Republic of Tahrir
It's a bit like getting into a country. You have to show your passport at several checkpoints. You are asked why you want to get in and frisking is a rite of passage. If there's something irregular, you may be taken to a side for more questioning. Amitava Sanyal writes.columns Updated: Sep 01, 2011 10:09 IST
It's a bit like getting into a country. You have to show your passport at several checkpoints. You are asked why you want to get in and frisking is a rite of passage. If there's something irregular, you may be taken to a side for more questioning. But once you are in after hours in the queue, you are cheered on with warm smiles and open arms. It's almost like a travel brochure promise. Welcome to Meidan Tahrir.
Originally a result of the designs of Ismail Pasha, the khedive (viceroy of the Ottomans) of Egypt from 1863 to 1879, to make Cairo the 'Paris of the East' in the late 19th century, Tahrir - literally, 'liberation'; then known as Ismailiya - Square has been a centre of protests for a while now. A century ago, people marched here against the British and again in 1977, crowds congregated here protesting price rise. But it had never been a bloody battleground.
On a regular day, the office district in which Tahrir Square is located, at the crossing of eight roads in downtown Cairo in front of the Egyptian Museum, overlooks one of the busiest junctions in Egypt, with a 100-metre drive taking up to half an hour in peak traffic. Today it's a closed community of pedestrians with its own rules, facilities and even entertainment.
The thousands of anti-Mubarak protestors having been camping here since Police Day on January 25, and tens of thousands have been joining them every day for the past two weeks. Tents and shelters made of bed covers and plastic have sprouted along the traffic islands. Cha (pronounced 'shaay') is available from dozens of vendors for an Egyptian pound (about R8) and stalls are selling kosheri, a lifeless mix of rice, macaroni and lentils. There's constant sloganeering and singing. Men and women, young and old are periodically clearing garbage from the streets. The children, some of them cradled by elders, stare around in silence in this mega-mela atmosphere.
Democratic freedom may be the grand goal, but several Tahrirites have also found a personal axe to grind against Hosni Mubarak. Behraiya, an 18-year-old girl selling tea, stubs out her cigarette and says, "I'm a beggar because of his policies." Reda, a 40-year-old jewellery maker, asks for a cigarette and says, "I haven't been able to marry because of that guy. I would have earned three times in [Anwar] Sadat's time." After three decades of pharaonic power, Mubarak is the System.
Others are here for a slice of history. Emad Osman, a 43-year-old technician who repairs air-conditioners, on being asked why he has been bringing his nine-year-old son Ahmed every day to such a potentially violent territory, replies, "I don't want him to miss these moments." Does Ahmed discuss Mubarak in school? "Yes, but not everyone thinks he's bad," says the boy.
Nearby, two large white cloths serve as screens on which news from Al Jazeera and other television channels are projected round the clock. There's also a smaller screen near a laptop on which people download and beam their personal videos every day. When not used as a makeshift stage for anti-regime rants, a carefully built pyramid of a dozen-odd large speakers blares nationalist songs.
But nobody forgets that Tahrir Square is, above everything else, a battleground. Stones and rubble are neatly cairned on walls and laid by the roadside for another possible pelting match. Charred vehicles are 'parked' on kerbs as if objects in a museum of violence. There are at least half a dozen 'clinics' - small barricaded areas near the tanks blocking all roadheads - manned by seven to 10 doctors with various specialities. "We have to stay close to the frontline. So we move when the line moves," says Dr Taufiq Ala-Iddin, a 25-year-old vascular surgeon. "We treat the bastards [pro-Mubarak 'thugs'] as well as the revolutionaries [the anti-Mubarak protestors]."
Each time there's a rumour - and there's at least one every 15 minutes - people swarm to a corner of the square to confirm it. My translator Hamdy Kenawi points to a dapper politician in the middle of one such swarm. It's Osama al Ghazali Harb, who left the ruling National Democratic Party in 2007 to form the liberal Democratic Front Party in the opposition. When he hears I'm from India, Ghazali Harb grabs me by my lapels. "We envy you. What we are fighting for here is a democracy like yours," he says dramatically in a place that is drenched with drama every day.