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Chronicles of a sit-in: Monday 18 July

Yassin Gaber , Thursday 21 Jul 2011
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Monday evening in Tahrir crept quietly into night as stages came down and numbers seemed to dwindle. The camp, its dirt floor newly carpeted, was also quiet. Some of the neighbours were reorganising their tents and equipment as the street children sat around one of the camp's activists for their daily reading and drawing class. I walked to the Qasr El-Nil Bridge checkpoint with an acquaintance from the camp to deliver water and juice to the security volunteers. Tahrir had several supply networks for food, drinks and ice. The team of activists I stayed with had their own tent for the supplies which they replenished on a daily basis via calls made on Twitter.

In an attempt to bring the politically active denizens of the Twitter-verse to Tahrir, Alaa Abd El Fattah held yet another 'Tweet Nadwa.' The discussion group turned it's focus to the many different initiatives and movements within the sit-in. From film collectives to graffiti art to the public committees and the 'No to military trials' campaign, the evening explored the many forces of resistance which had grown within the past six months. An electricity outage early on gave the evening a kinetic push, as hundreds of protesters left the pitch-dark traffic island, marching through the square and defiantly chanting, “We won't leave.”

The energy soon subsided, and before long, the lights returned, drawing an enthusiastic response from the nadwa's participants. Atop the main stage – the small Nasserist one and the 'people's stage' were alone left and provided little competition – a protester stood chanting beneath the Youth for Justice and Freedom banner. The crowd below, appearing zombie-like, stared on: few mumbled chants. Was Tahrir finally losing steam?

WHERE ONCE A TABLE with socialist pamphlets and newspapers stood, a street vendor stood cooking kosheri, a starchy mix of rice, lentils pasta topped with sauce, onions and hummus beans. Though kosheri had often been a staple food product in the square – vendors across the square selling containers for a few pounds, Monday night was the first time I saw vats of boiling pasta and simmering sauce in makeshift kitchens. The street vendors were plenty, but where were their politically dissident clients?

It must be said that there was a general air of exhaustion among most of the encampment's protesters. I myself had been growing more and more fatigued, partly by the sleeping conditions and heat but mostly by the anticipation (especially with the growing passage of time), the increasing tensions within the square and the slow, equivocal response of the ruling military council and it's Cabinet. Monday had provided the protesters with yet another confusing mess, when Prime Minister Sharaf announced that he would not be swearing in his new ministers.

Many protesters, though pleased with the removal of ministers such as Zahi Hawass, the almost former minister of state for antiquities, and finance minister Samir Radwan, were very displeased with the government's decision to keep NDP figures from pre-25 January in power. The most notorious, Minister of International Cooperation and Planning Fayza Aboul-Naga, has been a Cabinet member since former prime minister Ahmed Nazif's tenure. A speaker on the square's main platform decried this anomaly: “We all know Fayza Aboul-Naga. She was close to Mubarak and Suzanne [the former first-lady], yet she remains in power. The government thinks it can laugh at us, but they are all illegitimate. Legitimacy comes from Tahrir.”

A MAN WALKED AROUND with a lynched effigy of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, ready to pose, peace sign at the ready. Another walked around with a cardboard tank, pivoting turret and all, and a sign reading: “The army protects not rules.” It wasn't the same Tahrir, I'd seen and written about a week ago, but small changes were taking place that, if the sit-in were to press on, would further stimulate the burgeoning political conscience in Egypt at large.

Around the Mogamma and throughout the traffic island, pockets of protesters joined together to discuss political and economic programmes. In front of the Mogamma, a group huddled around a large, school-sized notebook resting on a stand. A lady stood in the middle, energetically demonstrating her points in bold red marker.

AT 11:00, the 'Let's Write Our Constitution' initiative, known in Arabic as 'Dostourna' (our constitution), gathered at the Egyptian Museum. The initiative called for volunteers to interview various strati of Egyptian society regarding the principles people would like to see enshrined in the constitution. Announced by the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre in May and organised in part by activist Alaa Abd El Fattah (who spent three years in South Africa), the project was inspired by the South African experience in their constitutional principles in the early 1990s. The defining ethos of the undertaking is to draw on people's opinion not just jurists

A protester came by the tent to announce the 'Dostourna' gathering. As the camp site was abuzz with political debate, not many responded to the call. Midnight drew near, yet the political debate still raged. Representatives from different movements sat in a circle debating the future of the sit-in.

Ramadan was drawing closer and with it, many felt, the sit-in would inevitably draw to an end. Tactics were thrown around and with the sounds of the political chatter ringing in my ears, my eyes grew heavy. Thoughts of the sit-in and the constitutional initiative spun around in my sleepy head.

The next morning, the discussion was brought back into sharp focus, by the newly raised, colourful banners associated with the approaching fast. I walked towards the edge of the traffic island. A Ramadan lantern hung overhead.

 

Tuesday (19/7): 

In anticipation of the morning march, I anxiously searched for any source of caffeine after a mere hour and a half worth of sleep. A breakfast street vendor was being questioned at the Qasr El-Nil Street checkpoint. The committee manning the entrance asked him were he had received the document, supposedly allowing him access to the square which had been almost completely emptied of its sellers. Walking back to the traffic island, I encountered a small squabble between a “nosey” vendor and inhabitants of a nearby tent. The seemingly never ending conflict between the square's protesters and the sellers had, yet again, peaked.

