Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011

Cairo: Are the Assaults on Tahrir Square Over?

UPDATE: Feb. 4, 2011 at 11 p.m. Cairo time

They're calling it the Day of Departure. On Friday, Feb. 4, hundreds of thousands of protesters filled Cairo's giant Tahrir Square for the traditional Muslim midday prayer in a show of force that many hoped would be the push that would finally get President Hosni Mubarak to resign.

As U.S. officials intensified their plans for Mubarak's quick exit, the mammoth crowd made it clear that its bottom-line demand was for the Egyptian leader, whose authoritarian rule has lasted 30 years, to leave. As prayers ended, the thousands gathered on the southeastern edge of the square began chanting, "No negotiations until he leaves!"

"We have spent [decades] dreaming of this number of people coming together to speak out!" Mohamed Salim al-Awwa, an Islamic moderate, bellowed into the loudspeakers at the end of prayers. Earlier, a sheik in a white robe and skullcap leading the prayers had urged the crowd not to give up until Mubarak was out. "I ask you to be strong, to stay until we get a breakthrough!" he shouted. Again, there were loud cheers.

In stark contrast to the lethal fighting Cairo has seen in recent days, the only gunfire heard on Friday was a single burst of automatic fire deep in downtown Cairo, east of Tahrir Square, around dusk at 6 p.m. There were reports of street fighting between a small group of Mubarak supporters and antigovernment protesters, with several people injured.

Still, that is a vast difference from the combat on Wednesday and Thursday, when those who attacked the protesters — called simply "thugs" by the antigovernment Egyptians — fought a 15-hour battle in the streets around Tahrir Square with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Those hundreds appeared to have vanished from the site of battle around the Egyptian Museum. To the protesters occupying the square, their disappearance seemed to offer proof that the assault earlier in the week had been orchestrated.

Late on Friday night there were still large crowds in the square. But now, the atmosphere has been transformed. Rather than a chaotic, lethal battle zone, the center of the sprawling Tahrir Square area has been turned into something resembling a political folk festival, with singing mixed with speeches — including an open mike for people who might want their voices heard. That, in a country whose emergency law still on paper forbids mass political gatherings and antigovernment speeches, is a measure of the dizzying changes in Egypt since Jan. 25.

Earlier Friday morning, a commotion broke out as Egypt's Defense Minister, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, arrived in the square. It was his first visit to the heart of this revolt since he raced back from a trip to Washington after the protests erupted on Jan. 25. The man huddled with commanders near a cordon of military tanks outside the Egyptian Museum, unreachable by other Egyptians gathering in the square. About 50 men pushed against a military cordon close to him, shouting, "Tell Mubarak to leave! Tell Mubarak to leave!"

For days there have been fears that Friday prayers would result in a violent confrontation between armed Mubarak loyalists and the antigovernment protesters who have occupied Tahrir Square for 10 days. Last Friday, Jan. 28, security police, many in civilian clothing, shot live ammunition at the crowds, killing several people. Today there are tight cordons around the square, with four rows of protesters forming a series of human-chain barriers. Only one choke point is open, and there, newcomers are thoroughly searched for weapons. Numerous medical stations are set up along the outside of the square in readiness for casualties. On the eastern edge, two gurneys stand at the ready.

Many of the protesters awoke Friday primed for battle. Early in the morning, several young men stood near their makeshift barricade set up next to the Egyptian Museum. One had constructed a huge slingshot — about 10 ft. (3 m) tall — overnight. In contrast to the day before, when heavy gunfire and fighting erupted outside the square, soldiers were the only ones manning the otherwise deserted 6th of October Bridge, which spans the Nile on the front line of the battle; pro-Mubarak forces had been there on Thursday, but only a tank stands there now. "Our people will not move from this square," said protester Walid Kamel, 33, a motorbike salesman. "If they try to push us out of here, it will start a bloodbath."

But at least in the heart of the square, Friday was about celebration rather than fighting. In the hours that followed the midday prayers, the crowd swelled as tens of thousands more people poured into the square, entirely filling the giant space. From a balcony directly above where the sheik had conducted prayers, there was now a round of speakers and a local guitarist, who led the throng in protest songs, ending with the refrain "Down with Mubarak." That took place on one of four separate stages set up around the square; elsewhere, other speakers held forth, delivering one key message to the crowd: to not leave or grow fatigued until Mubarak quits.

As a measure of how astonishingly quickly this revolt has moved, there appeared to be little sign of opposition to the protesters from the vantage point of the square; the antigovernment crowds were firmly in control. On Friday they also included a contingent of Muslim Brotherhood women, dressed in full body cover.