The Clash of the Two Egypts: Tahrir Square Vs. Abbasiya Square

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Filippo Monteforte / AFP / Getty Images

Egyptians holding portraits of the protesters who were killed in last week's deadly clashes, demonstrate after the weekly Friday prayer in central Cairo's Tahrir Square on December 23, 2011.

She cut a striking figure, cloaked in a loose black abaya, headscarf, full-face niqab (or veil), black gloves, and white sneakers (should she need to run from the military again). The young woman, who did not want her name published ("Call me daughter of the Nile," she said) was one of the few females in the largely young male crowd of diehard revolutionaries gathered in the once-grassy roundabout at the center of Tahrir Square late Thursday.

Like many of the men around her, one of her eyes was also bandaged, her left, to protect her scratched cornea. In her right hand, she held a walking stick. She needed it, she said, after she was stomped, kicked and beaten with batons by soldiers a few days earlier, the same day that another young woman in a loose black abaya was stomped, kicked, beaten and stripped to her blue bra by soldiers clearing Tahrir Square and chasing its fleeing, unarmed protesters down Qasr el-Aini side street. At least 17 people were killed in those clashes last week, according to the Ministry of Health.

The shocking image of the anonymous "blue bra girl" or "TahrirWoman" as she has come to be known, brought thousands of angry women onto Cairo's streets Tuesday night to demand the end of military rule and its disrespect for female protesters.

The ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) has since apologized to Egypt's women for the infamous incident, but it has also stepped up a campaign to portray the demonstrators as thugs and vandals. Egypt's military-appointed prime minister, Kamal el-Ganzouri, said that those involved in the clashes were "not the youth of the revolution," a view feverishly supported by the state media which has blamed the continuing sit-in at Tahrir for the country's economic deterioration, accusing the protesters of being agents of foreign powers trying to colonize Egypt. "They want to steal our Egypt from us!" an angry news presenter said on state TV referring to the protesters, before urging "real Egyptians" to head down to Abbasiya Square on Friday. "Even if it reaches the point where blood flows knee-deep through the streets," she said, "they will not colonize Egypt!"

The bid to defame Tahrir distresses the conservative young Muslim woman who was in the square late Thursday and again on Friday. "I'm not an activist, I don't want my name publicized, but I'm also not a baltagiy," she said, using the Egyptian word for thug. "I am honorable. I am here because do you see this earth?" she said, kicking up a swirl of dirt with the end of her walking stick. "This earth drank the blood of heroes. Heroes I knew." Her voice cracks. Some of the young men listening nearby wipe tears from their eyes. "When I sit here, I feel that they are with me. If anybody is upset about what we are doing here, they don't understand the issues." She reaches into her pocket and pulls two spent cartridges from a small brown faux crocodile-skin pouch. "They used these on us, their own people last weekend! And why? Because we want to live in dignity? Because we know that the foundations of the corrupt regime remain in power? If they could beat somebody who looks like me," she said, gesturing to her niqab, "what does that say about them?"

But Egypt has two squares: most of the world knows Tahrir and its occupants. Across town, however, there is Abbasiya Square and an Egypt that appears to want a return to some sort of order — albeit encouraged by the country's current rulers.

Over in Abbasiya, near the Noor Mosque, Fatme and her friend Najwa were busy draping themselves in the red, white and black Egyptian flag. Just as in Tahrir, there were flag sellers, children with flags painted on their cheeks, hawkers selling cotton candy. The images of SCAF chief Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi made it clear this wasn't Tahrir. There were banners strung up in the square: "Egypt will not fall," read one. "True words are those not paid for with money," said another, furthering the narrative that the crowd in Tahrir were paid political mercenaries and unpatriotic.

Fatme and Najwa, high school students, had never been to Tahrir, and had no interest in it. "Here, the army protects us," Najwa said. The teenage girls hadn't seen the infamous image of TahrirWoman, and didn't want to. "Anyway, I don't believe it," Fatme said. "It's impossible that an Egyptian soldier would do that, impossible. It had to be staged or something."

But even in Abbasiya there is dissent and disagreement. Upon hearing the girls speak, Asma, a widow, sharing the bench with the pair, interrupted. "No, my dear, it's true," she said. "It happened. I saw the photos. It's a big mistake by the military council. The dignity of Egypt's women is a red line."

Another woman, Basma, who had been standing nearby cradling an infant, chimed in. "What was a woman doing in Tahrir, anyway? What kind of women go down there with those men?" she asked.

"What are you doing in Abbasiya?" Asma retorted. "Do not demean them. The same can be said of you being here. There are many honorable young people down there [in Tahrir], but there are baltagiya among them."

Asma's 17-year old son was in Tahrir on Friday. She was in Abbasiya. "I'm not with military rule, but I'm prepared to give the council six months. The people in Tahrir want everything done now. It's unrealistic," she said.

Despite their differences, the group of women — both in Abbasiya and in Tahrir — all agreed that the dueling demonstrations on Friday were an ominous development. Some said that SCAF's decision to wall off several of the main thoroughfares leading to Tahrir Square also didn't bode well, and helped literally cement an "us and them" mentality.

Over near Tahrir, Hanan, 29, a mother of three, stood in front of the huge cubes of cement stacked three blocks high near the still-smoldering remains of Egypt's richest library, torched a week earlier in the clashes between the military and protesters outside the Cabinet building on Qasr el-Aini Street. Many of the cubes were covered in graffiti, like F--- the police and F--- SCAF. Other messages lauded "the power of the revolution." Along Mohamad Mahmoud, another side street off Tahrir, the graffiti says "Freedom must come."

"It's like we're in Rafah," Hanan said, referring to the border crossing with Gaza, and the infamous separation walls erected by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza. She had spent the night in Tahrir, and left her three young children with her husband at home. A former cleaner at a mall, she lost the job she'd had for two years just months after the revolution. "I'm here because I'm a free Egyptian," she said. "They have made the revolutionaries baltagiya and that angers me."

She tucked her arms under the scarf draped across her upper body, poncho style. A black and white keffiyeh served as a hijab. She was concerned about the military's violence against women, but that didn't stop her coming to the square. "If I don't come during a revolution and protect myself and my family and that woman who was beaten, if I don't speak now, when will I speak? When will I defend them?" Her means of defense weren't merely verbal. She carried a handgun in her small purse, a weapon she said she'd fired only once, when thugs attacked a group of young men on the street near her home several months ago. "I fired into the air," she said. "I felt like I had to buy this, there are many rapes you know, in all of this lawlessness. Who is going to protect us?"

That's a question the "daughter of the Nile" also ponders. "They stripped a woman," she says, still astounded by the act, "stripped her abaya. I am afraid of the same thing happening to me, of course.," she said. "I am prepared to die, I am not afraid of death, but I just don't want anybody to dishonor me like that." She doesn't know how this will all end, but she's not optimistic. "May they have mercy on us, so that we may show them the same mercy."