On the Ground in Egypt: Checking In From Tahrir Square
This morning I went to find some of my former colleagues at their office near downtown Cairo. In a taxi I passed through one army checkpoint and one civilian checkpoint manned by young men with kitchen knives. When I arrived at the office I found the door barricaded with the vending machine–another sign of the fear among the press here.
I was ready to see the protests for myself and make my way toward Midan el-Tahrir, or Liberation Square, now a household name outside of Egypt thanks to the protesters’ sit in. I approached from the Qasr el-Nil bridge, which connects downtown to the island of Zamalek and ends in front of the Cairo Opera House. When I arrived the crowd there was large but there was still room to maneuver. On a patch of grass nearby groups of people sat in what looked as much like a picnic as a protest. A vendor sold plastic cups of tea from a metal tray. Hundreds of people were in line to pass through the army checkpoint into the square.
Within a half hour the crowd had swelled. This entrance to the protest had become a side protest in its own right. The crowd chanted, “Down with Mubarak, down with the tyrant!” and “Tonight is your last night!” and “Leave! Leave! Leave!” They sang the national anthem. They told jokes. They made way for families to pass through to less crowded spaces.
For days I have been reading about the diversity of the protesters, how the demonstrations include people from all walks of life. Today is saw it with my own eyes. Women wearing heavy make up and lots of jewelry stood next to young men with the long beards that indicate a fundamentalist view of Islam. Fathers stood with their teenage sons. An eight-year-old boy, chanting “Down with Mubarak!” looked up at me and gave me a thumbs up and a smile.
The scene inside of Midan el-Tahrir surpassed my expectations. Protesters have been camping out there, more or less continuously, for about ten days. The mood was downright festive. Children ran around with “Leave!” painted on their faces. A man hoisted a stuffed donkey labled “Mubarak” on a stick. Egyptian flags waved, banners unfurled, chants resonated.
The demonstrators have gone to great lengths to organize themselves. And while the situation remains a bit chaotic, they are vigilant. To enter the square requires passing through several civilian checkpoints, which include a frisking and an ID check. A few times I saw protesters discover a weapon on someone entering. When this happened, they wrestled him to the ground, took the weapon and brought him to the military nearby. Meanwhile, others formed a human chain around the scene.
I asked people if they were afraid of violence and they all assured me that they weren’t. Many, judging by their bruised faces and bandaged heads, had already seen their share of violence. The rocks piled near the edges of the square suggested that at least some in the crowd were ready for more street battles. But things went off peacefully and instead of fear, the people showed a tremendous optimism, assuring me that the regime would fall by the end of the night. At the time of writing, almost 10:00pm in Cairo, it hasn’t happened yet. But, as one man told me optimistically, “If he doesn’t leave tomorrow he will leave the day after that. Or the day after that.”
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