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.
t was a generous moment, for it was their courage, rather than divine intervention, which had rid Egypt of its dictator.
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, 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, 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, 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, racially abused in the West, treated as backward and uneducated by many of the Israelis who wanted to maintain Mubarak's often savage rule, had abandoned their fear and tossed away the man whom the West loved as a 'moderate' leader who would do its bidding at the price of $1.5bn (€1.1bn) a year.
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. Then yesterday, he simply fled to Sharm el-Sheikh, a western-style holiday resort on the Red Sea.
So the Egyptian revolution lay in the hands of the country's army last night as a series of confused and 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 several prominent Cairo military families, was trying to persuade Washington to promote its 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, it only confirmed the impression that his presence was more irrelevant than provocative. The protesters in Tahrir Square sniffed the same decay of power.
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 Mubarak, 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, prime minister, deputy prime minister, minister of defence and the minister of interior were all generals.
The army brought Nasser to power. It supported General Anwar Sadat. It 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 communiques constantly reiterate -- the protesters demanding the final departure of Mubarak. But Egypt's hundreds of thousands of democratic revolutionaries started their own takeover of Cairo yesterday.
After the fury expressed overnight at Mubarak's paternalistic and deeply insulting speech, yesterday's demonstrations began amid humour and extraordinary civility. In Tahrir Square, they staged poetry readings. And then they heard their wretched antagonist had gone.
But Arab verse does not win revolutions. The future body politic of Egypt lies with up to 100 officers. A military communique yesterday called for "free and fair elections", adding that the 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.
As for Omar Sulieman, his own post-Mubarak speech on Thursday night was almost as childish as the president's. His ambitions for the presidency may also have ended.
The Egyptians who have fought for their future over the past three weeks will have to preserve their revolution from internal as well as 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? (© Independent News Service)