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When it Rains in Cairo

May 27, 2011

27 May 2011 – Midan al-Tahrir, Cairo

Walking toward Midan al-Tahrir on Friday you could feel the people’s presence long before approaching the now legendary city center. Throughout the downtown area there was a familiar calm in the early hours of the morning, but the sounds of rapture and enjoyment emanating from the square that day were a sign that this was no ordinary Friday, even compared to those already past in the last few months since the January 25 revolution.

I began the day with two Egyptian friends who were nothing short of gleeful, for a lack of a better word. Singing and chanting “Masr, Masr” all the way down the street, their smiles never broke and their spirits soared to an intangible high.

Approaching Tahrir the men and women were cordoned off by a barrier of civilians securing the area. They searched bags, checked passports, and upon learning that I was American they said to me, “Its important that America witnesses this.”

The first step into Tahrir proper was entering a world entirely owned by the people. The only faces absent of a smile were those engaged in intense debate over the current state of Egyptian politics and hopes for the future.

There was nothing inherently different in the substance of the May 27 protest from the ones previous, but it was louder and stronger. Banners and signs condemning Mubarak and Tantawi circulated the square, some of them were held by the same faces of past protests. People wrapped themselves in the Egyptian flag and women coordinated their clothing’s colors to reflect their national pride. Children ran freely throughout the throngs of chanting youth and the elders sat along fences and walls to find refuge from the day’s sweltering heat.

The chanting was continuous throughout the morning, breaking for only moments at a time until someone else screamed a different slogan to be carried by the voices of the crowd. Similar to last Friday, the protest was broken up into different parts. There were five stages that I counted and countless other circles led by men carried on the shoulders of others as they moved around the square.

Everyone seemed to be waiting until the day’s climax when the Adhan would begin the midday prayer. Lines formed all around, men dominated the larger portions of those praying in the square and the women controlled the raised center.

When the prayer began, the voices of two competing muezzin echoed off of each other as the square hit its quietest moment. The slight murmur of those not participating was the only sound to be heard other than the prayer’s song, and it seemed as though Cairo itself held its breath.

As an observer, it’s difficult to not get wrapped up in such a moment. There was something remarkable about watching the prayer being performed in the open, where men and women mixed freely. It wasn’t so much a sign of religious expression, but an extension of the protest’s purpose to practice freedom. Tourists and cameramen circulated the square taking pictures and filming, but I chose to set my camera aside for the most part. No camera could do justice to the power of that moment when the square was at last unified under a single voice.

The end of the prayer lapsed with the resumed chanting of, “Masr, Masr” and the volume of Tahrir picked up at tremendous speed. Egyptian flags were raised high once again and people sang and danced with renewed energy.

The protest was once again fractured, but the strength in their volume composed one voice of defiance. I circulated the area for hours, stopping to listen to heated debates and observe the flow of foot traffic.

May 27 was meant to be the ‘Second Revolution’ and over a million were supposed to gather. While the crowds were strong, it was clear that the goal had not been met. Yet, it didn’t seem to deter away from the joyous atmosphere.

I had the pleasure of meeting a group of people from all corners of the world, America, Europe, Egypt, and even Morocco. There was a mix of emotions between all of them. Some applauded the protesters, some criticized their lack of unity, some felt downtrodden that things would continue like this with no promise of change.

I spoke at length with one Egyptian about the message Egypt was trying to send that day. He was part of a group that led a march from Giza to the Square holding two banners: one condemned the usual suspects of Egypt’s past regime and the other called for constitutional reform. I asked him whether or not he thought the protests could have an effect on the constitution in the same way it affected Mubarak. He was reluctant to say yes, although he was adamant that it would eventually happen. But, he explained, the purpose of carrying the two banners next to each other was that most would obviously turn to the one condemning former regime members but they would also have to read the other outlining the specifics of change. The protests might not be chanting ‘Constitution, Constitution,’ but its steps like these that are meant to educate in hopes that one day the people will.

There were a number of famous faces inside Tahrir, actors, writers, journalists, and so forth. I had the pleasure of shaking hands with the much-admired blogger Sand Monkey and watched as men hurried toward the famous directed Khaled Youssef. More than mixing genders and people from different ages, watching someone like Khaled Youssef make his way slowly through the crowd demonstrated how the classes, rich and poor, influential and not, mixed freely for their cause.

The Muslim Brotherhood refused to participate in the May 27 protest, although it was clear that some of their youth were present. Among one of their reasons Egyptians should not gather in the square that day was the scorching heat of the approaching summer. The heat was powerful in the morning, but slowly the clouds began to gather in the sky and in the late afternoon there was a much welcomed relief from the sun as rain drops began to land gently on Tahrir.

I have never seen rain in Cairo, and I’ve always thought that there must be something special about a day that sees rain. It was not a harsh rain, gentle and sparse, but it was surely calming and soothing to the tired faces of thousands of Egyptians. Partly in response to the Muslim Brotherhood, one Egyptian made a comment to me that summed up what I took away from Tahrir that day. Looking up into a cloudy Cairo sky he said to me, “At least we know what side God is on.”

But, for one of the Egyptians I began the day with its still only God who can move mountains. His mood in the evening was a stark contrast to his chanting ‘Al-Hurriya’ in the morning. “Nothing will change,” he said, “it will be like this forever.”

Whether or not the protesters meet their demands tomorrow or months from now, its quite clear that something is stuck. Its like a massive game of chess, the Military Council is black the people are white, and both sides have been stuck on the same move, unable to reach checkmate.

 

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