Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

At home in Tahrir

What’s it like to sleep under a blanket of stars in Tahrir Square? Rasha Sadek looks at the political and other forces staging sit-ins in the home of the Egyptian revolution

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Tea, sandwiches and biscuits have been set out on a small metal table, and a group of seven young men is ready to have breakfast. One of them goes back to a nearby tent to bring sugar and a spoon, while the rest discuss the day’s schedule. They are in good spirits because it is the first night for nine days that they haven’t woken up to be greeted by showers of tear gas and security attacks at dawn. Welcome to another lazy day in Tahrir Square.

Since President Mohamed Morsi announced a constitutional declaration on 22 November that grants him almost unrestricted powers, the country’s revolutionary forces have been sounding the alarm bells and converging in protest on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. One day after the president’s announcement, a protest entitled the “Friday of Anger and Ultimatum” was held in the square and a sit-in was declared until the president withdrew the declaration and disbanded the Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting Egypt’s new constitution. With the exception of the Islamists, all other forces representing a broad spectrum of society have already withdrawn from the assembly’s deliberations.

However, two weeks later neither the president nor those staging the sit-in have backed down. President Morsi has also called on the public to vote on 15 December on a draft of the new constitution, described as “flawed and not representative of the Egyptian people” by the already furious protesters.

“If that’s not how a dictator is born, then I don’t know how he is,” said one of the young men over breakfast. “Morsi has dealt a blow to the rule of law in this country. The Muslim Brotherhood, to which he is affiliated, wants to control all the institutions of the state.” What Abdel-Meguid Hamed, 19, was referring to was Morsi’s decree that places him above the law, causing problems with the judiciary and a stand-off with the judges who have vowed not to monitor the upcoming referendum or to continue holding court sessions.

“This is a bad situation that is only going to get worse,” said Hamed, putting down his newspaper. “From here we can only escalate the protests.”

 

POLITICAL FORCES IN TAHRIR: Some 200 to 250 tents have been set up in Tahrir Square, divided into those in the centre of the square and those in front of the Mugamma administrative building. Around 30 political parties, together with civil and revolutionary movements and unions from the different governorates, are holding sit-ins, and each party has provided up to four or five tents for its members.

Groups or individuals not politically affiliated to any of the parties have also brought their own tents. At least 1,500 protesters have set up camp in Tahrir Square, with this figure doubling or more when security attacks intensify or after demonstrations like last week’s million-man “Friday of the Dream of the Martyr”. 

Since the sit-in forces have agreed not to raise the flags of their parties or movements and to hoist only the national flag, each group has identified itself by writing its name on its tents. The groups include the Free Egyptian Party, the Wafd, the Democratic Egypt and Constitution parties, the Liberal Front for Peaceful Change, the Union of Labour Syndicates and the Injured of the Revolution Movement.

Joining these are the Kifaya and 6 April movements, as well as the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth, the Popular Current Party, the Strong Egypt Party, the Social Democratic Egypt Party and the Tagammu and Karama parties. Also sitting in are the Coalition of Maspero Youth, the Voice of Freedom Party, the Coalition of Egypt’s Copts, the Popular Democratic Movement, the Democratic Front Party, the Egyptian Federation of Independent Syndicates, the Egypt’s Awakening and Justice parties, the Sheyfinko Monitoring Group and the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre.

A group of retired military men have also set up camp in the square in order to announce their solidarity with the demands of the protesters and revolutionaries. “We are here because we want to see Sinai safe from looming danger. The constitutional declaration that has divided the Egyptian people has to be withdrawn. We blame the Muslim Brotherhood for polarising public opinion and for the deterioration that the country has seen in every domain,” Ahmed Mohamed, a retired general, told Al-Dostour newspaper.

In front of the Justice Party tent stood Hisham Akram, vice chair of the party. He is also furious at the current state of affairs. “It is the role of the president of the republic to unite the ranks, even if he’s from the opposing current. But he gave a speech outside the Al-Ittihadiya presidential palace surrounded by his supporters who had gathered to nod in agreement to whatever he said. This is not right. The path this country is taking will lead to disaster. For two years now we have paid the price of toppling the former regime, but we haven’t seen the fruits of the revolution.”

Ahmed Zaafan from the Popular Current Party adopted much the same tone. “We reject the new constitution because it doesn’t represent all the Egyptian people. Where are the workers, the peasants and employees? We demand that the Constituent Assembly be dissolved and that another be formed that gathers the different segments of society together in order to draft a new constitution. Before this happens, the constitutional declaration also has to be withdrawn. We will not negotiate before these two demands are met.”

All the parties and movements contacted by Al-Ahram Weekly at the sit-in reiterated the same demands. They were also unanimous in their plans to escalate the protests. “A general strike followed by a mass march to the presidential palace is our response to Morsi’s ignoring our legitimate demands,” said Tharwat Abdel-Baki from the Constitution Party, which is headed by opposition leader Mohamed Al-Baradei.

“Morsi is presenting people with two dictatorial options: either vote for this flawed constitution or live with the constitutional declaration with all the powers it gives him. We reject these options and give him the choice to answer our demands or to leave office,” Abdel-Baki stated.

