Friday, September 23, 2011

Another Friday at Tahrir

Friday after the afternoon prayers, Tahrir square fills with demonstrators. On the wide streets, the tent cities and tear gas of January, February, and the long summer have given way to a more family-friendly atmosphere. When I arrived last week, vendors hawked water and sodas in the harsh sunlight. Young men in cleanly pressed outfits directed traffic. Boys and girls held up homemade signs on the margins of the several thousand men standing and chanting in front of a small stage. Speakers were stacked haphazardly under umbrellas in the national colors. They produced rousing Arabic music and the impromptu speeches of protest leaders.

On the surrounding street corners, cameras captured the action and journalists conduct interviews with activists. Small groups of men clustered around these interviews, which often turned into debates on the most important demands of the moment. Often the splits over demands are more a matter of emphasis than ideology. They mapped out physically around the square. One group chanted for the freedom of a jailed sheikh. Another campaigned against military trials for civilians.

Now that the ouster of Mubarak has given way to controversial military rule, these demands must necessarily roll with political changes, yet inspiring large masses to action over specific, often complicated demands can be difficult. David, a Fulbright student who has been here for a year, explained to me that one faction, the Constitution First movement, spent much of the summer demanding that a new constitution be drafted before parliamentary elections, which are currently scheduled for November. They worried, David told me, that if religious parties like the Muslim Brotherhood swept the elections, a religiously strict constitution would follow, and suppress secular elements in Egypt. It was a demand tied to a prediction based on belief, hardly the kind of thing that brings masses into the streets.

And yet the unifying feeling of empowerment seems to persist among the thousands that come to Tahrir every Friday.  It is the main message written on banners and scrawled on the sides of buildings.

A young boy, maybe ten, approaches Emily and asks for her hand. She doesn’t have a chance to think and he’s painting her hand with three thick stripes of black, white, and red, a simplified Egyptian flag. On her arm, he writes “25” in big, sloppy Arabic numbers. She hands him a pound (about fifteen cents) and he scurries off.

A few minutes later, another boy, this one older, comes up to Emily with his own cups of paint. She holds up her hand to show him she’s already been tagged and he gives her a look that says You should have waited for me.

The Egyptian Museum, the main repository of Ancient Egyptian artifacts, and a KFC restaurant loom over us as we descend towards the subway. The protest chants waft underground and linger briefly as the doors close and we jolt into motion.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons 

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