Defiance in Tahrir—Live Blog
6:46pm | 28 November 2011 | by Jochai Ben-Avie, English
CAIRO, ACCESS REPORT DAY 6
By Katherine Maher Access Policy Fellow (this post from Friday)
I’ve been in the Square every day since arriving in Cairo. The mood has swung round significantly since I first got here. The first two nights, as per our earlier updates, were tense. The square now has the feeling of a too-crowded public fair—overall quite festive but at times individually claustrophobic and aggressive.
Images from Tahrir at night have a particular visual language—they are bathed in yellow light from the sodium-vapor streetlamps overhead. The light casts intense shadows from above, heightening stress on the faces of the protesters. Already exhausted, running on too little sleep and food, they look sallow and weary.
Two nights ago, this light was punctuated by the blue lights of ambulances, racing back and forth from the front lines of Mohamad Mahmoud street. It’s Mohamad Mahmoud where the heaviest conflict was taking place—a nondescript street best known for dividing two blocks of the American University in Cairo’s downtown campus.
Mohamad Mahmoud runs down in the direction of the Interior Ministry, among the most powerful in Egypt, with oversight of the paramilitary Central Security Forces. These are the notorious black beetle-helmeted baton-wielders, who serve the mission of protecting sites of domestic importance. Their ranks are conscripted, drawn from those who did not qualify for the military.
The Ministry claims the protesters are trying to advance on the Ministry building, while the protesters insist they are defending against the CSF attempts to regain the square. Tensions run high on both sides, and protesters have admitted to me that some may be out there, deliberately antagonizing the CSF.
Last night, the mood was different. The ceasefire, negotiated at 2am the previous morning, was holding. The government had built a wall with giant concrete blocks, barricading Mohamad Mahmoud a block off the square. A civil guard guarded the entrance to the street, preventing protestors from passing. We managed to find a path down the side alleyways, getting close enough to see figures standing on the wall before being chased off.
Away from Mohamad Mahmoud, the protests were beginning to develop structure. Various groups have set up their tents in the middle of the square, and are holding regular meetings to formulate strategy and policy -- on issues from maintaining square security to documenting human rights violations to coordinating political demands.
People emphasized to me that the way this has come together has been very different from the January and July protests. In January, people were still sensitive to their own power and voice. In July, it was highly organized, and more festive, full of stages and performers. This November, there is urgency, and the structure has developed in a more ad-hoc manner. Unlike previous protests, political parties have no presence and are not welcome.
Today, the population of the square has grown massively. I spoke with organizers who had arranged for supporters to be bussed in from other governorates around the country. I’ve yet to see a convincing estimate, but the numbers are quite large. The mood varies; there have been reports of harassment of women—especially foreign journalists—as well as smiles and welcome.
Negotiations on a ‘national unity’ or ‘salvation’ government have produced an interim Prime Minister, Kamal Ganzoury. He is 78 years old, served as prime minister under the former regime, and has been received with skepticism in the square. Despite this reshuffling, the protesters have reiterated their unwillingness to leave the square until the military junta steps down.
With the violence quieted for now, and the elections still in play—reconfirmed for three days from now—no one seems to know what comes next. Skepticism abounds that the elections will be able to take place on time, and many are arguing for a boycott. At least one liberal party has withdrawn. However, the protesters don’t seem very troubled by this uncertainty.
The people in Tahrir are very clear that they will not leave until their demands are met. They like the uncertainty, because it gives them the advantage -- their demands are clear, their numbers are large, and they are prepared to defend these advantages with their lives. Their foe, the ancient regime, has only two options: use force or make concessions. Force only drives people to the side of the protest; making concessions feel increasingly like an inevitability. In the words of the protesters this spring, everything is different now -- 'The people know their way to the square'.
CAIRO, Egypt -- No apologies from the General's can make up for loss of life and injury to date. Nor can the use of tear gas against innocent civlians. As many people are saying, it is too little, too late. The subject of the gas being used against protestors here has been much talked about -- by activists, on the news, and on social media like Twitter.
Since Access has been in Cairo, we've spoken to many who say they have been gassed by U.S. gas or shot at with Italian cartridges. Many serious questions are being asked about firms such as Federal and Combined Tactical Systems, and how it could be that these companies' products are being used against the innocent people of Cairo. These American and European companies have provided the gas which has burnt the eyes and sickened so many here in the Square, where the unimaginable odor envelops the area and makes the air unbreathable.
Today we saw the evidence, and took photos of American and European canisters. Some of the canisters and shell case are dated from as late as May 2011.
But we need to look also ahead - we need to make sure that the internet and teclo policy in post Egypt is rights respecting. This is the ongoing key to freedom of speech and political change. Because if you control the digital sphere you control the narrative. Much of that relies upon the companies incorporated in Europe and operating in Egypt.
Makeshfit hosptial on the side of the Square
CAIRO, ACCESS REPORT DAY 4
CAIRO, Egypt -- It feels as though things are coming to a head as the crowds swirls towards democracy.
I met many young people tonight who are now supporters of change, not because they necessarily supported the cause to begin with but because they could not stand idly by and see people being killed. One boy of the internet generation, said "Nothing can be so wrong to deserve being killed for." He'd seen the images on Facebook and made his way down here with his buddies, their mouths covered with tear gas masks like everyone else.
