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Welcome to al-Hurriya

May 20, 2011

20 May 2011 – Midan al-Tahrir, Cairo

In the weeks following January 25, my heart was broken over not being able to witness the protests in Midan al-Tahrir first hand. The difficulty in relying on media outlets, whether Western or Arab, to understand the complexities of Tahrir is like looking through a single telescope when what you need is a kaleidoscope to see all the different angles from every side.

Today, I stood at the center of it all. Certainly, the protests of this Friday are no match to those of January and February, but the spirit is still there. You can still feel the anger on the street over how post-Revolution events have been handled, but this anger is complimented by a resounding pride that anything is possible if the people will it.

The influx of people into Tahrir on Friday is marked by the five prayers throughout the day, and with each passing the crowd would swell into a greater number than before. In the early hours the faces were mostly older, middle-aged, some professional and some not. At first glance you would not think this to be a revolution of Al-Shabaab (“the youth”). Roughly one or two hundred men gathered around a stage close to Talat Harb Street for the afternoon prayer which was preceded by speeches of leading community figures and the like. Surrounding them were men and women with signs, carts selling popcorn and pumpkin seeds, and street vendors advertising flags and Bahebik Masr (I Love Egypt) t-shirts.

Although the afternoon was quite clearly centered around the prayer, religion was not an overbearing sentiment in the square that day. Perhaps because the stage protest and prayer circle were adjacent to other protests condemning Israel and demanding a ‘Free Gaza.’

The subject matter was not as striking as the different fractions of protests throughout the circle, unified by the idea of standing up but all advocating different things.

The most noticeable difference between the afternoon and evening protests was the presence of the army and the increasing diversity of the demonstrators. Before and during the afternoon prayer, a small contingent of soldiers surrounded those praying, perhaps as a warning but also as a barrier of protection from the still flowing traffic. I never saw them intervene in the several ongoing debates around the stage, but I should make clear that my sight only goes so far.

As the hours passed, the uniformed officers disappeared as more and more people flocked to the square. It is possible that they remained in the square, masked by plain clothes and the throngs of protesters, but they were invisible to the naked eye. With all of the people culminating around the main circle of Tahrir, ordinary citizens took it into their own hands to police traffic and maintain as much order as possible amidst the chaos. It was remarkable, a glimpse of the civilian security we have so often heard about in news reports.

Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that the protests in Tahrir surpassed 3,000, and it indeed felt like it. There were pockets of tight-knit groups chanting different slogans, some asking for the Supreme Council to relinquish power, some deriding the release of Suzanne Mubarak, some calling for unity amongst Muslims and Christians. Never was there one single leader, adhering to a trademark of the protests in Tahrir. It was often that one man or woman would start a chant, another would then intervene and start a different chant, and so on and so forth.

Women were just as vociferous as the men, on the stage and in the streets. The men clearly outnumbered the women, but the women stood strong and held their own. As the youth began to flock to the square and the crowd grew younger, the elders did not leave. There were men and women of all ages, backgrounds, and class. It was a cosmopolitan of Cairene society, dotted by the occasional tourist.

I was able to talk to some of the people in the square, although I mostly played the part of the standers-by, listening and observing the street debates. Of the few that I spoke to, the topic clearly on everyone’s mind was the dissatisfaction with the Military Council. It was made clear by two Egyptians, Fayez from Upper Egypt and Mohammed who had lived in Saudi Arabia and moved back to Egypt after Mubarak’s departure, that no one was against the army as a whole. On the contrary, it was only those on top of the chain-of-command that they disliked, particularly Mohamed Tantawi. They think Tantawi is no different than Mubarak since he is essentially a product of the old regime. As Mohamed put it, “They cut off the head, but the body is still there.”

Another strong sentiment of the day was the persistence of needing a unified Egypt, despite the day’s protests being fractured. Each of the different circles advocated against Christian-Muslim violence, claiming that all were a part of Egypt. At one point, a man who was clearly a devout Muslim dressed in his white galibaya and adorning a long beard took to the stage and shouted “Muslimiin, Meshiyiin,” over and over again to the chanting crowd, an attempt to show that there were no hard feelings toward any religion in Tahrir that night.

Despite the presence of religion as a symbol of unity, absent was any sign of the type of radical Islam so feared by the West. I did not see any blatant sign of the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis, or any other, but again, my sight only goes so far in such a congested area. If it was there, it was clearly dominated by talk of unity and a new Egypt.

Over and over again, protesters shouted Saba3 wa 3shriin (“27”). In each of the protesting groups this chant became a staple along with other slogans. They were calling for another protest of millions of Egyptians on May 27, the next Friday, if the people’s demands are not met within one-week’s time.

Friday after Friday, the protesters have continued to gather in the now notorious Midan al-Tahrir. Al Hurriya (freedom) is their fuel, but, I cannot help but wonder how long this fuel will keep up the momentum.

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