Tahrir Square - a battlefield, a protest, and a way to make a living

 

McClatchy Newspapers

CAIRO — On Wednesday, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, a main artery named for a ruthless interior minister who served between 1937 and 1938, was a microcosm of what has gone on in downtown Cairo for five days now.

Religious and political figures had tried to mediate a truce between protesters and police who'd been assigned to secure the perimeter of the hated Ministry of the Interior, and they had failed.

So throughout the day, hundreds of protesters hurled rocks at the riot police, who responded with clouds of tear gas and, sometimes, birdshot fired into stampeding crowds.

Meanwhile, soldiers from the Egyptian army, who'd sealed off every side street leading to the ministry's headquarters with barbed wire, sipped tea while watching the confrontations from the comfort of their armored vehicles.

All around was a cacophony of violent sounds: Thunderous chants by thousands of protesters gathered in Tahrir Square a few blocks away, demanding an end to Egypt's military rule, were interspersed with explosions nearer by as riot police fired tear gas canisters and birdshot at the frontline near the Interior Ministry.

The previous 24 hours had left an estimated 700 people injured and at least five dead.

Downtown Cairo this November very much has the feel of Cairo in January, when an 18-day uprising toppled President Hosni Mubarak. This time, however, the main chant is "Down, down with military rule," a call for the ouster of the military council that replaced Mubarak — and had been greeted then with hugs, kisses and flowers.

Just as then, downtown is now crowded with field hospitals. The one in the alleyway just behind the frontline near the Interior Ministry was manned by dozens of young doctors and medical students. It was there that protesters delivered their injured or suffocating fellows for first aid treatment on blankets stained with blood and mud. The air was thick with tear gas.

"We lost count on Saturday night," said Abdelkhalek el Sayyed, a 19-year-old volunteer who'd just received treatment from his colleagues after a tear gas attack.

El Sayyed's photos were on the font page of every local paper in Egypt when he was detained and tortured in March 2011 by forces loyal to now dead Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi; he had volunteered to treat injured revolutionaries in the contested coastal city of Ras Lanouf. He didn't hesitate to volunteer to treat protesters when they began confronting riot police on Saturday.

"We received hundreds of injured protesters over the past five days and sometimes we are treating each other when police forces attack us, or when we collapse," he said. Then he disappeared into the crowds, his white coat covered with bloodstains.

Throughout the day, raging crowds cleared a route straight to the frontline. Coming through were ambulances and motorbikes transporting the injured or carrying supplies to several field hospitals around the square.

Other volunteers walked the battlefield carrying spray bottles filled with a milk and cornstarch mixture, alcohol or vinegar, or bottles of eye drops — all said to relieve the irritation caused by tear gas.

Messages circulating on social media websites over the past few days had advised protesters to buy gas masks from industrial supply shops. Street sellers decided to save protesters the bother: Chinese-made gas masks were selling for as little as $2 a mask.

"I came here on Saturday to join my brothers, protest and fight those brutal officers," said Gamal Ali, a 24-year-old university graduate who sold gas masks on the square. "I don't have money, I decided to sell masks during the day and protest at night."

"The military is killing us because we are protesting that we don't have jobs. I studied business and now I am a street vendor barely making a living," he said.

Thousands of other protesters decided to keep their distance from the violent scene at the Interior Ministry, remaining at a safe distance in Tahrir Square itself, which, after hosting hundreds of political propaganda banners, had only one huge banner dictating the rules of the protest: "No stages, no political propaganda banners, one microphone for the square."

Three days earlier, protesters had expressed their anger at political figures by kicking out anyone who spoke in the name of their political parties or attempted any kind of propaganda.

Mohamed el Beltagi, secretary-general of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, was carried out of the square by his assistants on Monday after being attacked by protesters who felt betrayed by politicians calling for elections to be held despite the bloodshed and continuous attacks by the police.

On Wednesday, protesters vowed to hold their ground in Tahrir Square until the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces hands over the country to a civilian ruling council. They had little good to say about the politicians who on Tuesday had met with the supreme council to discuss a new caretaker government to replace the one that resigned Monday.

"All they care about is elections and seats in parliament," said Mohamed Zinhom, a 28-year-old mechanic who was shot in the arm on Sunday. "They abandoned us and went to hold talks with our killers. How can I trust them?"

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

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