The flow of foot traffic into Tahrir was endless Thursday night and Friday morning. Micro buses and coaches surrounded various entrances to the squares. Men with untrimmed beards, white skull caps and Saudi-styled galabiyas filed out of the buses carrying their signs, coolers and other luggage. They then set towards the square, often times chanting “Islamism, Islamism.” A protester standing next me looked on in disbelief at the endless processions of chanting Salafists. “Are they coming to wage war?” she asked. Indeed, it was a militaristic sight: a steady cadre in white, some bearing black flags with the words, “There is no god but God” painted in white.
I returned to the Tahrir Thursday evening preparing myself for the spectacle which awaited me. Word had spread on Twitter of an Salafist banner which had been raised close to the Qasr El-Nil Bridge exit. The sign read: “The people demand the application of Sharia.” Spread across a traffic mast and street lamp, the banner was eventually removed after some fuss and several exasperated attempts at forcefully tearing it down.
In the camp, a boy from the countryside sat proudly with his arm in a sling. The exasperated attempts, it turns out, belonged to him. The occupants of a tent nearby began building a more permanent camp site with a solid wood structure and dozens of chairs.
The Youth for Freedom and Justice was back to life. Khalid Abdel Hamid of the Revolution Youth Coalition stood, explaining the sit-ins demands. After he finished the song “Beladi” (My country) was played, as a man with an “I love you, Egypt” t-shirt waved slowly waved a flag and mouthed the words. A sign had been raised with the cartoon faces of Tantawi and Mubarak, stating the two figures were one and the same. (Later, it seems, the sign was removed). Poetry readings were back, including the Upper Egyptian boy who drew crowds with his impassioned recitations the first weel. A man came on afterwards and began chanting – to the disconcertion of many , “the people and the army are one hand.”(The qualification,of course, that the military council does not belong to us but the army does).
Outside the metro exit in front of Hardees, an island of bodies lay huddled together. The almost one month old sit-in was filled with new faces – bearded, of course. Preparations for Friday were proceeding at breakneck speed. A giant stage, larger than any erected since 8 July, was taking form nearby, and across the square, at the Talaat Harb exit, another colossal stage slowly came together. The former belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, though many claimed it would be open to use by all movements and parties, while the latter belonged to a group called the Salafist Call. In front of the two stages, each adorned with a blue trim carrying an ornate golden crest, lay dozens men. The Salafist stage was causing more of a stir, however. The beared men in white huddled together, directing the work around them and passing out numerous fliers, many of which spoke against the notion of constiutional principles and called for elections first. Several bore red arms, designating 'organising committees' while others identified their various governorates of origins. Space was being claimed and they had the numbers to do so.
Off to the side, stood the dwarfed “popular stage” blasting tunes by Nubian singer Mohammed Mounir, almost comically, at the new arrivals. In between the two stages, a car, draped in revolutionary t-shirts, stood parked. I began to notice that the merchandise salesman had increased since the night before. A man stood next to the work in progress and began shouting “raise your head high, you're a Muslim.” There was already friction and it seemed each the scuffle for space and attention had already begun.
A table covered in white cloth was placed a few metres in front of the Salafist stage as more and more of the roundabout around them was being cut off to any foot traffic. Banners were hoisted up reading: “no to biased rumours”; “you've heard of us so listen, we're of you and you of us” and “Egypt is a Muslim nation, neither secular nor Western.” Soon dozens of men holding the exact same signs gathered together, chanting “God is great.” The volume began to increase and eventually set of on a march around the traffic island, yelling: “Islamism, Islamism” and “with our spirit and blood, we sacrifice ourselves for Islam.”
Many looked on, perturbed by the chants. Voices yelled, “We sacrifice yourself for Egypt.” As the group neared the Youth for Freedom and Justice stage, “God is great, in the name of God, in the name of God” – the words to a post-1973 war song – boomed from the loudspeakers, drowning out their chants.
As the march passed the stage (I was on their heels), we passed a group, tambourine man and all, chanting “civil, civil.” The marchers turned towards the crowd ,and I noticed several cheeky grins emerge on their faces as they glanced towards the traffic island. The air was electric and one could easily feel the tension. “We've been here for the past month; where've you been?” some shouted at the marchers.
By 2:00 in the morning, the Salafist stage had reached completion and religious recitations resounded through the square and through some of its surrounding streets. It soon followed by numerous “God is great” declarations and a sermon which was soon drowned out by protesters heatedly calling for the overthrow of the Field-Marshall. As the chanting dissipated, small groups formed. A bearded man selling newspapers began arguing with another over the term “civil.”
“The term implies secular state without religion,” he argued. “No, you're conflating terms together at your own whim,” another responded, adding, “Civil just means we won't be ruled by the military.” To which the newspaper seller responded, “Well under Islamic law you wouldn't be run by a military either.”
Hearing this last bit, a man walked towards us and interjected: “Yeah, but who would you have run us? Omar Ibn Al-Khattab [the second rightly-guided caliph]? You're dreaming, man.”
Shortly afterwards, another small procession began to tour the roundabout, chanting, “We're the people true, we don't march behind you.” The “you” here refers to all movements, parties and individuals. The conversations would carry on throughout the early morning. Many heavily objected to the square's anti-military council sentiment, arguing that there was no alternative and the vacuum created by their ouster would leave Egypt ripe for foreign carving. One man curiously argued that Western powers wanted to divide Egypt into four countries.
Dawn broke. The stream of Salafists filing into the square was endless. The chants and counter-chants continued. At intervals, a speaker would mount the Salafist stage and proclaim, “God is great.” Friday's million man protest, dubbed “the Day of Unity and Popular Will” was about to kick off, but from the very beginning, it seems, the sentiments of those filing into the square was far from one of unity.