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Tahrir carnival returns amid calls for national unity

Declarations for national unity following Saturday's violence against Copts and solidarity with Palestinians ahead of Nakba Day paint Tahrir and draw in a diverse crowd

Salma El-Wardani , Friday 13 May 2011
People hold up Syrian and Palestinian national flags during a demonstration at Tahrir Square in Cair
People hold up Syrian and Palestinian national flags during a demonstration at Tahrir Square in Cairo May 13, 2011. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany
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As the day dies, tens of thousands still throng Tahrir Square chanting for “Solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada” and “National Unity.” 

Huge banners throughout the square proclaim that “The People want the Rafah Crossing opened”, “Palestine is an Arab state”, “Muslims and Christians are one hand” while one asks pointedly: “Why burn the churches again? Is Habib El-Adly back?”

Egyptians revived their heavy presence in the iconic square on Friday to denounce recent sectarian clashes and attacks on churches. Unity between Christians and Muslims was expressed to counter attempts to incite communal divisions. Banners bearing the emblem of the crescent embracing the cross emphasised such sentiments of national unity.

But for many, the day is a chance to commemorate the 15 May Nakba Day, the day after the state of Israel was created. For Palestinians, it marks their forcible expulsion from their homes during the 1948 Arab War.

Egyptian and Palestinian flags were waved in a show of solidarity.

In the midst of calls for unity and solemnity, there was the same carnival atmosphere that has marked Tahrir Fridays since the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak. Vendors selling striped headbands and headgear in the colours of the Egyptian flag, roasted corn, popcorn and flags were also out in force.

Today, though, saw for the first time street vendors offering green headbands bearing the words: "The army of Mohammed."

At the entrance to the iconic square were two bearded street vendors, selling Islamic posters and charts that advocate the Palestinian cause.

“Every Friday, since the start of the revolution, I have come to Tahrir Square, but this time it’s different,” says Ihab Shenouda as his voice is drowned out by the rising sound of prayer. “Though the media dubbed it as ‘Friday of national unity’, I can see a large Islamic presence in everything; slogans, charts, even protestors.”

The presence of Egypt’s new and old parties can also be felt in the square. Large banners calling for national unity carry the signature of the Al-Wafd party alongside one that reads: “No to Sectarianism – yes to civil state” undersigned by the nascent Socialist Parties Front.

“We’re here to show our refusal to all kinds of sectarianism and raise our demands including an immediate and fair civil trial for those accused in the Imbaba events and the urgent passing of a common worship law,” says Ramy Sabri, a member of the Socialist Popular Alliance party.

Once Sheikh Mohamed Gebril finished leading the Friday prayers, Sheikh Safwat Hegazy took to the main stage and addressed the huge crowd.

“Essam Sharaf: this is not your government, this is the revolution’s government, you should kick out the six former NDP ministers from the cabinet,” Hegazy told the crowd. “We won’t accept Yehia El-Gamal who’s part of the former regime as your deputy.”

“Down, down Yehia El-Gamal” The crowds chanted.

“Sharaf’s government is taking the same path as the former government,” says Mohammad, waving a Palestinian flag. “They have the very same double standards, secrecy and authoritarian policy-making, in internal as well as external affairs.”

“Two days ago they suddenly appeared in the media saying ‘people, we’ve arrested those responsible for the Imbaba church attacks,’ but did they tell us how this happened? Who are these people? What are the causes? Isn’t it the same old policy?” Muhammad asks plainly.

At the entrance of the square from Bab El-Louq Street stood a group of women, one in a niqab and rest veiled, enthusiastically chanting national unity slogans.

“We came all the way from Port Said to Cairo to voice our anger with sectarianism because we’re aware it’s part of the counter revolution,” said Intisar, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. “We’re here also to prove that Muslim Brotherhood members are not fanatics as the old regime always tried to portray us [in order] to scare people from us.”

A man who overheard the conversation approaches carrying a banner that reads: “I’m a Salafist, I’m against sectarianism.”

“State propaganda always portray Salafists as bearded fanatical terrorists, but this is untrue,” explains Safwat Hegazi. “Salafists are simply all Muslims who follow Prophet Muhammad and has nothing to do with sectarianism, and anyone who attacks Christian cannot be a true Egyptian.”

Naeem Shehab, a 62 year-old Coptic protester, seems unconvinced with Hegazi’s argument.

“You cannot raise an extreme brand of Sunni Islam slogan and then try to tell people that this doesn’t contradict with freedom of religion,” says Shehab. “No, there’s a contradiction here, because hard-line Islamists believe we Copts are infidels and our blood is ‘halal.’”

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