Tahrir’s late night conversations

New challenges face Tahrir Square, from dealing with infiltrators to gaining support from all social classes.

Tahrir Square is almost a refugee camp for those in Egypt’s marginalised classes [GALLO/GETTY]

On Thursday, this column was going to be titled “Egypt’s last dance?” to indicate the fear felt by many artists I know at the seemingly inevitable rise of “Islamists” to political dominance in Egypt.

On Friday, I had decided to change the title to “The people and the people are one hand” in honour of the chant repeated by the 1,000-strong march to Tahrir late that morning from the Mohamed Mahmoud Mosque in Muhandisiyya. The march was in remembrance of dozens or martyrs from the fighting around Tahrir – especially on Mohamed Mahmoud Street.

By Saturday, it seemed the most fitting title would be “Betrayal”, a word increasingly used by activists to describe their feelings at the willingness of many comrades to move into the political process while a dozen thousand of their fellow citizens remain jailed in prisons, where, according to human rights officials, sexual torture is becoming widespread.

As I sat in the micro-bus back from Mahallah this evening, after meetings with labour leaders, I still couldn’t decide what the main theme of this column should be – because the issues dominating Egyptian political life right now are so many and still growing. So, as seems to happen most nights, I decided to stop by Tahrir around midnight, when most of the daily visitors have gone, to talk to the the residents of the Meidan and understand how things are moving “on the ground”.
The past few nights have seen spurts of violence arise from nowhere, only to dissipate just as quickly. Tahrir late at night is a very different place from its daytime incarnation. Anywhere between a few hundred and 1,000 people essentially live in the square now. Fires burn until fajr, or dawn prayers, to keep people warm; while those food and tea sellers that haven’t been chased away, accused of being government plants, do quiet business.

Egypt’s sans-culottes

The Square is dirty, increasingly so, which is a major difference from the Meidan of February. No one I know is quite sure why, but a couple of friends suggested that it’s because the Brotherhood was probably helping organise the garbage collection during the January-February protests, and has been almost entirely uninvolved this time around. During the day, flies are everywhere around the tents and people wander in shabby, unwashed clothes.

The main tent areas have the vague feeling of a refugee camp, and in a sense, that is what Tahrir has become – at least in part – because a good share of the people that are now occupying the Meidan really don’t have anywhere else to go. Tahrir has become, in a real sense, their home.

This includes not just the myriad street kids, perhaps the majority of whom don’t even have shoes to wear and so go around barefoot day and night. But also the guards at the entrances and the fighters who maintain a constant vigil in Tahrir. Some of them are the so-called “ultras”, or rabid soccer fans, whose long experience fighting security police at matches prepared them well for the front lines of the fighting throughout 2011. Others are just poor and working-class, close to the bottom end of the economic scale.

They have not merely become the heart of the revolution. They have always been the heart of the revolution, at the front lines from January 25 through November 25, and until this evening. The cry for freedom, dignity and social justice that has defined the protests for ten months canot be understood apart from the utter lack of all such as experienced by the tens of millions of Egyptians who live at bare subsistence levels – surviving on as little as $2 a day. These are the people who are ultimately being betrayed by the emerging system, where the major parties do not have any coherent program for addressing their plight and fostering sustainable, widely distributed economic growth and development.

The youngest residents of Tahrir, the street kids, all look five years younger than they really are, because they’re so small. The older ones all look ten years older than their true age, because of all they’ve endured. The world has seen them through the clouds of tear gas in the now iconic videos that have defined the revolution’s violence, although few know their stories, or which classes of Egypt they represent.

But, however spectacular, the large-scale violence is not what defines their lives in Tahrir. Rather it is the waiting, the bare life, the constant movement from one side of the square to the other, 24 hours a day, that is their stock and trade.

And it is this waiting that has made the Meidan so tense. There is always suspicion and always a reason to suddenly jump to violence, because everyone assumes that at some point, the SCAF will send in either baltagiyya (paid “thugs”) or security police to clear out Tahrir (“After all, if they can do it against Occupy Wall Street, why won’t they do it here?” one Tahriri explained).

