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Sunday, 17 November 2019

Chronicles of a sit-in: Day 6

In which Yassin Gaber sees talk and preparation for Friday protests

Yassin Gaber , Saturday 16 Jul 2011
Tahrir Cinema
Protesters assemble for the latest attraction in the occupied square, Tahrir Cinema.
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The camp was restless throughout the late hours of Wednesday night and the early hours of Thursday morning. Disturbances were common place, and for the first time since the beginning of the 'third sit-in,' a general alarm resounded at around 2:00. Those encamped in the traffic island were jolted awake by the short-lived fear of attack. Protesters quickly put on their shoes to run to Qasr El-Nil Street, but soon discovered that the commotion was due to yet another criminal with weapons.

The next morning, talk in the camp revolved around suspicions that a sizeable amount of infiltrators were in our midst. One of the campers showed us an image on his camera of three military personnel walking on Mohammed Mahmoud Street inside the occupied zone.

The square, itself, however, was generally quiet. The chaotic events of Wednesday morning did not repeat themselves. Employees made their way into the Mogamma for the second morning while, on the other side of the square, small groups assembled in the diminishing shade. I got closer to one group which seemed more animated than the rest and listened. “Something doesn't feel right,” a man said anxiously, adding, “Something is happening and I don't know exactly what.”

A man passed by, asking if anyone could volunteer for checkpoint duty. Numbers were running low. I turned and began to walk to Mohammed Mahmoud Street, hoping to catch a glance of a soldier. The thought of forced dispersion by the military was not an alien one. Before the thought went too far, with all its anxieties and grim conclusions, I remembered the words of a protester earlier in the morning: “They wouldn't dare attack us on a Thursday – not before the big Friday protest.”

The alarm at 2:00 in the morning had certainly aroused in me feelings of the first 18-days and all it's sleepless nights: memories of protesters marching up and down Maglis El-Shaab Street chanting military slogans. Those nights had also been full of false alarms. After February 2, the infamous 'Battle of the Camel,' protest grounds were constantly on high alert, fearing renewed attacks. Now, in the 'third sit-in,' military spokesman General Mohsen El-Fangari's threatening speech had reawakened a unshakeable sense of insecurity. This insecurity was accompanied, however, by desire for constant vigilance. Tahrir's resolve could be felt.

Speaking to a protester in the encampment, I was told of a series of nightly meetings between several groups, aiming to develop a sense of understanding between the many factions represented in the square as well as increase the communication and collaboration among the numerous public committees.

TALK OF AND PREPARATIONS FOR FRIDAY'S PROTEST paled in comparison to those of Tuesday's million man march. No, Thursday night in Tahrir was no different than any other night. Poetry recitations continued on the Youth for Justice and Freedom Stage where the night before a boy from Upper Egypt had blown away listeners with his Saidi verse and, close to Abdel Moneim Riad Square, a 'Tweet Nadwa' (discussion group) was taking place for the second night in a row. Tonight the topic revolved around the restructuring of the judicial system.

No longer the largely exclusive gathering it was when it held it's first discussion in Cairo's neighbourhood of Dokki, the latest 'Tweet Nadwa' was far more representative of Egypt's activists. The colourful turnout certainly made for a more lively dynamic. Entertaining and lively as it was for the onlookers, the job of moderator Alaa Abd El-Fattah looked agonising at times. The 140 second rule was flouted by many. In one humourous exchange, a man from Assiut persistently swatted away El Fattah's hand as the moderator made several attempts at slowly prying the microphone from the garrulous speaker.

Passing several street vendors, I made my way to the April 6 stage where a band was readying itself for a performance. The deafening sounds of chanting made their way from the Youth for Justice and Freedom stage. As though in response, the April 6 stage began to broadcast, for the thousandth time, 'Ya Bladi' (Oh, My Country), a post-25 January tune. Hearing these two political groups fight it out in their war of speakers, I thought of the banner which had been raised for Tuesday's million man march. The banner, located in the Mogamma complex, announced the formulation of a 'Tahrir Charter.' The first point, which best convoyed the anti-factional ethos of the statement, simply stated: “A restoration of the character and spirit of Tahrir which includes unity and cohesion, preferring the national interest above partisanship and self-interests.”

TAHRIR PRESENTED A STRANGE REALITY. One in which the urge and, perhaps unrealistic endeavour, of attaining a perfect unity had instead been replaced by a plurality of political hopes and ambitions. Not long ago, protesters had chanted “the army and the people are one hand,” but after the military began to fall further and further out of people's graces, protesters turned to chanting “one hand.” I wonder how long it will take till even “one hand” becomes an obsolete chant.

As my thoughts came back to the moment and the never ending refrain of 'Ya Bladi,' the crowd began to flock past me, running towards a bride and groom. It was a familiar sight, but still managed to draw the awe and excitement of the crowd. The newly weds were taken to the stage as the groom waved a two-fingered piece sign and a miniature Egyptian flag. He spoke a few words, chastising the ruling military council and offering his support for the families of the martyrs.

Photographers snapped away to the sounds of an old Abdel Halem revolutionary tune, 'Sura' (Picture). A man then took to the stage and began chanting into the microphone. “We are not here just to listen to music and celebrate,” he shouted. “So let's show our revolutionary spirit.”

THE BAND TOOK TO THE STAGE and began playing their Nubian jams, very reminiscent of Mohammed Mounir whom they paid tribute to in the their performance. I stood listening and thinking of the sit-ins growing festival atmosphere. The number of bands I'd seen come and go in the past week was impressive. Far more, I believe, than in all the 18 days of the first uprising. Soon, however, I found myself in the middle of stampede as protesters rushed into the audience and stormed the stage, shouting “one hand, one stage” and “get down, get down.” A protester next to me, flailing his arms this way and that, yelled: “How can you play music when the martyrs haven't been buried yet?”

The band's lead singer tried to calm the growing crowd of dissenters, but his efforts went unheard, as more and more people took to the stage. Several stage hands tried to direct the protest elsewhere, feigning to join in, but the growing crowd was unmoved and would not be satiated until the band was run off the stage and chanting resumed. Another stage hand grabbed a microphone and, addressing the angry assembly, spoke: “You are all right. This is no time for music. These stages should be used for chanting and revolutionary purposes only. There shall be no more music in Tahrir.”

An hour or so passed and, sitting in the Mogamma's lawn, I heard the bars of a song. It grew louder until I turned and in the distance saw the very same stage. There a singer stood, crooning songs of dissent and protest. 

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