Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Fortress Tahrir

After two brutal days, the epicenter of the Egyptian revolution has a battle-hardened feel.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

CAIRO — Up until, Tuesday, Feb. 1, downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square was one of the happiest places in Egypt. Pro-democracy protesters, who have occupied the square since Jan. 28, were consistently positive, confident, and cooperative. Every day seemed to bring a new concession from a backpedaling government; the momentum, they felt, was clearly on their side.

A mass gathering planned for Friday, Feb. 4, was dubbed the "Day of Departure," and there were many in the crowd who genuinely thought this would be the day that President Hosni Mubarak would be hounded into early retirement. But then came a terrible and traumatic two days. On Wednesday -- a day on which many protesters admitted they had allowed themselves to relax a bit -- the square was suddenly besieged.

Seemingly harmless pro-Mubarak gatherings, which at first looked like no more than a sideshow for the cameras, abruptly coalesced into mass of armed men who violently attempted to overrun the square and very nearly succeeded. On Thursday, Mubarak supporters didn't attack quite so aggressively as the previous day, but they expanded their perimeter, establishing control of the two main bridges leading to Tahrir and openly barring people seeking to bring desperately needed food and medical supplies into the square. They also assaulted just about any journalist they could get their hands on.

CAIRO — Up until, Tuesday, Feb. 1, downtown Cairo’s Tahrir Square was one of the happiest places in Egypt. Pro-democracy protesters, who have occupied the square since Jan. 28, were consistently positive, confident, and cooperative. Every day seemed to bring a new concession from a backpedaling government; the momentum, they felt, was clearly on their side.

A mass gathering planned for Friday, Feb. 4, was dubbed the "Day of Departure," and there were many in the crowd who genuinely thought this would be the day that President Hosni Mubarak would be hounded into early retirement. But then came a terrible and traumatic two days. On Wednesday — a day on which many protesters admitted they had allowed themselves to relax a bit — the square was suddenly besieged.

Seemingly harmless pro-Mubarak gatherings, which at first looked like no more than a sideshow for the cameras, abruptly coalesced into mass of armed men who violently attempted to overrun the square and very nearly succeeded. On Thursday, Mubarak supporters didn’t attack quite so aggressively as the previous day, but they expanded their perimeter, establishing control of the two main bridges leading to Tahrir and openly barring people seeking to bring desperately needed food and medical supplies into the square. They also assaulted just about any journalist they could get their hands on.

By Thursday, Tahrir’s "people power" vibe had a distinct aura of desperation and paranoia. It was a fitting three-day microcosm of the fast-moving Egyptian uprising that has been marked as much as anything by rapid, jarring shifts in tone. But even amid the genuine fear of being overrun by the pro-Mubarak thugs, there remained a defiant back-to-the-wall attitude. As one female protester told Al Jazeera on Thursday morning, "We know that if we leave now, they’ll just hunt us down one by one."

I entered the Tahrir Square on Friday morning to find that it had been transformed. Formidable metal barricades walled off every one of the many roads leading into the square. The protesters had apparently cannibalized two construction sites in the area. Men patrolling the edges wore hard hats. An arsenal of rocks and concrete chunks lay in a pile, waiting to be thrown. On Qasr el-Nil Street, a few doors down from After Eight, one of Cairo’s poshest and most popular nightspots, a medieval trebuchet had been assembled — which, given the mounted cavalry charge the protesters had endured on Wednesday, seemed entirely fitting.

The protesters had received reinforcements as well. Despite the previous day’s attempt to cut them off from the rest of the city, at least one entry point through downtown’s Talaat Harb Street had remained in the hands of the Tahrir protesters, enabling fresh cadres, food, and medical supplies to enter. In just a partial reconnaissance of the square, I saw three different makeshift medical clinics, each stocked with fresh supplies.

The security procedures around the perimeter, which were already fairly robust, were turned up several notches as well. The thug squads controlling the bridges had melted away, allowing thousands more to flock in. But the security had become so rigid that it caused a serious bottleneck outside the Arab League headquarters at the mouth of the Qasr el-Nil Bridge.

I have never been searched so often, so thoroughly, or so politely. On Friday, Tahrir Square was more secure than most international airports. The buoyant mood had also returned. Once a person made it through the multiple redundant layers of ID checks and pat-downs, they were greeted by a clapping and cheering welcome line.

Internal security was being taken seriously as well. As I was walking around, one man poked his head out of a building overlooking the square and yelled, "I need anybody from security. There’s somebody who just went upstairs and we don’t know who he is." I watched as a young man picked up a length of iron rebar and entered the building to investigate. I didn’t wait around to see whom he found.

Today’s physical transformation of the square reflects a similar change in the mood and attitude of many of the protesters. This is a much harder bunch now. They have survived — just barely by many accounts — a harrowing experience and emerged battered but on their feet. There is a feeling that the regime had played one of its few remaining cards and failed. The people I spoke with were very aware that the previous two days of mayhem had backfired badly, causing a serious escalation in international criticism of Mubarak.

On Friday, the tide turned back toward the protesters. There is a growing sense that they are stronger, and the regime is weaker. The protesters believed that if they could just hold Tahrir until Friday, they would get another huge turnout of supporters. And they were right: Friday’s crowds at least matched and possibly exceeded the largest gatherings of this 11-day uprising.

One final note about the mood in Tahrir on Friday: Nobody there is fooling themselves anymore that ousting Mubarak is going to be easy, quick, or clean. "I think we were definitely a little optimistic earlier this week," said longtime human rights activist Hossam Bahgat.

They know now that Mubarak and the security system he built over three decades are in this fight for the long haul. But today, at least, the protesters show every sign of being both willing and equipped to match his resolve in what could turn out to be a lengthy standoff.

Ashraf Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist. This article is an edited excerpt of his book, Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.

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