On Saturday night at around 3:30am, as I left Tahrir via Abdel Qader Hamza street next to the Omar Makram Mosque, a fight broke out in front of the mosque, with guards accusing several people of being baltigiyya. This immediately led to shoving, an exchange of blows and then, without warning, a few grapefruit-sized cement pieces being thrown by one of the guards for no immediately apparent reason at the crowd of other guards who were attacking the accused baltagiyya.

Redefining the occupation

I had hoped that Sunday night would be different, in part because a group of “leaders” of the occupiers – I put the word in quotes because, as with OWS, no one wants to be defined as leading the Tahrir, even when it’s clear they have won a great degree of respect and authority in the eyes of other occupiers – had issued a powerful bayan, or communique. It declared their desire to open Tahrir to traffic while maintaining a permanent occupation, OWS-style, of the plaza in front of the Mugamma, one of Egypt’s most imporant government buildings.

The communique, from the “Revolutionaries of Meidan Tahrir”, declared that they would not stop the occupation until they achieved their demands. These include the immediate stepping down of SCAF from power, the resignation of the new government of Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri, and speedy trials for security officals who killed or injured prisoners – as well as the immediate release of political detainees.

Intense conversations and fights with ‘infiltrators’ fill the nights at Tahrir Square [GALLO/GETTY]

But for me, more important than the direct political demands and the willingness to adapt to the changing public mood by opening Tahrir to traffic is the desire for Tahrir to remain a quintessential public space and public sphere – you can find Tahriris on Facebook at 4:00am with their Vodafone 3G sticks and electricity tapped from street lamps, but the revolution will live or die by how many people physically come to the Meidan on a regular basis.

And so they are demanding resources to help the poor who are the heart of the revolution, solidifying the now famous clinics that have been set up there to treat residents of the area and especially the street children. Equally important, the setting up of literary, artistic and cultural activities – such as the “Cinema Tahrir” that was playing footage of the violence of the past two weeks before Friday’s late night scuffle, which the drafters of the bayan have specifically called the public to call in to and attend.

In other words, the leaders of Tahrir want to institutionalise the incredible creativity of the revolution, from musical performances and film to artwork, poetry and story-telling. These activities have sustained protesters during the darkest days of violence and have helped to attract hundreds of thousands of “ordinary Egyptians” to the Meidan during each of the occupations since January. This would constitute a permanent counterpoint to the state media and other mechanisms that the government and elite have at their disposal, through which they try to convince Egyptians that the Tahriris are little more than “thugs” who don’t have their interests at heart.

Perhaps the most important example of this creation of a permanent public sphere was the convening of a discussion salon amidst the tents of the “February 30 movement”, a self-described utopian group (thus the impossible date) dedicated to ensuring that all inhabitants of the Meidan have adequate blankets and shelter, only metres from the entrance to the Mugamma (a huge office block on the south of Tahrir, housing the state’s centres of bureaucracy).

When I arrived last night, a retired general of the military police was in the middle of making an impassioned speech to a crowd of several dozen people, some seated with him in a circle, others standing around them, in which he declared his allegiance to the goals of the revolution and his conviction that the blood of the martyrs would not have been spilled in vain. Outside the circle, more than a dozen people, much better dressed and older than the usual people in the Meidan at this hour, were engaged in political discussions. Just then Tahrir felt like its old self again.

Talking through the violence

After the general finished, he invited members of the crowd to join him “in conversation (hiwar)” – for which Tahrir has created an unprecedented space from the first days of the occupation last winter. The first person who spoke up got to the heart of the matter, criticising the utter corruption of the government and the system.

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“You have so many things,” he began, listing some of the privileges and wealth the governing elite has accrued to itself, before getting stuck, like a scratched record, repeating “You have, you have, you have… ” (andak, andak, andak, andak… ) about a dozen times.

