By 8:30pm Tahrir Square was packed. The flag-bearers were back. The neon pink standard of the candy-floss man could be spotted again, bobbing over people’s heads in the crowd. The men with their fireworks had also returned.
People were handing out stickers calling for the release of detained blogger Maikel Nabil and carrying posters of shohadaa (martyrs) commemorating the dead.
Groups huddled together to keep warm. On the stage the poet Abdel Rahman Youssef was speaking beautifully about the continued fight for freedom.
Had this been a few weeks ago, we would have been facing bullets and tear gas. But last night, for the first time in months, it was a celebration.
“I wanted to be here, to see the New Year in the square. It’s important,” Magdy, 54, tells me as he stands next to his daughter who is beaming. “Next year will be good, I hope, but we are in the process of getting freedom, we have a long way to go.”
I bumped into Ramy Essam before he was due to go on stage. Dubbed the singer of the revolution, Ramy was detained and tortured by the Egyptian military back in March. The photos of Ramy’s whipped and beaten became one of the iconic images of the revolution.
“I’m not sure 2012 will be better than 2011, but we will do our best to make it better. We will keep fighting… Right now, everyone here is very happy.” Ramy sang “Irhal” (Leave) to ecstatic crowds, a song he penned in the 18 days and initially dedicated to Mubarak.
Gamila Ismail, who ran as a parliamentary candidate for the constituency surrounding Tahrir Square and one of the organisers of the event, spoke on the stage with a mother of a boy who had died in the clashes. Candles were lit for the martyrs while people spontaneously chanted “Down, down with the military regime.” Intermingled in the candlelit crowds were people in party hats waving flags.
A service was held at nearby Qasr El-Dobara church, a place that had become a makeshift field hospital during the November and December clashes. Groups of youth made a human shield around the church to protect it from attack – reminiscent of scenes during many battles when Christians have guarded Muslims as they prayed.
At 10pm the worshippers marched from the Church to join the square. They were met with applause and chants of “Muslims and Christians are one hand.” A flag of Mina Danial, the Copt socialist activist who was shot dead by the Egyptian security forces during the Maspero protest, headed the march. There were signs saying “Blessed be Egypt – Our people.”
“The government tries to set Muslims and Christians against each other,” explains Eman, a Christian doctor who was on the march, “It’s divide and rule. But we are one.” The celebrated Sufi singer Sheikh Ahmed El-Touny sang in the background. Later a Muslim wedding was announced on the overhead speakers by a Coptic MC, the happy couple joined the stage, hugged and danced.
At midnight, large bouquets of balloons in the Egyptian flag colours were released into the sky.
Tahrir, the heartbeat of the revolution, a home for many sit-ins, a battleground in the clashes and occasionally a badly organised roundabout showed the wear and tear of a long and incredible but difficult year. The central circle, once a garden now a sandy tent city, was full of families gathering in groups to keep warm. Revellers in homemade fez hats were chanting outside the Hardees burger restaurant, where the pavement has been broken up for rocks in the battles. There are now four walls built by the army, blocking some of Tahrir’s surrounding streets.
“It’s very different in comparison to last year,” adds Eman who was reflecting on 2011’s New Year’s Day which saw the bombing of the Two Saints church in Alexandria. Large gatherings in a public space like Tahrir were not allowed under Mubarak’s regime; this event would have been impossible to organise then. “In the end we are all Egyptian. The people are together, both Christians and Muslims, we will stay until we reach out goals. No one can stop that.”