 

ORDER OF THE DAY: On quiet days in Tahrir when there are no million-man marches, thugs or security attacks, the protesters are at ease. “We start the day by going to buy breakfast from the vendors around Tahrir,” said 24-year-old Ahmed, who declined to disclose his last name, from the Constitution Party branch in Mansoura. “Then we clean up the square, read the newspapers and talk. We engage in political discussion with demonstrators who come later in the day and join in to voice our demands.”

“When the going gets tough and if there is an attack, we unite our ranks with the other demonstrators in order to defend the square,” Ahmed said calmly. “At night, we gather in circles, dance, sing, buy snacks, read books, do whatever. We also have a projector to follow certain speeches or interviews aired on television.”

“The next day we look at each other thankfully because we have survived another day,” added Mohamed Al-Gammal, another member of the party, smiling.

With frequent security and thug attacks on the square, especially during the first week of the sit-in, the possibility of death or injury haunts the Tahrir community, a feeling intensified after the funeral of Gaber Salah, a 17-year-old 6 April Movement member known as Gika, who was fatally injured by birdshot in the head and chest during the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes and kept on life support until 26 November.

“Eventually, we have to shake off our feelings of grief,” Ahmed said. “We have to fight to regain our country.”

 

I COME ALONE: Not all those joining the sit-in in Tahrir Square are members of political parties or movements. A considerable number of protesters setting up camp in the square are not politically affiliated but have come to the square nonetheless to voice the same demands.

Mohamed Awad is a 67-year-old university professor from Zagazig who says that he was always a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood’s right to work politically during the rule of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak, but that he is no longer a supporter of the group. “Since it came to power, the Brotherhood has been causing damage to the country. The division of Sudan was a result of practices like those of the Islamists in Egypt. The Brotherhood has plans, but they are not in the interests of the people.”

Despite his age, Awad is adamant about staying on in Tahrir until he sees a better future for Egypt in the making. “I don’t have a tent, and I sleep on the grass, but this doesn’t matter. My generation was silent about Mubarak’s 30 years of corruption, and the younger generations are paying the price for our mistakes. I want to do anything I can to support the youth who sparked the revolution and who today are standing their ground against the injustice and thuggery of the regime.”

Reda Ibrahim is a 45-year-old woman in a niqab who at the age of just 11 was married off by her parents. Setting up her tent close to the Mugamma building, she prides herself in being called “the mother of the revolutionaries”. She says she has been in Tahrir during every sit-in for the past two years.

“Those Islamists who raise their chants in the name of God have done more harm to Islam than the religion’s opponents. All the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis want is to have power, and they don’t care if they bring the country down along the way.” Ibrahim spends her days in the square “with my children, the soldiers of the square”. She shares her 2x2m tent with 14-year-old Mohamed Hisham, who is sitting-in in Tahrir Square “because I am Egyptian”.

Islam Al-Bishbishi, the 38-year-old owner of a contracting company, sleeps in a tent he has bought with three of his friends. They decided to join the protesters on 27 November, during the million-man march led by Al-Baradei, Hamdeen Sabahi and other prominent opposition figures. Al-Bishbishi and his friends chant along with others against “the rule of the supreme guide” of the Brotherhood, insisting that “the people want the end of the Brotherhood.”

“Things have got worse and worse with Morsi. This is why we will not leave the square until our demands are met or we bring the regime down. This is about our future and about the future of our children.”

 

SECURING THE SQUARE: The faces of Yonan, Joe and Ahmed are covered in blood. The three men are members of the popular committees set up at the entrances to Tahrir. They converge on the gate near the Egyptian Museum. Quickly, more people from the square gather around them. Who did this? “We don’t know, we were not even with each other,” the three men say. Was it the police? “No.” Thugs? “Yes.” Paid by whom? Nobody knows.

Yonan is a 19-year old student who has volunteered to protect the square and be part of the popular committees preventing people without IDs or bearing weapons from entering. The gate at which he is standing is made from iron fencing and barbed wire. There is a wooden watch tower, and another volunteer is standing on it, warning of an impending thug attack.

Joe, 24, and Ahmed, 25, are also volunteers with the popular committees. “No one asked me to join. I felt it was my duty to prevent thugs and harassers from going into the square,” said Joe, his mouth still bleeding. “A while ago, I was walking down Falaki Street when thugs attacked me for no reason.” Yonan and Ahmed’s stories are the same as those told by others in the square.

To counter thug attacks or security clampdowns, the protesters have set up two field hospitals near the square at Dobara Church on Sheikh Rihan Street and at the corner of Talaat Harb Street. Ambulances affiliated to the Ministry of Health are stationed on Falaki Street.

Another group of young men makes sure that women are not harassed in the square. They wear green vests so they can be spotted easily. This reporter witnessed a man harassing a girl in her 20s, and her screams drew the popular committees and the “no to harassment” young men to where she was in less than a minute.

The harasser put up a fight with the young men, but they managed to escort him outside the borders of Tahrir. “Sometimes the square is like a war zone, but it’s our duty to protect it,” said Yonan, his nose fractured and still bleeding.

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