x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Anti-Mubarak protesters in Tahrir Square for the long haul

Community blossoms as it mostly solves logistics problems and declares it is staying in the square to make sure anyone negotiating doesn't forget about last week's crowds.

Anti-government protesters surf the internet on a laptop in Tahrir Square in Cairo. The Arabic on the newspaper headline reads: 'The birth of freedom'.
Anti-government protesters surf the internet on a laptop in Tahrir Square in Cairo. The Arabic on the newspaper headline reads: 'The birth of freedom'.

CAIRO // When thousands of anti-government protesters took control of central Cairo's Tahrir square on January 28, they faced an immediate logistical problem. How would they keep it, what would they eat and where would they sleep during the chilly winter nights?

As the occupation of Tahrir completed its 11th day yesterday, many of those questions have been answered. Through a combination of ingenuity, co-operation and sheer stubbornness, the demonstrators have transformed the square.

What exists there now is a tight-knit and self-policing community of battle-hardened optimists who show every sign of digging in for the long haul.

After a chaotic period marked by breathless daily developments, the stalemate with President Hosni Mubarak's government seems to have settled into a longer game.

Last week's violent attempts by pro-Mubarak forces to dislodge the Tahrir crowds failed, as did efforts by those same pro-regime groups to choke off the protesters' supply lines.

Now the focal point seems to be shifting to back room politics, as Mr Mubarak's new government reaches out for negotiations with any opposition forces willing to pick up the phone.

But the reduced attention to daily street action has not diminished the determination of the crowds in Tahrir to stay in place until all their demands are met.

Multiple visits to Tahrir over the past few days show a group physically capable of meeting that challenge. The pro-Mubarak crowds have largely melted away, and for the opposition supplies new protesters are flowing in.

Tent cities have sprung up throughout the square, as have makeshift medical clinics stocked with supplies.

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EGYPT'S TWO WEEKS OF TURMOIL
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Electricity is being drawn from street lamps and local offices to recharge cell phone batteries. A stage has been assembled, and a projection screen alternates between Arabic news channels and movies at night.

The physical fortifications are formidable as well. The Tahrir protesters were caught by surprise on Wednesday by the day-long assault on the square launched by the pro-Mubarak forces.

Their numbers had dwindled a bit at that point, and they struggled to defend all of the multiple entry points into Tahrir. They were also perilously short on medical supplies to treat the hundreds of wounded returning from the front lines of the conflict.

Now corrugated metal sheets - apparently scavenged from two large construction sites - block off most entrances to the square. Piles of rocks and cement chunks sit ready for throwing. On Kasr el Nil street downtown, an enterprising group of protesters has constructed a medieval trebuchet to hurl large rocks or flaming debris over the barricades.

On Sunday, when the army forces patrolling the square attempted to dismantle some of those barricades, protesters resisted. Dozens of people now sleep in front of the tanks to hinder their movement.

That physical readiness reflects a similar psychological mindset on the part of many of the Tahrir square protesters.

A number of the demonstrators seem perfectly willing to simply live there, out in the open, until President Hosni Mubarak leaves the stage.

One of the factors fuelling that determination is the widespread belief that things have simply gone too far to turn back now.

Despite feeling that momentum is on their side, many acknowledge that their backs are against the wall. As one female protester told the Jazeera news channel last week, "We know that if we leave now, they'll just hunt us down one by one."

There's another reason for the refusal to leave. As rumours circulate about different opposition forces said to be negotiating with the government, the protesters seek to make sure that nobody cuts an unacceptable back room deal that falls short of their bottom-line demand: Mr Mubarak's immediate departure.

Their continued presence in Tahrir, the protesters say, ensures that anybody willing to negotiate keeps the demands of Tahrir Street in mind.

At times, the protesters seem determined to create something not only sustainable and self-reliant but borderline utopian.

On Friday, when the largest crowds yet flooded into the square, entrants had to endure multiple redundant ID checks and (extremely polite) pat-downs.

Where they finally made it through the last inspection point, they were greeted by a cheering and clapping welcome line and told "Welcome to liberated ground."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae