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Chronicles of a sit-in: Day 4

In the third installement of his diary, Yassin Gaber, who has been spending his nights in Tahrir since the Friday of Determination, reflects on the reaction of protesters to the day's events and how the square is evolving

Yassin Gaber , Wednesday 13 Jul 2011
Sitin in Tahrir square
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Day four- Tuesday (12/7):

Yehia, by now a familiar face, was glued to my side. Both he and Ahmed, members of the mischievous gang of street children, had become more than just tent companions and permanent escorts – both within and without the square. No, it seemed that now I had new bedfellows. With his head in my gut (body sprawled every which way), the fourth morning of Tahrir's sit-in began.

The camp was mostly quiet save for occasional spats among isolated groups. Members of the camp I was staying with had found a man wandering around taking photos as we slept. “These camps are like homes; would you just waltz into somebody's house and photograph them as they slept?” someone asked the man.

LEAVING THE TRAFFIC island at the centre of Tahrir, I noticed a general calm around the entire square. It seemed emptier than the past few days. In front of the Mogamma an odd structure, whose construction began in the earlier hours of the morning, was drawing attention. The head of one of the public committees overseeing the square's security made his rounds. The structure drew his attention and he walked over to inspect. Though there is no clear hierarchy or power structure behind the sit-in, there are several forces that seem to draw a certain amount of respect and are able to impress a level of authority on those around them. Among these groups are the Independent Federation, the April 6 Youth Movement and a group called “the Popular Committee.”

However, as an activist with the Revolutionary Socialists told me, “There really aren't any power structures in the square; there might be those who walk around with an air of authority, but the square is working in an ashwaey (informal) model.”

Another activist from the No to Military Trials camp added his two cents: “There are groups that have earned a level of street credibility through their participation in 28 January, 9 March and 27 June, but, in general, everything more or less works on an individual basis.”

Monday night had passed with relative quiet after spirited demonstrations against Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and his moot speech that served to galvanise the protesters and give them a much-needed rallying point. As dawn approached, a few arrests were made and the alleged thieves were rushed to the same tents in front of the Mogamma.

Bystanders, families and their children included, stared on in interest, but the heated moments quickly passed. Groups of young protesters entertained themselves by comically imitating counter-revolutionary propaganda. One teenager was animatedly pretending to hand out KFC meals and 100 euro to passersby.

Another group walked around with a loudspeaker, absurdly calling “Kareem, oh Kareem, where are you?” They drew a few laughs as they indiscriminately stopped people and asked about this infamous Kareem of theirs.

Some protesters could be heard chatting about the Mogamma shut down. They were pushing for the building to be opened on Wednesday and Thursday.

IN AN ATTEMPT TO GATHER INFORMATION on the whereabouts and fates of the detained “thieves,” I walked to the tents where they were taken. The discussion did not lead anywhere as I was met with general suspicion. Declaring I was a citizen, participating in the sit-in, and that I was merely inquiring for my own peace of mind, I was met with an interesting answer: “You keep to your home (I understood this as tent) and we'll keep to ours.” It was the second time I'd heard encampments referred to as homes.

As the sit-in draws on, the protesters have started to view occupied Tahrir as a community. There are one's family, Yehia and Ahmed being vital members; one's neighbours; the revolutionary barber; the makeshift cafés and food vendors (you can even have tea and water delivered to your tent); a cinema and cleaning crews, among others. In a manner, encampments had become households with gates, common areas, “keep out” signs and the full monty.

However, with the absence of any police or military presence and with the widespread anti-regime sentiment, the square has become so much more than a community. In the struggle against the regime, with all its corruption and authoritarianism, Tahrir has become a settlement outside the political and security sphere of the current system. The square has become a settlement with its own security forces, makeshift prisons, groups claiming to be morality police, vigilantes and rabble-rousers.

With this transformation has come a slew of debates and subsequent divisions. There are many who view the square as a state within a state. The term anarchy has been dropped on several occasions. But, as is the case with the state, the question of law and order and who has the monopoly on the use of force or violence eventually rears its ugly head.

I posed this point to a prominent activist staying in the encampment: “Different groups of protesters are dealing with matters according to their own experiences and understandings. There are those who detain a criminal and offer them a lawyer during the interrogation, those who beat them and tie them to a tree, those who hand them over to the military and those who hand them to the [human rights organisation] Nadim Centre.” It was not an easy question with an easy answer, he explained, adding that this was to be expected and would be tempered through discussion and growing channels of communication between the various groups.

Other activists were more pessimistic, arguing that certain security measures and methods of dealing with criminals were reminiscent of the reviled State Security and Ministry of Interior. It was clear, though, that occupied Tahrir was evolving.

THE PLANNED MILLION MAN march gave Tuesday a tense atmosphere, more kinetic than that of previous days. Walking back to the square in the afternoon, I felt a peculiar, yet oddly familiar frisson. The square, though by no means jam-packed with demonstrators, was bustling with an energy I hadn't felt since the 18-day uprising.

