Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Martyrs and their Monuments

I keep thinking that each post about the scene at Tahrir square will be the last for a while, but then I take another walk through the area and find myself struck by how many details stick with me hours later.

At times, it feels as though Tahrir has become a monument to itself. T-shirt and trinket vendors selling clothes, stickers, bracelets, and key-chains emblazoned with “25Jan” and “Freedom” had been a staple of the streets just outside the square for months, but on Friday they had finally felt free to station themselves in the square itself, where a tent city sat mostly empty. Men with bags marked “Revolution Tea Vendors” walked around filling cups as small crowds, numbering in the very low thousands, gathered around men with megaphones who continued to lead chants. For the first time, the parallels with the Occupy Wall Street movement made sense to me: a community had become heartwarmingly self-sufficient on a populist platform, and a surrounding city of their target audience was only half-paying attention.

On the side of Tahrir, in front of the ironically iconic Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant (which had recently reopened) a marked off space was still being used as a field hospital (“Kentacky Revolution Clinic”), but now also housed the “Revolutionary Artist’s Union.” Several young men took the available markers, pencils, and large white squares of paper and added to the archive of drawings already covering much of a closed storefront. These included portraits of martyrs and a caricature of a soldier and police officer clasping hands as they each press a boot down on a protester’s back.

At the same time in the evening, the High Elections Commission proceeded with a twice-deferred press conference to announce election results. A few television screens at nearby shops showed the head of the commission, who after reading a few results said he was “too tired” to finish, and handed out copies to journalists.  Many of the results, of course, were already unofficially well-known, showing a sweep by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi (more religious, more right-wing) candidates. A liberal political science professor named Amr Hamzawy triumphed in the Heliopolis district (a middle-class neighborhood in East Cairo) leading a blogger to sardonically call for the secession of the Republic of Heliopolis from the rest of Egypt.

Curving around the side of the square, we passed by Mohamed Mahmoud Street, where the most violent clashes two weeks ago took place and a barricade still separates the protesters from the Ministry of the Interior and the Central Security Forces. A large Egyptian flag had been laid down in the middle of the street, between barbed wire and sprinkles of rocks and broken glass. Two girls led a small circle of bystanders in chants of mourning for the martyrs: “No God but God, No God but God, Revolution until Death. No God but God.” To the side, a young man posed for a picture in front of a striking piece of graffiti, which showed a white silhouette of a protester’s face against a black background, the word “Revolution” in large, loopy red letters next to his agape mouth.

Our feet crunched on the small rocks as we met an older man who was taking his elementary school aged son down the street that only ten days ago had been full of tear gas, fires, and bullets. They held hands as the father pointed out where each part of the fight had happened, and it felt like a scene of remembering and generational passing that happens years after a conflict, rather than a few days. 

Off another spoke of Tahrir, a little over a hundred young women and men sat cross-legged or stood watching a projection of short-films. These screenings are advertised as “Tahrir Cinema,” and have been a feature of the weekly protests since the summer. On their Facebook page, links to videos are accompanied by captions like “MOST DEVASTATING BUT MUST WATCH & SHARE.” They are largely the work of a group called Mosireen, a self-described “citizen journalism collective” which is putting together an archive of footage from the revolution. One of the films documented the clashes last week in quick, dramatic cuts, while another simply trained the camera on the face of friends of martyrs who described the casualties of the battles. Next to the screen, large banners displayed two pictures of each protester over the past few days in Bahrain; one of their face while alive and another of their corpse. 

While a few protesters still chanted “The People Want the Fall of the Regime” and “Oh Tantawi, Oh you scum, the blood of Egyptians isn’t cheap,” most milled about looking dazed. A lot of men seemed to be getting in small arguments.

Earlier in the day, empty coffins had been passed around symbolically. There was no clear demand other than a transition to civilian rule and the name of the protest itself: “Friday of Restitution for the Martyrs of Mohamed Mahmoud.” The name perfectly captured the feeling: that Tahrir is increasingly becoming a place of memories for most Egyptians, to the frustration of the few who believe that the revolution is not yet finished, and that there are plenty of reasons to return.

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