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No charge, Egypt celebrates

A funny thing happened to me in Cairo the other day. I was there to report on events for the BBC. In fact Mubarak resigned about two minutes after our program went on air.  Must have been the final straw for him when we turned up. 

But that resignation, dramatic though it was, was not the most extraordinary part of the visit. That came when I was on the way back to my hotel in a taxi the following day. And the taxi driver with the most charming of smiles announced:  "No charge, today Egypt celebrates." 

No charge -- can you imagine what it would take for a taxi driver in London or New York to say "no charge"? Even if the saviour turned up on the second coming, he would still be charged by a London cabbie.   That simple act of generosity was a mark of just how much it meant to the people of Egypt to find freedom, however uncertain the future, after those decades of suppression.  

Back in Tahrir Square, the young people who had fought for that freedom went home and got buckets and brushes and swept the square cleaner than it had ever been. A new start for a new Egypt, declared one. No one organized them or paid them. They just wanted to do something, anything, to mark the moment. 

As I walked through the square on the next day, I was offered sweets and pastries by those who wished to celebrate. That extraordinary cry of elation which rose from hundreds of thousands of throats on that amazing Thursday night still seemed to echo around the Square, and the expressions on the faces around me were of pure joy.  It was a reminder of the value of what we have here in the West -- of the value of those rights and liberties for which our ancestors fought and which sometimes we seem to dismiss so casually.  

For me, it brought back vivid memories of one night not long ago when I was in Washington DC, and a man called Barack Obama had just been elected President.  Now that election is, of course, a reminder that high hopes don't by themselves solve anything.  In Egypt, the reality is that life will still be full of the same old problems.

But one thing will never be the same there -- the power is now with the people -- so for the moment, let's just celebrate and wish them luck.