Tahrir Square : calm in the eye of the Egyptian storm

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For reasons of safety, Newsnet Scotland has removed the personal details of our reporter.

Two weeks on and the ground zero of Egypt’s anti-government uprising has the air of an outdoors music festival.

More than a thousand are still camping overnight in Midan Tahrir.  Tents and improvised shelters of blankets, metal poles and polythene sheeting cram the traffic islands and line the shuttered fronts of tour agencies and airline offices.

Daytime brings rousing, amplified political speeches and group prayers, with hundreds surging to the southern edge to take part.  After sunset and the start of a widely ignored curfew, numbers swell as families and groups of young men stroll the square, chatting, snacking and laughing.  Graffiti on spare patches of wall announces “thank you to Facebook”.  Al-Jazeera gets a nod too.  Elsewhere, messages to Egypt’s president are spelt out with rocks on the ground: “Get out!” –  “Don’t you understand? Go means leave!”

The oily whiff of popcorn fills the air and tea and coffee, costing a few pence, are served on broken paving stone ‘trays’.  Free bread and cheese-spread make the rounds, brought through the checkpoints by supporters.  The shattered front of Hardees, the US burger chain, now marks a water refill point.  Complementary haircuts can be had at the ‘Revolution Salon’, fronted by a chap with chair, scissors and a no-nonsense approach to grooming.

On the pavement beside a pharmacy station at a defunct KFC, a writhing snake-pit of extension cords and sockets allows long-term campers to recharge their mobile phones.  “We’re here for the long haul and we have everything,” Ahmed, a young student, told me, connecting his Nokia.

Savvy streetsellers have moved in too, hawking phone credits, flags, cold drinks and tissues.  Those whose personal hygiene has been strained by a long-term stay can buy new socks or underwear while the hungry with cash to spare can buy a tub of koshary – Egypt’s pasta and lentil staple – or even a doner kebab.  A strange, fluid economy has sprung up. With protesters refusing to leave, sellers have, quite literally, a captive market.

Quite a change.  Since the beginning of what protesters’ banners now call the January 25th Revolution, Tahrir square has seen vicious charges by riot police, pitched battles with rocks, sniper-fire, petrol bombs and even a thundering attack by cavalry, all courtesy of their shaken government.  Injuries have been in the thousands, according to local medics, and nearly two dozen are said to have died in Tahrir alone.

Despite the calm, signs of the last bloody weeks are legion with many of the long-term protesters sporting bandages and bruises.  Security is tight, with multiple ID checks and pat-downs by volunteers on anyone entering the square.  Beside the Egyptian museum, a half-dozen tanks block the northeast entrance to Tahrir.  Activists, wary of army attempts to clear the square, laid down before the military vehicles to halt an advance on Saturday night.  One man had even nuzzled himself into the track-hub and, bandana across his eyes, was trying to doze in the midday sun.

Two streets leading off this corner of the square have been flashpoints even after the worst of Wednesday and Thursday’s bloodshed.  Fearing infiltration by regrouped pro-Mubarak forces, protesters are closely watching two remaining barricades.  Any sign of a mob forming in the sidestreets near Talaat Harb prompts an alarm – the clanging of pipes on iron fencing – and reinforcements charge across the square to assist.  Since Saturday it has all been false alarms.

Sunday was Martyr’s Day where banners and prayers marked the first wave of identified casualties.  The independent newspaper al-Masry al-Youm devoted a page to smiling images of more than a dozen Egyptians – male and female – killed by beatings or gunfire since the 25th.  Copies of the page were flyposted on walls and the fences that line Tahrir. Some protesters had pasted the page onto cardboard.  A middle-aged lady wearing a chador paused and turned her placard to show me the shaheed.  “Mubarak killed them,” she said bluntly.

Two effigies of the hated President dangle from the traffic lights.  Most people I spoke to hold no truck with political negotiations while Mubarak is still in power.  Even then, many compare talking with his vice-president and possible temporary successor Suleyman to “deposing Hitler and then chatting to Himmler”.  There’s deep suspicion towards the US and its motives here too.  More graffiti demands the US step out and “let Egypt achieve democracy alone”.

In an alleyway south of Tahrir one can get a hint of the human cost of the uprising as well as its resilience and level of ad hoc organisation.  Here, a small alleyway mosque normally used by street-traders has been converted into a hospital and surgery staffed by a rotating shift of nearly a hundred doctors and senior medical students.  A fully-stocked pharmacy is presided over by energetic middle-aged women dressed for maximum modesty.  Rugs strung across clothesline cordon off areas for recuperation, surgery and even dentistry.  I heard the whirr of a drill and saw a young boy, mouth agape, undergoing a repair of a filling.

There was a rush and a bulky 40-something man was carried in and carefully laid on a floor rug.  A doctor in a long white coat checked his pulse and heart then placed a towel under his head as a pillow.  The man had been injured before, his abdomen was bandaged, but on this occasion he had simply fainted in the tumult of the crowd.  “Most people here are like this,” a medical student told me.  “There is food and water but it is not enough. People are exhausted.” 

Worrying, but a far cry from the mayhem of Wednesday and Thursday, when this improvised hospital battled with hundreds of serious injuries from hurled rocks, molotov cocktails and, most telling of all, gunfire.  “They aimed for the heads, the face and the stomach,” says volunteer Sameh Ahmad.  “We saw 19 deaths right here from gunshots.”  Latest figures from Human Rights Watch estimate at 397 the numbers killed in Egypt since the start of the uprising.

As calm prevails in Tahrir, it is matched by a return to relative normality in the rest of cental Cairo.  Barricades have come down and the streets are yet again busy with traffic and pedestrians of all ages.  Perhaps three-quarters of shops are open and takeaway restaurants and shisha cafes are once again serving. Significant lines have formed outside banks and insurance offices.  Prices, especially for transport, have climbed dramatically.  People are withdrawing money and not spending.  Small neighbourhood vigilante groups remain, alert for further trouble.  It’s an uneasy peace – Cairenes won’t soon forget the last week of paranoia and fear.  Who is on which side?  Who can be trusted?  For now courtesy prevails.

It puts Midan Tahrir’s residents in an awkward position.  Sunday’s crowds were as large as they’d ever been – particularly surprising given it was the day the government declared Egypt would return to work.  But long-term residents are dwindling as money worries take hold.  As the crowd shrinks so does its ability to defend itself either from pro-Mubarak supporters or the army.  Those still camped out fear brutal payback if they leave the square and the regime and its security apparatus clings to power.  Beneath the occasionally carnivalesque jubilance, there’s anxiety.

“It isn’t solved, things are only frozen,” said a manager at the Hilton as I tried to arrange copies of documents for press accreditation, the new process for journalists itself a sign that the Egyptian authorities are beginning to try and manage the situation.

Attacks on journalists and random street violence have tailed off in the last few days, coinciding remarkably with the government’s call for a return to normality.  Somehow those supposedly independent but deeply impassioned Mubarak supporters, floored by grief, fear and anger, have realised they don’t care so much after all.  A cynic could be forgiven for thinking they’d been given orders to stand down.