CAIRO (AP) — The vast Cairo square at the epicenter of more than two weeks of protests was electric and on edge Thursday night, waiting for President Hosni Mubarak's expected televised address with euphoria.
"We're almost there!" chanted the crowds, swelling to their greatest numbers yet as reports emerged the longtime leader was poised to hand over power. "The people want the fall of the regime," they shouted, flashing V-for-victory signs.
But the celebrating in Tahrir Square was tempered with trepidation that behind the scenes the military might already have firmly stepped in and seized control of the country, simply ushering in a new authoritarian regime.
So many resolved to stay put, fearing it was too early to declare victory.
"I am not optimistic. I am afraid that people will feel triumph and leave the square while in fact we have handed power from Mubarak to the army into a military abyss," said Ahmed Abdel-Hamid, one of the young protesters.
Sheikh el-Sayyed Abdel-Rahman was more blunt, calling it a coup.
"They want to turn it from a revolution into a coup. We want a civilian state with no discrimination and no military," the 45-year-old painter said.
Organizers feared a departure by Mubarak might take the wind out of the movement's sails. A number of protesters acknowledged privately they wouldn't mind finally leaving the square and resuming their normal lives.
Most of the veterans of the demonstration that has riveted this country and already extracted a number of promises of reform from a seemingly invincible police state said they planned to stay until demands such as amending the constitution and dissolving parliament are met.
"Whatever they say, it doesn't mean we're going to pick up our tents and leave. We still have demands," said Magdy Mahmoud, a 37-year-old lawyer. "The will of the people must be realized."
There had already been plans for an even larger demonstration Friday, which a number of organizers said would be turned into a celebration if Mubarak steps down.
In the weeks of protest, the square has evolved into a multifaceted tent city complete with makeshift clinics, food stalls and numerous displays and dioramas celebrating the achievements of activists and the perfidy of the regime.
Across the square, impromptu leaders stood on banks of speakers and addressed the flag-waving crowd, whipping up their enthusiasm before the announcement.
Mustafa Ibrahim, a 30-year-old agricultural engineer, was under no illusions that their demands for real democracy would be fulfilled any time soon.
"We are anticipating now the difficult labor pains ahead of freedom," he said.
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