CAIRO — Now it's a party.
Not even 24 hours after venting fury over Hosni Mubarak's refusal to step down as president, Cairo's Tahrir Square erupted Friday into perhaps the biggest street party in Egyptian history the moment Mubarak's resignation was announced.
"You're an Egyptian; lift your head up!" crowds of anti-government protesters sang as they streamed from all directions toward the square that was the beating heart of the 18-day revolution that transformed their country and captivated the world.
From downtown Cairo to far-flung provinces, euphoric Egyptians poured into the streets in a celebration as well as a national cleansing. Mubarak, 82, had finally been driven from power by the people he ruled for three decades: hundreds of thousands who braved tear gas, rubber bullets, attacks from government-allied thugs and unprecedented government blackouts of the Internet and cell phones.
They honked horns, sang nationalist anthems, danced on police trucks, kissed strangers on the forehead, knelt in prayer and sobbed in disbelief that they'd shaken loose one of the most powerful dictators in the Arab world.
"I never thought I would see him go," said Mona El Rammy, 50, an administrative assistant who walked three miles Friday night to the sprawling protest camp in Cairo's Tahrir Square to join the celebration. "Egyptians used to be very patient," she said. "But after a while, people explode."
Concern over tomorrow, and the open-ended military regime that's taking over for Mubarak, could wait. This was a night reserved for joy and relief, and the cheers were led by a young generation of Egyptians — many inspired by the recent revolt in Tunisia and organized on the Internet — who'd never known another president but had had enough of corruption, cronyism, police brutality and a stagnant economy that sapped their hopes.
"I don't have words. I believed in this, but it is still a big surprise," said Imad Mohammed Fareed, a 21-year-old physiotherapy student who'd camped many nights in Tahrir Square.
Fireworks popped overhead and he snapped picture after picture on his cell phone, grinning broadly. A few yards away, a group of young men about his age were hoisting a soldier in full uniform into the air, chanting, "The people and the army are one hand!"
The young revolutionaries first took to the streets Jan. 25, and they were soon joined by established opposition parties, Islamist groups, white-collar professionals and the working class. They persisted even as the United States and other Western governments withheld full support for the uprising amid doubts about its staying power and concerns that the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's best-organized opposition group, could gain control.
"It was all or nothing. Half a revolution would've been a graveyard for the people," said Mohamed Ehab, 42, a chemist.
They occupied Cairo's main square day and night, their numbers surging well into their third week, stunning the ruling elite, who dismissed them as "Facebook kids."
On its darkest days, Tahrir Square was a battle zone. The protesters hurled stones to beat back regime-allied mobs, torched police vehicles and the nearby headquarters of Mubarak's National Democratic Party, and lay down in front of army tanks to hold the most powerful weapon they had: their ground.
On its best days, and they were far more numerous, the square, whose name means "liberation," became a living illustration of the ideals of a freer country. Egyptians from all walks of life prayed together, picked up trash, brought food and blankets to share with one another and rallied around the single goal of unseating Mubarak.
"He had to go. It felt like if he held on another day, he was going to rename the country the Arab Republic of Mubarak. To him, every village was Mubarak, every hospital, every school," said Sherif Saqr, 30, who came from Alexandria last week and had been sleeping in the square.
Whether they can maintain this burst of national unity will be a crucial test for the core of the opposition — a mosaic of youth movements, Islamists, leftists and technocrats.
At least 300 people died and thousands were injured in the struggle for a more democratic Egypt. In Tahrir, posters honoring the dead — whom the protesters unfailingly called martyrs — showed fresh-faced twenty-somethings smiling in photos taken from their Facebook accounts.
"It was the young people. They did this," said Laila Helmy, a 60-year-old medical professor. Her 25-year-old son came to Tahrir every day and was there Friday night, but she'd lost track of him.
"He's celebrating with his friends," she said, smiling. "This is their night."
In White House remarks, President Barack Obama hailed the emergence of a new Egyptian generation, "a generation that used their own creativity and talent and technology to call for government that represents their hopes and not their fears, a government that is responsive to their boundless aspirations."
The jubilation capped a roller-coaster 24 hours that began Thursday night, when tens of thousands gathered in Tahrir under a moonlit sky for what news reports had suggested would be Mubarak's resignation speech. After he refused to step down and Vice President Omar Suleiman reiterated only vague promises for reforms, protesters raised their fists and vowed to expand their demonstrations to the presidential palace Friday, which they did.
"After those speeches, they wrote their own political death certificates," said Ahmed Salah, a member of the April 6 youth movement who helped organize the protests. "It was snobbish, mocking, condescending. It was an insult to the people, and it was very provocative. So I knew we would win."
At long last, they did.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow developments in Egypt on McClatchy's Middle East Diary.