Dispatch from Tahrir: The Remnant

by andrewcagle

Tahrir square in Cairo is no longer a swirling mass of budding populism. In fact, it seems abnormally quiet for the center of a metropolis 20 million people strong. Cairenes go about life as usual, but the subdued activity of the square compared to days even before the revolution is telling of a cautious progress in Egypt. Relics of a year filled with protests and civic struggle adorn the circle in the form of graffiti and vendors selling merchandise memorializing the revolution.

While daily protests have long ceased, thirteen months after the beginning of Egypt’s revolution, a remnant remains. On a concrete island in the middle of Egypt’s icon of the revolution, a crude camp of makeshift tents stand as a vanguard, showing the continuing revolution is still alive. During nights and weekends the encampment expands and retracts around the base camp housing social, medical, and leadership units. With the ebb and flow of day and night, people come to Tahrir in solidarity as a symbol that progress is not finished.

Noor, a medical student at Cairo University began living in Tahrir square two weeks ago. He came to support the makeshift medical clinic that serves protestors injured during demonstrations. Noor began to show me two tents that comprised the medical unit in Tahrir. Inside one tent of tarps, pieced together with wood, were oxygen tanks and pharmaceutical supplies. Inside another tattered camping tent, he produced bandages, iodine, and antibiotics.

Adams, one of the square’s unofficial media liaisons, explained that most of the camp’s current residents had been here since November. I was curious about what had brought Noor, a newcomer, to this camp months after the height of Egypt’s revolution. “My friend died in this circle, in this square. When the police officers hit the people, Muhammad… shaheed, my friend has died…” he said, in a somber yet unwavering tone.

Graffiti denouncing SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) can be seen adorning walls along the streets that spill into the massive roundabout. I also thought of the graffiti that illustrated portraits of young men with angel’s wings and the title shaheed, or martyr in Arabic, preceding their name. As Egyptians move towards electing the president who will succeed Hosni Mubarak, an uneasy and sometimes violent tension between the ruling SCAF forces and Cairo’s citizens remains.

The injured man, who I had met earlier, brought me to a tent where a young boy pulled back the front flap to reveal a cache of riot gear captured by demonstrators during protests in the square. As Noor and the other man pulled out used tear gas canisters linked together on a daisy chain, flash grenades, empty shells from shotgun blanks, helmets, and three riot shields covered in graffiti. It was a small, defused arsenal. Once tools of dominance wielded by the state, now a symbol of stalwart courage for the remnant of Tahrir, cold reminders of the struggle between people and power in Egypt.

Adams pointed out a slogan scrawled on each of the riot shields, “Taha is the bomber!” He went to explain, “’Taha bombs’, I wrote this. Taha bombs is one of the guys who took some of this. His name is khanabil. Khanabil means ‘bombs’. That’s why they named him like so.” Among the riot gear was a curious token, a small stuffed bear, an empty flash grenade cartridge and a cardboard sign crudely taped to it. “This one they wrote msheer. Msheer is Tantawi, the military leader. They make it as sample for him. He is a bomber. He uses bombs against the protestors.” Occurrences such as this are less frequent as Cairo has settled after a successful round of legislative elections, but I can tell these occupiers are wary of what presidential elections will hold. A peaceful and smooth transition from the interim rule of Tantawi and SCAF is something all Egyptians are hoping for. Having seen what a taste of power can do, they know that the military may not relinquish power gracefully.

“It’s just a transfer, the authority from the military, not from the military. [We want] to keep the military, no country can survive without a military, but we want to change the military – the military leader, Tantawi, and Somi Anan,” Adams says. While they have reason to despise the military’s brutality, it was the shared patriotism of the people and the soldiers that proved to be an important tipping point in ousting Mubarak last year. I can sense that same sentiment in Adams’ carefully formed statement. On the subject of presidential elections, most of the revolutionaries and secular movements are campaigning against sectarianism more than they are for any particular party. “Right now we like crushing all the movement. We want to be one hand, one heart… yeah, unified,” said Adams as he continued on to list the various revolutionary movements that had popped up in the past year.

As we sat on a synthetic woven mat laid across the hard packed dirt of the circle’s giant roundabout, the group went on to explain the demographics of the camp. Fiddling with a 7.62mm casing and my glass of tea, I listened. This camp was in large part, a place of refuge. “Maybe 60% of people here are wanted and their name in the government. That’s why they can’t run back for their lives – run back home.” For many, this birthplace of the revolution had become home, as people who risked their livelihood for freedom awaited court dates and trials. The tent camp was the only safe place because “no cops are allowed to come here, no government, no military,” Adams explained.

An important thing to understand about Egypt is that it is Arab, but Egyptian first. Driving along the city’s elevated roadways, a trained eye can spot the various historical periods in the structural details of the ancient city. Cairo’s architecture is displayed like a cross-section of time. Doorways, windows, arches, and stones tell of pharaonic beginnings, Ptolemaic dynasties, Turkish legacy, Hellenistic influence, and Islamic transformation, all brought to modernity by a dose of British colonialism. This rich kaleidoscope of culture has not been forgotten or passed over by the city’s residents.

Egyptians proudly point back to famous caliphs and sultans in their asl, or origins, as my driver Hassan did. His roots traced back to the Mamluk sultan of Muhammed Ali. In post-Mubarak Egypt he had hopes of Egypt achieving what he believed it began grasping during the time of Anwar al-Sadat, greatness. That was his hope, that his country would make what he saw as a u-turn towards the direction Egypt’s leadership was taking before Mubarak came to power in 1986. “Democracy, freedom, jobs…” Hassan lamented as he recounted the positive developments during Sadat’s presidency. After Mubarak came, Hassan complained that jobs began disappearing, business was difficult, and Egypt became isolated and hostile to foreigners, in his opinion.

The most encouraging rhetoric I heard while listening to Hassan talk of what he wanted for this country undergoing a reinvention – no, a restoration – of itself, was his attitude towards cosmopolitanism. “We want Israelis to come here, Swedish, American, everybody,” he continued. In Hassan’s view, diversity was the key to a strong society, and good relationships with other nations essential to a sound foreign policy. While distinctly Egyptian and proud of it, the string of various cultures across time in Egypt brings out a pleasant openness in Hassan, a hammer that shatters the media’s portrayal of a rising isolationist, Islamist power in the region.

As for the remnant of Tahrir, they will continue their part in this restoration from the square. Not just a symbol of the revolution, but a memorial to it and its cost. Noor and Adams pointed to two rudimentary graves in the middle of the camp. No one was buried there, but they stood solemn and defiant nonetheless. “It’s a sample of them. They died in the square.” I remembered an empty shotgun shell from earlier and the bullet casing I found on the ground. Adams and Noor were here for them. “It’s like a sample of the revolution. We are the revolution over here.” Their mission, “To keep it alive” they said without hesitation. When asked what the most important task was for the international community, Adams simply responded, “Just to give us a voice.” The revolution is still alive in Egypt, but one has to look more carefully to find it. It exists in the undercurrents of politics and just beneath the surface of society. There you will find Egypt’s wary but confident course towards freedom.