News In Brief

Reporter’s Notebook: Egypt’s Tahrir Square by day and night

Mitchell Hartman Feb 28, 2011

Tahrir Square, in the center of downtown Cairo, is now the heart of Egypt’s revolution. And like Paris’s Bastille and Beijing’s Tiananmen, it’s become a talisman and rallying cry for people’s revolutions from the Middle East, to, well, everywhere else.

Two weeks post-revolution, Tahrir has returned to a kind of ‘chaotic normal’ in the daytime. It’s Cairo’s central roundabout and it pumps endless waves of taxis, jitneys, cars and buses through the city’s hopelessly clogged arteries, lanes and traffic lights be damned.

Then, from late afternoon to just before midnight curfew every weekday, Tahrir is taken over again by the revolution. A steady stream of people–young, old, traditional, modern, Moslem, Coptic, rich, poor–converge on the square and turn it into a kind of ‘liberated zone (conveniently, Tahrir means ‘liberation’ in Arabic). This is where Egyptians now celebrate victory and commemorate the martyrs. The young ‘shebab,’ as they call themselves–a rough translation is ‘guys’ or ‘dudes,’ though half are women–gather in amoeba-like masses to sing and chant. Often they make up spontaneous satirical rhymes about the old regime as they go. Families bring picnics; hawkers sell ‘revolution kitsch’–Egyptian flags and headbands, cards with pictures of the martyrs. There’s hot tea for everyone.

And every Friday–the beginning of the Arab weekend and a day for public speeches accompanying the mid-day prayer–Egypt’s revolutionaries have been calling a ‘Million Man March’ in Tahrir. In fact, this weekly Friday protest rally is becoming an ‘instant tradition’ all over the Middle East. The first one in Cairo–held on February 18, one week after the security thugs fled the streets and Mubarak stepped down–really did pack a million people, give or take. (Journalists in Cairo these days sit around debating whether the square can physically hold such a large crowd, but the surrounding streets were also wall-to-wall.) That first Million Man March was festive and jubilant. They could have called it the ‘Million Man Party’ and sold tickets to Californians on the internet.

But in the past week, Tahrir has been subtly transformed into a place not so much to celebrate the revolution . . . as to defend it and prevent its fragile buds from being stomped to dust. The forces of reaction–the potential stompers–are easily identified. They are the sitting ministers and deputies from the old regime who use their remaining power to keep corruption or brutality prosecutions against them at bay. And they are the generals and technocrats of the new regime, who have promised elections in six months–and then told the protesters to go home and wait for change to be implemented all in good time as we see fit thank you very much.

And so–just two weeks after the revolution–Tahrir has become contested territory again. On Friday, February 25, another “Million Man March” was announced on Twitter, Facebook, and everywhere else protesters find out about these things. Perhaps a hundred thousand turned out. And they were angry. Yes, they say, they want Egypt to get back to ‘normal.’ But they also insist–and they are increasingly uncompromising about this–that the military sack remaining Mubarak-era ministers and prosecute them; that it lift the emergency law and free political prisoners. Only then can genuine democracy move orward.

Late Friday night, army units forcefully dispersed protesters near the square after curfew–they reportedly fired warning shots and used cattle prods. By Saturday morning, the young shebab were back. Only this time, they didn’t leave after dark, or at curfew. They again occupied the square, slept in tents, guarded and fed each other. The army kept its distance and the tanks didn’t budge. From my hotel room overlooking the square, I could see the young people periodically rush off en masse–with shouts and perhaps a few rocks hidden under their shirts–to nearby streets where rumors had it that army or police were threatening demonstrators.

Sunday morning, I went out to the square just after curfew was lifted at dawn, and I found a lot of disheveled, hungry, fired-up shebab who had just defended ‘their’ square for another night. It looks as if this revolution will indeed take a while to ‘settle down.’ Democracy is messy.

And by the way, Tahrir isn’t only for politics. It has always been, and remains, a central gathering place for regular Egyptians of no particular political persuasion. Including, a group of teenagers I stumbled on after dark, who take over one corner of the square several times a week–to breakdance. They wear baggies and t-shirts, like their idols Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z. After politely asking their elders to clear a space among the roasted-nut sellers and picnicking families, they spin American hip-hop tracks on their iPods and show their stuff. We might perhaps think of them as ‘shebab in training,’ bringing another kind of liberation to Tahrir and Egypt.

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