Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 June 2011
Issue No. 1053
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Open forum

Tahrir Square is now the venue for a vast range of debates, writes Khaled Dawoud

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Crowds at Tahrir on Friday differed on whether Egypt should become a "civil" or "Islamic" state. Others read poetry and played music

Since 27 May, the date of the last mass demonstration -- a so-called millioniya -- in central Cairo, Tahrir Square has been relatively quiet. It has continued to witness protests, particularly on Fridays, but these have been small scale, and generally focussed on a single issue. On 17 June, for instance, nearly 300 football fans, together with a handful of leading players, met in the square to demand the removal of the head of the Football Federation, Samir Zaher, and restructure the organisation of the game after decades of corruption and mismanagement under the Mubarak regime. After shouting slogans for an hour the crowd peacefully dispersed, though not before vowing, like many groups before them, to return to Tahrir if their demands are ignored.

By 2pm Tahrir Square had returned to its usual, Friday afternoon self, the only difference to a pre-revolutionary weekend being the handful of people on the central traffic island determined to continue debating political issues, creating a kind of Hyde Park Corner in the centre of Egypt's capital. Those who lingered to discuss the future were well served by stalls serving an array of food and drink.

Whether Egypt should become an Islamic or a civil state seems to dominate these afternoon debates, hardly surprising given that Islamic groups, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, have emerged as the most powerful organised parties since Hosni Mubarak's fall.

"Of course we must be ruled by Islamic Sharia. Ninety-five per cent of Egypt's people are Muslims," said one middle-aged bearded man wearing dark sun glasses.

Not so, replied the young man opposite, a student at the Faculty of Commerce.

"Egypt must remain a civilian state, with equal rights for its citizens regardless of their religion."

Discussions were loud but peaceful, despite the clear absence of any security or army presence. In the middle of the debate one participant lost his patience.

"We tried socialism, we tried capitalism," he shouted. "Let's try Islam. And if Islam doesn't work, don't believe in God afterwards."

After repeating the same words several times the man left and joined another circle, probably to reiterate the same point.

In the discussions the debate on Egypt's identity was linked to another controversial topic -- should Egypt draft a new constitution ahead of parliamentary elections or stick to the timetable produced by the Higher Council of the Armed Forces?

Supporters of a civil state, worried that Islamist groups will score a victory in parliamentary elections and thus be able to dominate the drafting of any new constitution, are pushing for elections to be delayed despite more than 78 per cent of voters supporting the timetable set out by the military council when it was put before the public in a referendum on 19 March. Secular activists, now united under the banner "constitution first," argue that the result of the poll should be reconsidered because the public was deliberately misled by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, who claimed their opponents wanted to drop the Article 2 of the current constitution which states that "Islam is Egypt's official religion, and the principles of Islamic Sharia the main source of legislation".

"You liberals don't respect the will of the people. You think the public are all fools and don't know what they are voting on," insisted one young man in Tahrir who said he supported the Muslim Brotherhood.

"You're not making sense," replied someone on the other side of the debate. "We must have a constitution first in order to build our future on a clear basis. How can you build a house without laying the foundations first?"

The role of the army in politics, demands for a speedy trial for Mubarak and his family, the referral of thousands of civilians to military trials since the army took over, the lack of security and absence of police in the streets were also issues that divided those who remained in Tahrir.

Not that such gatherings lack a lighter side, for Tahrir Square has also turned into a stage for all sorts of talents. A man who gave his name as Ali stood in the middle of a circle reading poetry. People cheered when he finished reciting verses with a clear political and social message and demanded more. Another young man sat on what little grass remains, playing the oud and singing nationalist songs.

Also on the roundabout was a veiled woman dressed in black, sitting on a blanket with her 14- year-old son. When she heard I was a reporter she told me she had been sleeping in the square for three nights, staging her own sit-in to demand the immediate release of her husband.

"Tahrir Square attracts the media, which is why I came," said Nagwa. Her husband, she continued, had been arrested in a poor Cairo neighbourhood when two policemen stopped him and discovered he was not carrying his ID card.

"He is a graduate of the Faculty of Arts, but we are poor people. Because he argued with the policemen, they beat him badly and have been keeping him in jail since then. Didn't they say there was a revolution against injustice? Didn't they claim the police would stop torturing people? I want the interior minister to hear me and release my husband."

Liberal groups and supporters of the "constitution first" camp said their next millioniya in Tahrir will be held on 8 July. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups said they would boycott the protest because they insist on "elections first".

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