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Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Chronicles of a sit-in: Day 5

In which Yassin Gaber sees a contentious issue resolved by consensus and goes to the open air cinema in Tahrir

Yassin Gaber , Thursday 14 Jul 2011
Tahrir square
Tahrir square (Photo by Mai Shaheen)
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Day Five- Wednesday (13/7):

The camp’s inhabitants were divided into several small groups Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. Some sat playing cards and discussing Zamalek’s latest pick for manager. Talk of the football club’s hardcore supporters came up, prompting several to proudly boast of the Ultra White Knights crucial role in many of the sit-ins and street clashes which ensued. Others, exhausted from the march and exorbitant noise levels, slept. It is a strange sleep which I suppose could hardly be termed so due to the intermittent shouting and the constant influx of protesters in and out of the campsite.

Early Wednesday morning, about 4:00, word reached the camp and its neighbours of a desperate need for checkpoint volunteers, especially women. The issue of security and the Popular Committees which guard the eight checkpoints into Tahrir Square was already a sore point of discussion. Some of the activists around me had already discovered and confronted a security committee using electroshock weapons, among other things, to both ensure their own safety and deal with any antagonists. One frustratingly stated: “Only the police and the state have the right to such use of force.” It seemed that the committee had already resorted to such force. We were again confronted by Tahrir’s political evolution and the question of security.

Attempting to catch a wink before the anticipated opening of the Mogamma, I was jolted awake by a noisy disturbance towards Abdel Moneim Riad Square. People were running back to the roundabout’s central garden, alerting others that a street vendor was being forced out for reasons which were never made very clear. Though the smell of gas which had permeated the entire encampment seemed to have originated in this seller’s tent.

Running towards Abdel Moneim Riad Square, I heard of the vendor’s unpleasant exit from the square. One of the protesters, disturbed by the events, moaned: “If he had been a heretic, you wouldn’t have treated him so.” Many of the sit-in protesters stood in circles arguing about the incidence as others, feeling emboldened, called for the complete removal of street vendors from the square.

As groups rounded men together and marched through the square, protesters, both men and women, ran to the aid of the sellers. A member of the Popular Committee asked for volunteers, dividing them up into groups of five or six. He discouraged the use of force, but was determined to see the vendors relocated beyond Tahrir. Another faction had no problem with excessive force. They pushed through the roundabout, as their leader chanted: “Are you men?” to which they responded, “Yes.”

Eventually, after a dramatic encounter with a vendor who broke down and began crying, a debate broke out between those for and those against the expulsion. “Peacefully, peacefully,” the vigilante group yelled. “This is your fault; you created this mess. How can you say ‘peacefully’ now,” another barked in return. “These vendors offer us protection, we need them,” said another.

A girl soon caught the group’s attention as she stressed that it was this same decision to kick out the sellers which caused the street clashes in March. “They’ll attack us again, we can’t kick them out,” she implored, adding, “Everyone has a right to come into this sit-in.” “But they bring drugs into this protest and make us look bad,” responded a man. “Then we kick those out who are caught, but we cannot adopt the practices of the regime and State Security,” said the girl. “Right, you expect us to wait till they’ve blown us all up with their gas canisters!” a man scoffed. He then turned to his friend and mumbled: “Let’s get out of here, what is she saying?”

A lone street sweeper was quietly rounding up cigarette butts and bits of rubbish. Daylight revealed the inordinate extent of litter from Tuesday night’s march and protest. Puddles of muddy water had settled in the roundabout: the result of many kilos of ice used by vendors throughout the day to cool their drinks and fruits. Three people stood together, watching the street sweeper. “It’s just another morning argument,” one of the three said, nonchalantly.

The anti-expulsion advocates had lost their fight. Street vendors, with their carts packed, trudged through the muddy pools. Some cursed, but most kept quiet. By mid-morning, the square looked empty. Though perhaps a setback for the square’s sit-in, the protesters, some from April 6, the Popular Committees, Youth for Justice and Freedom along with those as yet unaffiliated with any movement or party, had come together to argue about the fate of their occupation.

Between the sleepless nights in Tahrir, the morning dash to the office and the two to three hours of sleep I’d managed to squeeze in for the past five days, exhaustion had begun to take its toll – fight as I did to overcome it. Leaving work on Wednesday, I began to feel an enormous weight in each of my steps. Barely managing to board the metro, I decided to stay at a colleague’s place, neighbouring the square.

After a mere three hours sleep, I eventually found myself stepping into Tahrir in time for the late night festivities. To my very pleasant surprise, the street vendors had all returned.  I inquired and a protester told me that the occupants of the square had come to an agreement with the sellers in the early afternoon. All sellers with gas canisters agreed to remain at a distance from the central traffic island, while the rest of the sellers were free to occupy the roundabout. I was very pleased at this accord. Tahrir’s protesters had encountered an obstacle and, through concessions, overcome. 

Tahrir Cinema was drawing crowds for its second night. The cinema project has been showing footage of the 18-day uprising as well as various short films by local artists. As sounds of gun fire, rattling and yelling burst from the makeshift cinema’s speakers, inquiring eyes began gravitating to the light and source of all the commotion.

Forcing their heads into the gathered crowd, protesters looked on in wonder at familiar images: Central Security Forces on 28 January, popular committees in Cairo’s streets playing football during downtime and perhaps the most moving video of them all, a short montage of the ‘Battle of the Camel.’

I began walking back to the campsite; it had been a very long day which had no clear beginning. My days had begun to flow into each other. Tahrir was its own world with its own sense of time. I lay my head down on the sleeping bag, and, with chants and songs booming in the backdrop, I fell asleep.

 

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