But just as the general thanked his interlocutor, people started moving towards the Mugamma from outside the tent area; first a trickle, then, as I walked towards the street, more and more, until – as I stepped off the sidewalk and into the street – dozens of Tahriris armed with sticks and other weapons came rushing past, screaming “baltagiyya” with their weapons raised. It wasn’t clear at first whether they were running from or to an attack, so I looked up into the sky behind them to check for incoming tear gas, since their pace and faces suggested something serious was in progress.

But it turned out they were running to the entrance of the Mugamma, where suddenly a decent-sized fight broke out under the arched entranceway, with sticks and fists flying even more furiously than the evening before.

This constant back and forth between conversation and violence can be quite disheartening, but it also well reflects the realities of life in Egypt today, where an unprecedented level of political discussion and – even – voting goes hand-in-hand with a continued deployment of systematic and deadly violence by the rulers against the ruled.

The problem of infiltrators

Indeed, one of the major problems of Tahrir today (similar to the situation during the last major occupation, in July, and different from the January-February protests), is that it has clearly been infiltrated by the security services with provocateurs. Their job is to keep the Meidan constantly on edge, and in so doing, keep the pressure on, drive people away, and encourage the degradation of life in Tahrir to the point that it either dissolves on its own, or an be “cleaned out”, Zuccotti Park-style.

In the present circumstances, this infiltration has meant that when the drafters of the bayan called for the occupiers more broadly to vote on whether to open the streets of Tahrir to traffic, about half of the people, and particularly the guards, refused to go along, with organisers assuming the infiltrators were being specifically ordered to keep the Meidan closed.

But for the (non)leaders of Tahrir, this is not an insurmountable problem. “People have to learn for themselves,” one explained to me this morning. “And they will. In the meantime, we will produce another proposal and figure out how more forcefully to deal with the infiltrators. I know who they are, after ten months of doing this, I can smell them.”

I have no doubt he can, but the real question is whether Egyptians more broadly can not merely smell, but root out, the precise infiltration of their embryonic democracy by the forces of crony capitalism and corruption that have for so long dominated the country. “Power is attractive and parliament comes with a lot of money,” one long-time activist put it to me in justifying the anger at the betrayal of the principles and of the revolution’s martyrs by the emerging political elite.

Whether in Cairo, London or New York, it seems the main task of the global Occupy movement in the near term is going to be to convince the majority of their fellow citizens that they both have no choice and actually have the tools to take on leaders, old and new, who – in the name of freedom and democracy – will continue to support the existing corrupt, unequal and violent world system.

Update (Monday Afternoon): I arrived at the Square at around 2:30pm to find the Mansoura tents being packed. The people were very depressed because more and more baltagiyya were infiltrating, almost outnumbering the remaining protesters. Soon after I arrived, they decided on a plan to remain at the Square, helping ensure its place as the most central cultural and political space in Egypt. As evening approached, the discussion continued for a further two hours, at which point, the baltagiyya who had taken over the majority of the entrances to the Square were suddenly gone from a few of them. Ramy Essam and several others among the remaining “true amn al-meidan” [“Meidan Security”], decided to use the opportunity to force Tahrir open to traffic. The word silmiyya [“peaceful”] was on their lips, but – just in case – many (but not Essam) were carrying large sticks and bags of rocks. The loudspeaker from Omar Makram Mosque suddenly called for representatives from each remaining tent to come to discuss the situation.

Soon after, a group of amn al-meidan went to the guards at the mosque entrance and tried to force them out. Fighting erupted, a knife was pulled and one baltagiyya was stabbed in the arm, dangerously close to a primary vein.

As darkness fell, confusion once again descended on Tahrir, as the de facto leadership of the occupiers sent out messengers to the tents in the middle of the Meidan asking them to move to the plaza in front of the Mugamma. “It’s going to be a long night,” I said to a friend. With a wan smile he replied, “They all are.”

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House), Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books), and of the forthcoming, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh (UC Press).

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.