Cairo’s Sheltering Sky: A Night in Tahrir


Banners and tents are reflected in a water puddle in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on 28 November 2011. (Photo: AFP – Odd Andersen)

By: Serene Assir

Despite a fierce security crackdown, the onset of elections, and vilification by many, Tahrir Square remains home to hundreds of passionate people demanding the fall of the military regime. Al-Akhbar’s Serene Assir joined the protesters on the twelfth night of their on-going sit-in.
It was past midnight. Volunteers guarded the entrances to Tahrir Square, checking bags and IDs. “Welcome,” said one, who smiled when he heard my Lebanese accent. Minutes earlier, reports of beatings by unidentified thugs in civilian clothing at a simultaneous sit-in at the gates of the Egyptian Cabinet building created some tension.
But to protesters participating in an ongoing, round-the-clock occupation of Tahrir Square and the street housing the Cabinet, there was no cause for real concern this time around.
“We’ve been here 12 days,” said leftist activist from Damietta province, Mohammed Mustafa. “We’re used to small incidents like this now. Most of them aren’t serious and we don’t pay too much attention. After the killing in Mohammed Mahmoud Street, we lost all our fear.”
On November 19, deadly clashes broke out between the Egyptian security forces and protesters on Mohammed Mahmoud street. Dozens were killed in the clashes. The street leading out of Tahrir Square has now been renamed by protesters Martryrs’ Street. A poster hangs over the entrance to a street that remains off limits for all but journalists.

Both during and ever since the clashes, hundreds of people from across Egypt have gathered at Tahrir Square through day and night, to demand the fall of the military regime. While the demand predated the crackdown, the deaths led to a renewed urgency. “We cannot live under a regime that has proven itself so criminal. That’s why we’re still here,” said 24-year-old Mustafa.

By day, thousands of people spend time in the square. They create a dynamic atmosphere complete with spontaneous demonstrations, conversations between friends new an old over tea, and political debate among strangers.

By night, while most people leave, hundreds continue to make the square their home. They eat and sleep here. Some discuss politics late into the night, while others take turns to sleep inside tents. Others sleep in the open air and wake up with the sunrise, in the heart of a city that has witnessed an overwhelming transformation through 2011.

Freedom, Street Art and Friendship

We walk through Tahrir Square towards an ugly yet landmark Soviet-style building housing the notorious symbol of Egypt’s state bureaucracy, the Mugamma. At the entrance of a building where hundreds of thousands of passports have been processed and still more visas stamped, a group of activists have set up their tents.

“We’ve been gone a few hours, and I was already starting to miss it,” said Haitham Ahmed. Ahmed said he is one of many who left the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) after its leadership did not take a stand against the SCAF on the heels of the crackdown on Mohammed Mahmoud.

“We were all there, and we saw what happened. How can the MB leadership accept to work with this system?” he asked. “I prefer to exercise my freedom as an individual and join hundreds here in the square, than belong to an organization that puts power before ethics.”

Critics of the sit-in have accused its participants of having no morals, in a country with a strong social code that governs the public life of both Muslims and Christians. To Ahmed, that’s simply not true.

“Condemning our demands and our actions is absurd. We may not be many, 12 days into our sit-in, but we know that solidarity with our call is strong,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed spoke quietly, so as not to wake those sleeping around us under Cairo’s open sky. Despite being make-shift and dependant on individual, volunteer contributions of food, tents and blankets, my one-night presence in the sit-in was made all the more memorable by participants’ desire to share all they had with each other. No one ate alone, and invitations to share meals and tea became more and more plentiful with the passing hours.

As though to dispel any remaining tension caused by reports of beatings in the neighboring sit-in, Mustafa went towards a gathering of about 40 people crowding around Tahrir Square’s famous singer Rami Essam. Playing guitar, Essam sang a song whose chorus everyone around him had memorized. “Live your freedom and social justice,” Essam chanted in a spontaneous gig among fans who filmed him while they joined in.

“We like him because he has been active throughout the revolution, from January 25 to this day,” Mustafa said. “He’s a musician, but he was beaten too. It just goes to show the kind of system we live under.”

The walls of buildings around Tahrir Square also speak of struggle and creativity. Once dull, they are now an open-air, constantly updated exhibition of graffiti art. Stencil art featuring jailed blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, who was accused of murder and terrorism, mingles with Arabic calligraphy graffiti reading “down with the military regime.” Young artists-cum-activists worked well into the night on sheets of A3 paper, designing avant-garde calligraphy, writing messages of hope on unity in Egypt, and others condemning the SCAF’s hold.

A spirit of collectivism permeated the social bond among activists, not all of whom knew each other. “But by virtue of being here, we become friends in an instant,” Mustafa explained. “The bond that ties participants in the revolution, from January to this day, is profound and true.”

Politics 24/7

While the night was marked by a beautiful atmosphere of socializing, it was political from beginning to end. “Our presence is a political act, and right now, it’s our strongest weapon,” said Ahmed. Discussion on how long the sit-in in Tahrir would last, and on how to ensure that it reflected Egyptians’ popular will, is intense throughout the night.

Some, such as Ahmed, believe the street was the revolution’s strongest card, and that “we can’t abandon our sit-in or else we will lose ground.” Others, such as Mustafa, agree, but also proposed that taking street action onto other levels was important.

“Downtown Cairo is important, but so are the towns and cities,” he said. “We have learned so much over recent months about mobilization. We need to multiply our efforts. The revolution, as we learned in light of the Mohammed Mahmoud killings, must continue. Believe me, this is only the beginning.”

The sun began to rise. People started to walk in and out of the Mugamma building, some to work, others for paperwork. Those who go into work every day appear unsurprised by what they see. Others enter into discussion with protesters who are still awake. I felt it was time to crawl into the nearest tent for shelter. I later woke up to tea, cheese, politics and jokes. I thanked the people who hosted me. They had seen so much violence yet held in their hearts an age-old Egyptian kindness, coupled with a new freedom being born every minute.

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