Street sweepers did their morning rounds, as newsboys announced the morning's papers. The security committees at Mohammed Mahmoud Street and at the Omar Makram Mosque were playing pickup football.

THE EVENING BEFORE had it's share of heated discussions and confrontations. Discussions from Monday night and Tuesday morning had culminated in a series of planned marches for Wednesday. As the sun's light began to wane Tuesday, a frenzied skirmish between street vendors and individuals within the square erupted. The events were related to me by many of my fellow campers.

The square's small time tycoons have been under constant suspicion since the the first week of the sit-in. Many are suspected of being infiltrators sent to spy on the protesters and, as such, are often targeted by various organised and disorganised mobs. The most intriguing narrative of yesterday's clash depicts a dissatisfied customer claiming to have been food poisoned by one of occuped Tahrir's many makeshift chefs.

A brawl ensued in which the vendor is said to have poured hot water on himself to implicate his accuser. The conflict escalated as a gathering mob used the incident to again purge the square of almost all of its peddlers and food sellers.

What's more, there are purported attempts to begin numbering the square's food vendors in order to keep records of complaints and trace incidences of food poisoning. The far fetched scheme drew quite a bit of laughter from myself and those around me. By night fall, the square's roundabout looked like a ghost town – in stark contrast to the night before.

AS THE ONGOING TAHRIR CINEMA PROJECT began it's nightly showing, talk among various political movements within the square revolved around plans for Wednesday's marches and the sit-in's prospects at large. Flyers for a 6:00pm march to the Cabinet offices were being distributed by the Revolutionary Socialists on behalf of the Popular 8 July Front. Further talk of a 5:00am march towards the prosecutor-general's office circulated, as word spread of 6:30pm march by the families of the political prisoners – destination, as yet, unknown.

With activists around me airing their frustrations at the media circus and political fiasco surrounding the Cabinet reshuffle, discussions again began to focus on the sit-in's future and possible plans of action to either keep it going or strategically disperse it. Many, vexed by the tangential path the reshuffle has lead the movement on, highlighted the upcoming month of Ramadan and whispers of a plan to continue through the fasting holiday. Others discussed pressing organisational and political matters which needed tending to in light of the autumn parliamentary elections. Nothing was clear, however, and the fate of Tahrir remained, as it had for days, ambiguous.

REALISING THAT NO CAFÉS would possibly be open at 6:00am, my sleep deprived companion and I decided to overcome any conscientious objections and walk to the nearby Shepeard Hotel on the Corniche. Three cups of coffee later, we walked back to the encampment expecting to find it's occupants stirred and ready for the planned march to the prosecutor-general's office.

Gathering ourselves, many still stiff from their repose on the hard earth, we walked towards the Egyptian Museum. A tiny crowd gathered behind us, no more than 200 strong, and began to walk in our direction. Their progress was interrupted when an activist was accused of the unthinkable – photographing the square. Photographing, of course, took place but not by the activist in question. Regardless, a small quarrel broke out but was soon quelled. The gathered marchers took a quick spin around the traffic island to gather more protesters.

WITH THE HUNDRED OR SO PROTESTERS, the march took off in the direction of Abdel Moneim Riad Square where we exited the occupied territory and made our way to Ramsis Street. The march itself took all of half an hour. A small group of protester's, arms locked, formed a moving cordon to separate the rest of the group from the passing traffic. Impassioned, demonstrators chanted against the military council, the army, the prosecutor-general, the Interior Ministry and the slow pace of trials, both of ex-regime figures and the police officers accused of killing protesters.

“Oh prosecutor, please advise how much is one hearing's bribe,” rang the voice of protesters as they neared the judicial offices. The loudspeaker floated among a handful of chant leaders. One of whom voiced a widely felt sentiment: “Take a minister, put one in; we've not seen the change begin.”

WE WERE GREETED BY A MILITARY POLICE cordon at the prosecutor-general's office. For a time, protester's were satisfied standing behind the red berets, directing their voices at the small crowd of spectators who looked on from the upper story's windows. Before long we were able to move through the military police line, many of us making it to the steps. No sooner had we reached the steps than an officer, his pistol raised, began to order those around him to force us down. Myself and several others were pushed away form the entrance as others bared their chests, passionately daring the military to open fire on them.

Isolated shouts of “peaceful, peaceful” could be heard as military police dressed in riot gear rushed to kettle in the remaining demonstrators on the steps, dividing the group into two. Afterwards, many protesters, warily suspected that the military police in riot gear were in fact Central Security Forces in the latter's uniforms. In the moment, however, tensions flared as protesters asked the soldiers whether they hadn't learnt from the lessons of the Interior Ministry. The strained moment passed, but the protesters' rage remained. Chants against the military council and the army surged. Where the military's batons and guns meant to protect civilians or kill them, many inquired in convulsions of passion.

After an hour half, the numbers began to dwindle and those who remained were forced to make a decision: stay on or return to the square. The protester's soon agreed to return, vowing to return the next morning. This time, however, for a day-long sit-in.

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