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Tahrir Chronicle: Digging In

This is the third and final dispatch from Simon Baker, our correspondent in Cairo, as told to David Black of World Policy Journal over the course of several phone conversations. (Parts one & two.)

5:30am, 2/6/11, Cairo

As of now, most Muslims in the square are in the midst of their 5am prayers. Over the course of the night, I spoke with several protesters, among them a student at the University of Cairo named Mostafa and two men, named Ali and Abdullah, who said they’d been at Tahrir for 4 days. They seemed to be somewhat out of the loop as to the status of the protests, stressing that whatever the majority of protesters do, they would support. They were also curious about the United States' response to the crisis (which they had little sense of, having received news only by word of mouth since they arrived) particularly the comments of Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama, whose rhetorical support of Egyptian freedom they viewed as more tentative and calculated than that of Britain's David Cameron.

More generally, the three commented that international opinion seemed to be characterized by a greater degree of solidarity than the actions of governments' foreign ministries. “It goes to show the ideology of Egyptian politics,” Ali said, “that the government is struggling so hard to separate itself from the people.” He added that though he felt this had long been known, it had come into sharp relief, as the ends to which the government will go to disregard the will of the people have in become clear.

On Saturday I also met with a moderately religious man in mid-20s named Achmed-Abdullah, who suspected a push today by Mubarak supporters. He thought it of extreme importance that the banks opened for business today, with several implications. First, he said, this would grant many citizens their first access to their bank accounts in two weeks. This, he thought, would provide the potential for the remaining pro-Mubarak politicians attempting to cling to power to pay off unemployed young men for their support. More broadly, he thought, many would seek a return to normalcy with paychecks in their pocket and business up and running again. “But,” he added, “it will still be as if the country is trying to walk with one leg,” and asked rhetorically: “Before the revolution, what were people doing? Running tourist stands, working as farmers – now they are ready to participate in one of the great moments of modern Egyptian history.”

To maintain the momentum of the protests, he thought keeping a military presence around the borders of Tahrir to be essential – especially for the purpose of maintaining the barricades, which are largely composed of tanks and other vehicles. To prevent the vehicles from leaving, protesters are lounging and even sleeping underneath them, in their tracks, and in the nooks inside the treads. Further, Ahmed says, this will make the military hesitant to carry out any change in orders, and weakens the resolve of the soldiers to follow orders more generally as they witness the commitment and perseverance of the protesters. It was paramount in his mind that the military stay to provide security from the state police and other pro-Mubarak forces. “The protest as a whole would be greatly weakened if they were to leave,” he said.

8pm

At about 6:15pm, the Army began placing concertina wire across the north end of Tahrir, attempting to separate protesters from the Egyptian Museum and NDP headquarters. Immediately afterwards, protesters began to remove it; four of them were detained for doing so. Since then most of the crowd has been chanting for their release. The army has responded by firing into the air, attempting to quiet the crowd and warn off protesters who get too close. The protesters have not backed away, but rather continue to dismantle parts of the wire with some success.

Protesters’ attitude towards the army has thus become volatile and uncertain, fluctuating between a friendly view that sees them simply as stewards of an uncertain transition and one that holds them to be promoting anger and confusion. A general addressed the crowd just hours ago, making well-received jokes, but that orders continue to be carried out goes to show the tentative role the military plays. “At one moment,” a man named Mostafa said, “they act and are perceived as friends, but the next they receive orders to place razor wire.”

Two students I met claimed to have witnessed members of the police force steal US embassy cars to escape the Ministry of Internal Affairs building, which had been surrounded by protesters. Upon doing this, they said, these police blatantly ran over perhaps a score of protesters in their getaway – a contention that appears to be confirmed on Youtube. Many in the crowd, they said, were quick to blame the US for this on account of having done too little to protect embassy cars that then fell into such use.

Around the Egyptian Museum, the situation has calmed down some; but the mood remains ebullient. “The tanks,” I overheard one protester say to another, “are now more tourist attractions than anything else.”

12:30am, 2/7/11

The scene in Tahrir is one of disorganization. The square is packed but many are sleeping and a lull has fallen over the place – there have been no scares about pro-Mubarak thugs in a few hours.

After waking up at about 3pm yesterday, I watched the Christian mass, which was guarded by Muslims. Over the course of the day, it’s become clear that a newfound solidarity between Christians and Muslims has emerged, which goes far beyond a dialogue. Generally, the perceived tensions between protesters on account of differences in background have been revealed to be nothing more than a creation of State TV.

After the prayers, I met with a number of people belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, among them a man named Samiyah. “What the Brotherhood wants,” he said, “is systemic reform, not a façade based on the removal of scapegoated officials.” He was insistent to point out that the Quran says to accept all, Muslim and non-Muslim, and claimed that in 1986 there was a Christian member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Gamal Asalmalak, who became very successful. “Islam commands us to respect one another, and accusations that the Brotherhood contradicts this is propaganda. We do not have a grievance with the Jewish people, but with the Israeli State and its atrocities committed against the Palestinian people.”

I asked him what would he would say to people who think the Brotherhood was only here to advance its own political agenda: “We may have our own ideas and goals as the MB. But today we are here first as Egyptians. If you look at the crowds, everyone – every denomination – is here to live in a free, plural democratic system where each group’s voice is heard.”

A man named Hossam, a social worker and kindergarten teacher from Mansoura, a town in the Nile delta, said that beyond the immediate revolution he looked forward to the new government bringing educational reform to Egypt. He had personally taught reading, writing, and basic math to his son before his entrance into primary school, for fear state institutions had been so bad. Indeed, he said, his son lost interest very quickly. “In 16 years,” he joked with slight frustration, “you should be able to teach a donkey perfect English. In Mubarak’s Egypt, the son of a teacher loses interest.”

Finally, I spoke with a man named Ahmed, a chemist working in agricultural R&D in his early 30s, who stressed that though the transition government may contain religious elements, "it must above all be secularly based. Egypt has had enough of repression. We will need a government that understands the religious ways of the Egyptian people but at the same time that does not advance the interests of any particular group.” He also very plainly questioned the stance of the United States on democratic values and what he perceived as an inappropriately heavy emphasis on Israel. “Why is the US government not doing more in support of the democracy they say they stand for? As far as the relationship with Israel is concerned, we must reform our own country first. Then Egypt can start on the path of reconciliation.”


Simon Baker is an undergraduate studying political science at the American University in Cairo. David Black is an editorial assistant at
World Policy Journal.

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