As protesters kept arriving into the square, groups of demonstrators gathered to discuss the long awaited announcement by military spokesman General Mohsen El-Fangari, which had been broadcast earlier. The speech was seen by many as a farce, addressing none of the sit-in's demands and offering little more than veiled threats and finger wagging.

Some, jokingly thanked him, believing his words would only attract more people to the sit-in and would add impetus to the already present protesters, some perhaps disillusioned by the military's silence. Fangari's excessive use of his finger prompted some activists to mockingly call him “Fingeri.”

The expected 5:00pm march from the square to the Cabinet offices in protest of Sharaf's interim government and the military council did not begin on time as participants awaited larger numbers. Demonstrators feared that a march might deprive Tahrir Square of a needed critical mass, leaving the protest ground open to attack. But it seemed protesters' anger far outweighed their anxieties.

As I stood on El-Qasr El-Eini Street chatting about the day's events, a thunderous roar drew my attention. Turning around, I was immediately met by the sight of hundreds of protesters marching my way, chanting with furious fervour: “The people demand the overthrow of the field marshal.” They were met by small pockets of dissent as some protesters urged the marchers to hold back, fearing repercussions if the square's numbers dwindled.

Moving in the direction of Maglis El-Shaab (Parliament) Street, protesters feverishly marched with determination and purpose. I remembered the words of a protester the night before: “These are not requests; these are demands!” Seeing the hundreds if not thousands, for their numbers kept swelling, pushing towards the Cabinet, brought back images of the first days of the popular uprising. As we approached the Cabinet offices, the military could be seen standing in several locations. Soldiers stood with long sticks and shields while others carried rifles and riot gear. Nothing phased the marchers. Traffic was blocked using barriers and the protesters advanced, passing the Parliament building which was surrounded by the military. Some demonstrators quickly moved to the fences to prevent any attempts at scaling the gates, shouting “peacefully, peacefully.”

Reaching the Cabinet offices, the protesters moved to a balcony where an officer stood with armed soldiers. The officer immediately asked the soldiers to step back and patted his head, indicating that the revolutionaries were held in high esteem. The marchers responded in a paroxysm of passion: “We either die like them [the revolution’s martyrs] or we get them their rights.” Maglis El-Shaab Street was by now at maximum capacity. Protesters bared their chests as if to tell the military that they were ready to die on the spot if their demands were not met.

Soon the march began to push in the direction of the Ministry of Interior, but in a spur of the moment decision decided against such escalation. Stomping and chanting, the protesters marched back towards the square bearing a flag several metres long and shouting “Egypt, Egypt!” Some shouted at the soldiers: “Those soldiers there are piteous and Tantawi is the king of the jungle.” Others tauntingly yelled: “Where are the Muslim Brothers? Here is the square.”

The marchers in their thousands returned to the square, flocking to the stages with excitement. Their anger seemed to have dramatically altered the dynamics of their relationship with the military. “The people and the army are one hand” was dropped from their vernacular as they had exploded with anger, yelling at the military who, dressed in riot gear and standing silently, appeared not unlike the Central Security Forces.

FOLLOWING HARD ON THE HEELS OF THE MARCH came the news of deputy prime minister Yehia El-Gamal’s resignation. Crowds cheered as the news was announced over the square’s many loudspeakers. It was evening and the revolutionary square was abuzz with life as bands performed on stage and a revolutionary cinema was erected, Cinema Tahrir. On another stage, speakers spoke out against Fangari, the military council and Sharaf's Cabinet. Interspersed between speeches were Suez folk songs in honour of the Suez sit-in demonstrators. Cleaning crews were busily at work and back in the encampment a small group of protesters from Suez were enthusiastically chanting pro-martyr and anti-Tantawi slogans.

The encampment, Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, was brimming with life: activists gathering to discuss the day’s march, tensions within the square and growing organisational problems. Another group of activists walked around asking for people’s opinion on whether or not to open the Mogamma. The overwhelming response was “yes.” Those who said “no” were encouraged to air their thoughts.

Light came and with it a higher than usual level of tension, tempered slightly by the revolutionaries opening of the Mogamma. Street vendors had become a source of debate among protesters. Some felt that they should be kicked out of the square, others that they should be given a separate space within the square and others, still, that the vendors should remain as they have been. By 10:00, however, the vendors were nowhere in sight.

On Wednesday morning, at around 7:00, a debate on Twitter erupted on whether a group of five activists, who met Prime Minister on Tuesday night, were authorised by the protesters to do so. Among those who met Sharaf were Alaa Abd El-Fattah, Wael Khalil and Wael Ghonim. According to Fattah, the group presented him with the seven demands agreed upon by some 30 organisations and movements. He added that they were not speaking on the behalf of protesters. Rather, they were just informing Sharaf of the demands and offering to clarify any confusion.

At 8:30, @mohammedwaked resolutely expressed the view of those suspicious of and firmly against the meeting: “There is no logical or respectable rationale to defend a dialogue with the prime minister that takes place in secret and without prior announcement, those who say they have nothing to hide do not act in this way and those who act in this way have something to hide."

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Rcole1958@gmail.com
14-07-2011 11:03am
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Chronicles from the Midan
Thank you for the first-hand reporting. You are doing an amazing job.
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