Everyone suddenly burst out singing.
And laughing, and crying, and shouting and praying, kneeling on the road and kissing the filthy tarmac right in front of me, and dancing and praising God for ridding them of Hosni Mubarak – a generous moment, for it was their courage rather than divine intervention which rid Egypt of its dictator – and weeping tears which splashed down their clothes.
It was as if every man and woman had just got married, as if joy could smother the decades of dictatorship and pain and repression and humiliation and blood. Forever, it will be known as the Egyptian Revolution of 25 January – the day the rising began – and it will be forever the story of a risen people.
The old man had gone at last, handing power not to the Vice-President but – ominously, though the millions of non-violent revolutionaries were in no mood to appreciate this last night – to Egypt's army council, to a field marshal and a lot of brigadier generals, guarantors, for now, of all that the pro-democracy protesters had fought and, in some cases, died for.
Yet even the soldiers were happy. At the very moment when the news of Mubarak's demise licked like fire through the demonstrators outside the army-protected state television station on the Nile, the face of one young officer burst into joy. All day, the demonstrators had been telling the soldiers that they were brothers. Well, we shall see.
Talk of a historic day somehow took the edge off what last night's victory really means for Egyptians. Through sheer willpower, through courage in the face of Mubarak's hateful state security police, through the realisation – yes – that sometimes you have to struggle to overthrow a dictator with more than words and facebooks, through the very act of fighting with fists and stones against cops with stun guns and tear gas and live bullets, they achieved the impossible: the end – they must plead with their God that it is permanent – of almost 60 years of autocracy and repression, 30 of them Mubarak's.
Arabs, maligned, cursed, racially abused in the West, treated as backward by many of the Israelis who wanted to maintain Mubarak's often savage rule, had stood up, abandoned their fear, and tossed away the man whom the West loved as a "moderate" leader who would do their bidding at the price of $1.5bn a year. It's not only East Europeans who can stand up to brutality.
That this man – less than 24 hours earlier – had announced in a moment of lunacy that he still wanted to protect his "children" from "terrorism" and would stay in office, made yesterday's victory all the more precious. On Thursday night, the men and women demanding democracy in Egypt had held their shoes in the air to show their disrespect for the decrepit leader who treated them as infants, incapable of political and moral dignity. Then yesterday, he simply fled to Sharm el-Sheikh, a Western-style holiday resort on the Red Sea, a place which had about as much in common with Egypt as Marbella or Bali.
So the Egyptian Revolution lay in the hands of the army last night as a series of contradictory statements from the military indicated that Egypt's field marshals, generals and brigadiers were competing for power in the ruins of Mubarak's regime. Israel, according to prominent Cairo military families, was trying to persuade Washington to promote their favourite Egyptian – former intelligence capo and Vice-President Omar Suleiman – to the presidency, while Field Marshal Tantawi, the defence minister, wanted his chief of staff, General Sami Anan, to run the country.
When Mubarak and his family were freighted off to Sharm el-Sheikh yesterday afternoon, it only confirmed the impression that his presence was more irrelevant than provocative. The hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square sniffed the same decay of power and even Mohamed ElBaradei, former UN arms inspector and ambitious Nobel Prize-winner, announced that "Egypt will explode" and "must be saved by the army".
Analysts talk about a "network" of generals within the regime, although it is more like a cobweb, a series of competing senior officers whose own personal wealth and jealously guarded privileges were earned by serving the regime whose 83-year old leader now appears as demented as he does senile. The health of the President and the activities of the millions of pro-democracy protesters across Egypt are thus now less important than the vicious infighting within the army.
Yet if they have discarded the rais – the President – the military's high command are men of the old order. Indeed, most of the army's highest-ranking officers were long ago sucked into the nexus of regime power. In Mubarak's last government, the vice- president was a general, the prime minister was a general, the deputy prime minister was a general, the minister of defence was a general and the minister of interior was a general. Mubarak himself was commander of the air force. The army brought Nasser to power. They supported General Anwar Sadat. They supported General Mubarak. The army introduced dictatorship in 1952 and now the protesters believe it will become the agency of democracy. Some hope.
Thus – sadly – Egypt is the army and the army is Egypt. Or so, alas, it likes to think. It therefore wishes to control – or "protect", as army communiqués constantly reiterate – the protesters demanding the final departure of Mubarak. But Egypt's hundreds of thousands of democratic revolutionaries – enraged by Mubarak's refusal to abandon the presidency – started their own takeover of Cairo yesterday, overflowing from Tahrir Square, not only around the parliament building but the Nile-side state television and radio headquarters and main highways leading to Mubarak's luxurious residency in the wealthy suburb of Heliopolis. Thousands of demonstrators in Alexandria reached the very gates of one of Mubarak's palaces where the presidential guard handed over water and food in a meek gesture of "friendship" for the people. Protesters also took over Talaat Haab Square in the commercial centre of Cairo as hundreds of academics from the city's three main universities marched to Tahrir at mid-morning.
After the fury expressed overnight at Mubarak's paternalistic, deeply insulting speech – in which he spoke about himself and his 1973 war service at great length and referred only vaguely to the duties he would supposedly reassign to his Vice-President, Omar Suleiman – yesterday's demonstrations began amid humour and extraordinary civility. If Mubarak's henchmen hoped that his near suicidal decision of Thursday would provoke the millions of democracy protesters across Egypt to violence, they were wrong; around Cairo, the young men and women who are the foundation of the Egyptian Revolution behaved with the kind of restraint that President Obama yesterday lamely called for. In many countries, they would have burned government buildings after a presidential speech of such hubris; in Tahrir Square, they staged poetry readings. And then they heard that their wretched antagonist had gone.
