Inside and Out: Is It All Normalizing?

When I first arrived in downtown Cairo in the early morning of February 5th, the aftermath of the previous days of conflict was still very tangible. All the shops with windows as their entire storefront, which make up a very high percentage of shops here, were completely whited-out with some sort of diluted paint to prevent looters from seeing inside the shops. The other shops which weren’t so lucky as to still have unbroken windows had taped up cardboard in their place as a temporary repair. There were groups of men carrying makeshift weapons patrolling the blocks where their shops were located acting as their own personal security forces. The renowned crowds of the Cairo streets and the constant sound of horns were definitively missing. As one of the few people walking down the street, and certainly the only foreigner, I was stopped and required to have my bag and passport checked by the army.

From the window of my hotel room today I can see scores of people on the street carrying colorful shopping bags and can hear the terrible consequence of absent traffic lights on Cairo’s once again busy streets. Nearly all the shops have washed the white paint from their still intact windows and repaired all the broken ones. With banks open again and the reemergence of uniformed police it seems that commerce is flowing nearly as smoothly as it ever has. There are still not many foreigners but walking alone hasn’t at all been a problem for me in the past couple days. The state TV channels desperately want us to believe everything has gone back to normal and I really have to wonder if it has.

The protests and occupation of Tahrir Square have carried on into their 17th day now and although they have grown in numbers, there hasn’t been much of an expansion in territory except for the sit-in happening at the Parliament Building and a few remote factory occupations. For many reasons it is good that the barricades of Tahrir have remained firmly in place but sadly these strong borders seem to also act as a material manifestation of isolation. There is a very well defined inside and out. Aside from significant traffic detours, it’s possible for many Cairenes to go about their daily lives without being disrupted by the protests of thousands. This continuance of business roughly as usual doesn’t give the protesters much leverage against the government whose main immediate goal is to return to stability and normalcy.

Even inside Tahrir there has been a feeling of security and regularity that has facilitated many more casual visits to the square and the settling down of many occupiers there. The vendors have really set up shop and have more or less routinized the cleaning and/or restocking of their equipment and supplies. Of course things are always being added to and changed within the square but for those who have been coming everyday for weeks it’s get harder and harder to tell the days apart. Unfortunately it appears to me that the window of opportunity for this movement is closing slowly unless this sense of normalcy begins to vanish from both sides of the barricades.

There are two main ways I can see this happening: either something drastically different takes place inside or around the square or the protesters manage to occupy more spaces other than Tahrir. With the development of many workers’ unions going on strike today with plans to continue at least through tomorrow this might significantly help in the latter. And with a very strong call out to protesters from all parts of Egypt to congregate in Tahrir for tomorrow’s ‘Friday of Martyrs’ this could provide the potential for mass action originating from the square that would help in the former. The most terrible action that could break this sense of normalcy, unfortunately in a very negative way, is the very real chance of increased state repression with threats of military intervention coming in from Vice President Suleiman and Foreign Minister Abul Gheit. Already there are reports of up to 100 tanks stationing in a suburb of Cairo with the likely intention of trying to prevent tomorrow’s protest.

It seems to me that tomorrow could be a very decisive day. Hopefully the rarity of a thunderstorm doesn’t occur again tomorrow.

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An Experience of Tahrir

As I walk up to the first line of barricades I am directed to the women’s line as I ready my passport. At this civilian checkpoint a fashionable young hijabi woman looks over my passport while a woman wearing niqab gives me a full pat down, apologizing all the while. The space between barricades is emptied of cars and filled with people traveling in and out of the square. I go through two or three more of these checkpoints until breaking out of the building-lined streets into the wide open interior of the appropriately named Liberation Square.

Once inside I am immediately met with the loud sound of some nationalist song playing from the line of speakers strung up along the lampposts that follow the southeast edge of the square. There is movement everywhere. It is difficult to keep track of anyone. There are  huge banners with popular slogans on them or photos of those recently killed by police lining the buildings and fences that mark the borders of this newly independent space called Tahrir. There are Egyptian flags all around–held above the large metro vent waving in its wind, placed atop makeshift tents, painted on faces of young and old. The burned out National Democratic Party building looms in the near background acting as a reminder of the grave reason why so many people are gathered here.

I walk further into the square passing by small clusters of people either gathering to take photos of an interesting sign, joining in on a chant, or weighing in on a heated debate. Young men energetically walk by in pairs or small groups, many sporting bandages probably a couple days too old on their heads to show off their bravery in rock battles. There are all types of people around from wealthy, western-dressed, middle-aged women to poor, old, bearded men. People are holding their own hand written signs communicating many different messages but the word ‘freedom’ appears on the vast majority. Along the curbs, men in suits sit reading the newspaper or catching up on family news.

A small march of angry Muslim women passes by chanting, ‘Our voices are quiet no longer,’ followed by the most popular chant of the movement, ‘The people demand the removal of the regime.’ After about ten minutes of walking along I arrive at the northern-most barricade which is made not by the people but instead by the army with a line of six or seven tanks. Older and poorer men, those with less to lose, create an immovable barrier around each tank, pledging to be crushed by the tanks before they would be able to move on the people of the square. The call to prayer sounds and men all around start washing up with the dirt on the ground before lining up for prayer.

I head back towards the main circle and then towards 6th October Bridge. The path is lined by vendors selling cigarettes or smoked sweet potatoes. Another small march passes by, this time made up of school children chanting back to the call of a five-year-old girl held up on the shoulders of her father. On my way towards the mosque I pass by a man dressed as a referee who is blowing a whistle and pulling a red card on Mubarak. Everyone around him is laughing.

The mosque stands between two barricades made up of burned out cars and a police bus. An artist is updating a daily comic he draws on the charred bus that serves as his chalkboard. I sit down for a moment and a woman wearing niqab comes by to offer me a date before continuing on, offering dates to everyone along her way. A newspaper on the ground in front of me with a picture of Mubarak on it gets stomped on by everyone who notices it. As the sun starts to go down, I decide to head home so as not to be hassled by the police or army for being out after curfew. On the walk home I wonder how long a place like Tahrir can last.