thrilling story I have ever covered in 25 years of reporting.

It's a feeling shared by a lot of veteran Middle East correspondents. We've spent years covering war, insurgency, corruption and terrorism and we've all waited for the moment when the people who live under the Arab world's corrupt, despotic regimes might rise up and rewrite their own history.

Now Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, has followed the lead of Tunisia and done just that. And I'm still shaking my head in disbelief.

The challenges that lie ahead for a new Egypt are extraordinary. When Mubarak stepped down, he turned over power to the military. And many questions hang in the night air.

What role will Vice President Omar Suleiman play? What process will be put in place to disband parliament and rewrite the constitution which for too long has put too much power in the hands of one man? And how will the country ensure that the powerful but respected military smoothly hands over power to a civilian government?

There was one scene last night in Tahrir Square that suggested some are already thinking about how to answer those questions. I recorded the scene in my column for GlobalPost, which I am including here:

The future of Egypt was being drafted on a piece of cardboard inside a tent by the glow of a flashlight last night.

With a backdrop of fireworks and the thunderous sound of a million people rejoicing at the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, a group of six young people from the Revolutionary Youth Council were huddled in a four-man tent in Tahrir Square.

They were drafting a communiqué to mark the revolution and to try to create some baselines for how they believe the country can plot a way forward, dubbing their statement "the birth certificate of a free Egypt."

They were all representatives from the five leading organizations that make up the coalition and helped to plan and coordinate the 18 days of protest that allowed Egypt to take down a tyrant and write their own history.

The council, which seemed to have several different names depending on who you asked and how they translated it, had representatives from the camp of opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, another from the April 6th movement, from the Muslim Brotherhood, and other movements. They were all deliriously happy as they worked together on the statement.

They didn't have enough paper so Islam Lotfy, a 29-year-old lawyer and member of the Muslim Brotherhood's youth movement, ripped a top off a cardboard box of water and began serving as scribe for the committee.

They laid out several goals for the new government that will form in the weeks and months ahead and the drafting of a new constitution that will need to limit the authority of the president and call for the disbanding of parliament.

They also applauded the military for showing considerable restraint in the days of protest and pointedly asked the powerful military, which technically is in control of the country of 80 million people as of last night, to ensure a smooth transition to civilian government.

They also called for recognition of the more than 300 "martyrs" of the revolution, writing, "History will remember those who've written with their blood the birth certificate of a free Egypt."

When the council members had agreed on the language of the communiqué, a committee member began typing it out on their Blackberry and immediately posted it on the group's Facebook page.

Sally Moore, a Coptic Christian who is an ElBaradei supporter, said, "It's the Facebook revolution. We started with 100 people on Facebook and we finished with millions of people taking to the streets and demanding that Mubarak step down.

"We did it!" she said, breaking away to hug a fellow protester.

"We have written our own history here today," said Lotfy, emerging from the tent to hug friends in the crowd.

"But we have to focus now on writing the future and we still have a lot of work to do," he said.

Indeed, Egypt faces daunting challenges in reforming its government after 30 years of autocratic rule in which a corrupt regime enforced its power through brutality and a constitution that was set in the shadows by a so-called "emergency law" which granted the presidency extraordinary powers.

When Mubarak stepped down, he turned control of the government over to the military, which traditionally has been a proud and widely popular institution in Egypt.

With the military in power, many questions remain as to what role the Vice President Omar Suleiman will play in the transition.

There were also uncertainties about how the constitution will be rewritten in advance of new parliamentary and presidential elections as the Arab world's most populous country seeks to reestablish itself as a democracy.

A new Egypt will also have much work to do to make up for the devastating impact the revolution has had on its economy, particularly in the estimated 10-billion dollar a year tourism industry which has been crippled by the unrest.

But after an 18-day, tumultuous, emotional and sometimes violent ride toward overthrowing a U.S.-backed dictatorship, the people of Egypt gathered in Tahrir Square just wanted to celebrate.

Car horns blared and people waved Egyptian flags. Protesters climbed atop the tanks that surrounded the square and took snapshots with shoulders who smiled for the photos.

One man with a young boy on his shoulders shouted up to three soldiers flanking the cordon of barbed wire that had been erected at checkpoints into the square.

"We're counting on you to help us. Don't let us down!" he said.

Protesters inside the square danced in the streets and they hugged each other and many wept.

A man named Abbas removed his glasses to brush away tears as he shouted into the night air, "We are free. We are free. We have our country back."

Together, the crowd sang along to the country's national anthem, which blared and distorted on loud speakers in the square.

The title of the anthem is "Biladi," which translates as "my country."

At one point the crowd was chanting rhythmically in Arabic, "Hold your head high, you're an Egyptian."

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posted february 11, 2011

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