But Arab verse does not win revolutions, and every Egyptian knew yesterday that the initiative lay no more with the demonstrators than with the remote figure of the ex-dictator. For the future body politic of Egypt lies with up to a hundred officers, their old fidelity to Mubarak – sorely tested by Thursday's appalling speech, let alone the revolution on the streets – has now been totally abandoned. A military communiqué yesterday morning called for "free and fair elections", adding that Egyptian armed forces were "committed to the demands of the people" who should "resume a normal way of life". Translated into civilian-speak, this means that the revolutionaries should pack up while a coterie of generals divide up the ministries of a new government. In some countries, this is called a "coup d'etat".
Around Mubarak's abandoned Cairo palace yesterday morning, the presidential guard, themselves a separate and powerful paramilitary force within the army, unsheathed a mass of barbed wire around the perimeter of the grounds, set up massive sand-bag emplacements and placed soldiers with heavy machine-guns behind them. Tanks wire. It was an empty gesture worthy of Mubarak himself. For he had already fled.
But the army's instructions to its soldiers to care for the demonstrators appear to have been followed to the letter in the hours before victory. A 25-year-old first lieutenant in the Egyptian Third Army, a highly educated young man with almost fluent English, was helping the demonstrators to check the identities of protesters near the ministry of interior yesterday, cheerfully admitting that he wasn't sure if the protests in Cairo were the best way of achieving democracy. He had not told his parents that he was in central Cairo lest his mother be upset, telling them instead that he was on barrack duties.
But would he shoot the demonstrators in a confrontation, we asked him? "Many people ask me that question," he replied. "I tell them: 'I cannot shoot my father, my family – you are like my father and my own family.' And I have many friends here." And if orders came to shoot the protesters? "I am sure it will not happen," he said. "All the other revolutions [in Egypt] were bloody. I don't want blood here."
The soldier got his history right. Egyptians in Cairo rose against Napoleon's army in 1798, fought the monarchy in 1881 and 1882, staged an insurrection against the British in 1919 and 1952, and rebelled against Sadat in the 1977 food riots and against Mubarak in 1986, when even the police deserted the government. At least four soldiers in Tahrir Square defected to the demonstrators on Thursday. A colonel in the army told me a week ago that "one of our comrades tried to commit suicide" in Tahrir Square. So the generals now fighting like vultures over the wreckage of Mubarak's regime must take care that their own soldiers have not been infected by the revolution.
As for Omar Suleiman, his own post-Mubarak speech on Thursday night was almost as childish as the President's. He told the demonstrators to go home – treating them, in the words of one protester, like sheep – and duly blamed "television stations and radios" for violence on the streets, an idea as preposterous as Mubarak's claim – for the umpteenth time – that "foreign hands" were behind the revolution. His ambitions for the presidency may have also ended, another old man who thought he could close down the revolution with false promises.
Perhaps the shadow of the army is too dark an image to invoke in the aftermath of so monumental a revolution in Egypt. Siegfried Sassoon's joy on the day of the 1918 Armistice, the end of the First World War – when everyone also suddenly burst out singing – was genuine and deserved. Yet that peace led to further immense suffering. And the Egyptians who have fought for their future in the streets of their nation over the past three weeks will have to preserve their revolution from internal and external enemies if they are to achieve a real democracy. The army has decided to protect the people. But who will curb the power of the army?
Hosni Mubarak: Timeline
14 October 1981
Vice-President Hosni Mubarak is sworn in as President eight days after his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was gunned down by Islamist militants at a parade in Cairo.
26 June 1995
Mubarak survives an assassination attempt in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa.
5 October 1999
Mubarak wins a fourth term, and appoints a new prime minister after the government resigns.
The Kefaya (Enough) Movement stages protests across Egypt against Mubarak's rule.
11 May 2005
Egypt introduces contested presidential elections, but opposition parties complain that strict rules still prohibit genuine competition.
27 September 2005
Mubarak wins Egypt's first contested general election, a process which is marred by violence. He is sworn in for his fifth consecutive term.
19 November 2006
Mubarak declares that he will remain President for the rest of his life.
26 March 2010
Former UN nuclear agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei announces he would consider running for the presidency if reforms on power were introduced.
27 March 2010
After gallbladder surgery in Germany, Mubarak returns to Egypt to reassume his full presidential powers.
25 January 2011
Inspired by the ousting of Tunisia's President Ben Ali on 14 January, thousands protest across Egypt demanding Mubarak's resignation. It is called the "Day of Wrath".
29 January 2011
After deploying the army in an attempt to control the widespread protests, Mubarak sacks his cabinet and names intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as Vice-President. He refuses to step down.
1 February 2011
One million Egyptians march through Cairo demanding Mubarak's immediate resignation. Mubarak announces he will step down when his term ends in September.
3 February 2011
Mubarak tells reporters he is fed up with being in power, but thinks chaos will ensue if he steps down now. About 300 people have been killed in the unrest, according to UN figures.
5 February 2011
President Obama asks Mubarak to listen to the protesters demanding his resignation. Mubarak removes his son from a senior post and invites opposition groups to negotiate reform. They are dissatisfied with the concessions offered.
10 February 2011
Egypt's army commander addresses Cairo's Tahrir Square, saying "everything you want will be realised". After mounting speculation and reports that resignation is imminent, Mubarak refuses to step down.
11 February 2011
After 18 days of protests, Mubarak finally leaves office