Friday, July 8, 2011

In Tahrir At Last

Since I arrived in Cairo on Wednesday, I’ve struggled over how much I should stick my nose in Egypt’s business. I am here to learn about the revolution, to fill in the context that mainstream media ignores and the complexity social media obscures. But at the same time, post-Mubarak Cairo can be a dangerous place where sensitivities abound – sensitivities that a foreigner like me can all too easily tread upon.

Today I had to make my first decision: should I go to the largest protests since the fall of Mubarak? Not a single Egyptian friend urged me to go to Tahrir. Most were just nervous for my safety out of an abundance of hospitality. Some flat out told me to stay at home. But as I sat in my apartment watching the protests on TV – as I have done from DC since January – I grew increasingly antsy. What’s the point of traveling all the way to Egypt to just watch TV? Before I knew it, I was in a cab on my way to Midan al-Tahrir.

Passing through the citizen checkpoint on Qasr al-Nil Bridge – the site of pitched battles between protesters and police during the revolution – I felt a chill run down my spine. Almost 1000 Egyptians died fighting for their freedom. Thousands more have been injured, imprisoned and tortured. All Egyptians have sacrificed for this revolution, which has accomplished so much and yet has so much more to do.

It is for their sake Egyptians have decided to descend upon Tahrir Square once more today. Mubarak may be gone, but his regime remains. Entering the square, I could hear the simple demands of the protesters. Al-shaab yureed tetheer al-nizam. The people want the cleansing of the regime. They chanted for justice, for accountability, and for the resignations of Mubarak’s lackeys.

Much of the protests were as I had seen on TV and social media. Tahrir definitely exudes a festival-like atmosphere, and I can see why protesting can not only be fun, but addictive. Families milled about as children got their faces painted. Vendors hawked revolutionary paraphernalia and delicious street food. Protesters rotated between chanting, singing, and forming discussion groups. Those with the funniest or most artistic signs beamed proudly as bystanders took pictures. One teenager scaled a massive lamp post to wave the Egyptian flag for a cheering crowd. When dignitaries from Al-Azhar arrived, the crowd parted to make way for the sheikhs to mount the stage.

But there are so many details that press coverage would miss or ignore. A seven year old kid collected trash while puffing on a cigarette nonchalantly. A group of calm protesters would roar suddenly when Al Jazeera cameras appeared and go quiet just as quickly when the cameras turned off. Would-be speakers on various stages quibbled over who would speak next. Off-message speakers were forced to give up their mics as the crowd shouted at them to Enzl or step down.

Although Egyptians have united today around a core set of demands, schisms were also obvious in the square. Various groups erected their own makeshift stages, each with their own sound systems that competed with their neighbors. At one point, the Muslim Brotherhood – which enjoyed both the largest stage and audience – began to sing Allahu Akbar, Bismillah (God is Greatest, in the name of God) over and over again. The adjacent Christians broke in with chants of “Muslims, Christians, we are one hand. Long live Egypt.” Each group then tried to drown out the other, the tension tangible.

The underlying sectarian tension belied the festival atmosphere. So too did the real anger felt towards the regime. The stage next to the Hardees featured a series of speeches by the mothers of martyrs killed during the revolution. Some thanked God for the honor of becoming a martyr family, some yelled angrily about the crimes of the regime, others just simply cried. At one point, thousands chanted in unison for the execution of those responsible for killing martyrs. One chant leader, sitting on his friend’s shoulders, riled up the crowd, his eyes and neck veins bulging in rage. At another stage, a small Mubarak effigy was hung by a noose, the puppet body clad in a prominent Star of David.

It is that underlying anger – when confronted with regime antics - that makes Tahrir such a volatile place. Incidents can quickly escalate. The past few weeks have seen a series of acts of random violence by regime thugs and explicit intimidation of press and foreigners. Today, I did not hear of any such problems – likely because the protests were so large that the government was helpless to do anything but let today run its course.

Tonight, however, may turn out to be an entirely different story. Many core revolutionaries hope resort to the tactics of the revolution and turn today’s protests into a full-scale sit-in. But the Muslim Brotherhood has announced it will not participate in such a sit-in, and the average protester may not be willing to take the risk of staying the night. If the numbers thin out, the government would have a free hand to unleash the thugs.

I left Tahrir with two questions. First, as I wrote about yesterday, will anything be achieved beyond a bunch of shouting-induced sore throats? Second, how will the 95% of Egyptians who did not participate interpret today’s events? Both answers will hinge on how tonight unfolds.

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