In the two weeks that have passed since Egyptians began street protests aimed at overturning president Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule, central Cairo's Tahrir Square has become the movement’s beating heart and most effective symbol.
As long as protesters occupy the most prominent public space in Cairo – indeed in the whole country – they cannot be ignored by the international media or their own government, despite efforts by the army to contain the demonstrations and return life to normal.
Such an occupation, by hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life, requires supplies and a degree of organisation.
In the square, both have been achieved on an impressively ad-hoc basis. Leaders have emerged and committees have been formed, but the roughly 55,000 square metre "Republic of Tahrir Square" – as some inside are calling it – still operates on a mostly informal system of economy and defence.
On the perimetre of the square, teams of men – most ranging in age from early 20s to mid-40s – guard barricades made of debris and form checkpoints to ensure identification of guards and give thorough pat-downs to make sure no one brings in weapons.
Some wear laminated badges bearing the Egyptian flag, others identify their job – "Security" – with a piece of tape. Such checkpoints sprang up from the beginning of the occupation and now co-ordinate with army troops who mostly stand on the side and observe proceedings.
Past the checkpoints, a protester sometimes waits to provide visiting journalists with the number of a media co-ordinator or an international organisation to call if they have any complaints about treatment at the hands of the government or government-backed "baltageya" – thugs.
Farther inside, the square's informal economy becomes immediately apparent.
Next to a man holding a board festooned with anti-Mubarak cartoons – the "Republic of Tahrir Square Information Ministry" – vendors hawk armloads of Egyptian flags (5 pounds/$0.85).
Along the curb nearby, enterprising businessmen have arranged tables and carts to sell pre-made cups of hot tea (1 pound/$0.17) and containers of koshari (3-5 pounds/$0.51-0.85), the ever-present Egyptian lentil and noodle dish.
Some have even begun striding around the square, peeking into tents to offer trays of tea, as they would in one of Cairo’s hole-in-the-wall coffee and shisha shops.
Around the centre of the square – a circular patch of tent-covered ground that once was grass but now is hardened dirt and swampy mud – men park their wagoncarts of packaged sweets (0.5 – 1 pound/$0.08 - $0.17).
Here, we are discouraged from filming by a tired-looking protester whose head is wrapped in a black-and-white checkered keffiyeh.
He apologises profusely but tells us he does not want the rest of the world to think that the square is some kind of festival. Earlier on Monday, we are told, Ahmed Shafiq, the prime minister, compared Tahrir Square to London’s famous and bucolic Hyde Park; this is no Hyde Park, the man says.
He's right, of course. And that is one of the great dichotomies of the square.
Celebration and funeral
Fiery socialist men in their twenties and conservative older women in hijab crack jokes, gather to sing
patriotic songs, and call ebulliently for the downfall of Mubarak, but all around hang huge banners depicting in gory detail the portraits of the "martyrs," those protesters who have died over the past two weeks.
Tahrir Square is a celebration and a funeral.
The man tells us there is no committee that organises the supply of Tahrir; people simply take initiative. Friends pool money, and those with funds make purchases for the poor.
Impressively, prices do not seem to have inflated inside the square. After we say goodbye to the man in the keffiyeh, we buy a piece of bread (1 pound/$0.17) and a packet of tissues (0.75 pounds/$0.13).
Many of the volunteers in the square simply offer food for free.
As we sit on unfolded newspapers in the centre of the square speaking with Nasser Abdel Hamid, a member of the new youth negotiating committee, we are handed long bread with La vache qui rit cheese and pieces of grainy, "baladi" bread packed with sweet, peanut butter-style spread.
We are approached by a young man who asks if he can interrupt briefly.
Seif, a student at the Bahareyya Academy university, offers to help us find blankets, food and medicine if we plan on spending the night.
He says he is not a member of a committee, just a volunteer. He and his friends pooled $847 to buy medicine for protesters in the square.
Though Seif was beaten during the violence on Wednesday, he has returned, but he says people are having trouble bringing through supplies.
Pro-Mubarak loyalists have been known to intimidate those arriving with supplies and to confiscate them on the roads leading to the square, and the army has occasionally shut down the flow of food and medicine.
But the protesters are firmly entrenched. The scattered tents and blankets that dotted the square a week ago have morphed into a semi-permanent encampment.
Protesters have driven wooden and metal stakes into the ground to anchor huge tarps and makeshift shelters that block out the chilly winter wind and bring to mind the expansive desert abodes of Egypt’s Bedouin population.
They have gutted lampposts and other electrical outlets to charge their mobile phones and power laptops that they use to project movies onto hanging cotton screens or read news on the Internet with still-operational wi-fi connections pirated from nearby buildings.
On a stage overlooking the central part of the square, next to a stuffed effigy lynched from a lamppost, protesters have built a stage complete with a fully functional, concert-level sound system.
On Monday night, a man strummed an acoustic guitar and sang protest songs to a crowd of hundreds.
A protester with an Egyptian flag wrapped around his waist tells us that that the people in the square have formed a new "social contract".
As we walked toward an exit with Abdel Hamid, the youth negotiator, he turned Shafiq's statement on its head.
"This is better than Hyde Park," he said.
Source: Al Jazeera