And with that comment the tea seller in his broken English agreed it was not okay to be ruled this way, and handed me a cup of syrupy sugared tea. He smiled with his six teeth and long beard.
The Field Marshall's speech tonight started the clock towards SCAFs downfall and the crowd began the countdown. People in the Square commented it was like Mubarak's final speech. A wave of rage shot through the crowd. Almost like, "Do we have to go through this again?"
Meanwhile the ambulances are on a 24/7 cycle weaving through the crowds. There are more reports that the government forces are shooting to kill. More dead bodies, more slumped humans over the shoulders of others. More and newer forms of gas - the word on the street, is that the gas is allegedly sold from US, some as late as May 2011. Many of us have seen the image of the body being dumped on the pile of rubbish. The content is unmistakable; the scenes in Tahrir Square are like deja vu from January.
There are human rights defenders and lawyers at the hospitals, checking that the injured's rights are defended. They are also present at the morgues, making sure that nothing happens that would allow a body to go missing or an inaccurate death certificate to be issued.
I met with Manal today, Alaa's wife, nine-months pregnant and glowing with pride at her country and her detained husband's bravery. But beneath it all, all she wants it the normalcy of her partner and to prepare a home for their child. And yet she is dealing with the military --not a judge, not a jury -- who will decide her husband's fate. As the two of us speak, her phone rings numerous times. The ringtone a recording of the chant calling for the regime to be toppled.
She is distressed by the others who are detained -- those who are in prison for five years for not complying with curfew; the 2,000 who have a suspended sentence; those arbitrarily arrested for doing nothing. And then of course the bloggers imprisoned; the journalists tortured and the ordinary people in cells awaiting the regime to fall.
Manal's words were clear: We don't leave Tahrir Square until we have a clear and immediate transition from military rule to civilian authority.
(Brett Solomon with Manal)
SCAF has promised a new government led by civilians and technocrats, but these are old and broken promises. On the street, another consensus is forming: the revolutionary youth, political representatives, and civil society must lead the way for a new structure to take shape. The protesters will not be placated without a clear plan for transition, in line with the promise of the revolution in January. Now is the time to make that happen.
As Egypt’s single largest donor of military aid, the United States is best positioned to demand a democratic transfer of power, putting an end to the military's murderous rule. While the United States has called for restraint, it must now make clear that further U.S. military aid will depend on a firm and expeditious transition to civilian rule -- not another cabinet that reports to the military.
My colleagues in Cairo have emphasized to me that external pressure from the U.S. is the most powerful lever we have. It’s time to pull it.
Call for an end to the violence and the beginning of civilian rule. If you haven't done so already, please sign the petition calling on the SCAF to stop ruling by emergency law, release Alaa Abd El Fattah (a prominent Egyptian activist and RightsCon speaker), and stop trying civilians in military courts. Sign the campaign in English here or in Arabic here.
CAIRO, ACCESS REPORT DAY 3
CAIRO, Egypt -- Crowds surged in even greater numbers tonight ahead of mass demonstrations tomorrow. It's hoped that a million people will fill the streets, sending the unmistakable message that Egypt will not stand to be ruled by an unaccountable military.
In response, the government forces appeared even more aggressive tonight -- and the crowd even more powerful. Many are saying that this is the last stand of the military and now a civilian transition is required. What that looks like is not clear, but a consensus is certainly forming: The revolutionary youth, political representatives, and civil society must lead the way for this new structure to take shape.
You can't imagine the smell of gas, the feeling of it in your eyes forcing an uncontrollable watering and stinging. Down the smaller streets where some of the hospitals are located, the air is unbearable and the ambulances are full of tear gas. People are being ferried through the crowds -- and some of them are dying on the way. People are being shot at, at eye level. It's reported there have been 33 deaths and 1,300 injured.
It's a different story in the middle of the Square. There are food sellers of every type tonight -- tea and coffee makers, fruits for sale on stalls, and every strength of cigarette. What is also more prevalent are the new gas masks, the protective goggles, and the scarves to keep out the stench.
And amidst this -- the Cabinet has quit, but the implications or the acceptance of this is not clear. Essam Sharaf tended his and the Cabinet's resignation, but no one is certain what this means for the elections next week. The Military are going to need to make some serious sacrifices. The protesters will be impossible to placate without a transition in line with the promise of the revolution in January, and now is the time to make that happen.
If you haven't done so already, please sign the petition calling on the SCAF to stop ruling by emergency law, release Alaa Abd El Fattah (a prominent Egyptian activist and RightsCon speaker), and stop trying civilians in military courts. Sign the campaign in English here or in Arabic here.
CAIRO, ACCESS REPORT DAY 2
CAIRO, Egypt -- Tensions rose again in Egypt tonight as crowds surged back into Tahrir Square, after the police and military allowed the crowds to return again after clearing it for the second time in two days. The attacks on citizens continue and worsen. People are being carried out by friends and strangers as the new, stronger tear gas clogs the air and lungs, and rubber bullets are shot into the crowd.
As reports continue to grow of more dead (reports say as many as twenty have been killed since Saturday), it's clear there's a risk of another major attack being launched tonight.
Fears for the election circulate amongst the diverse crowd. Many see the election as another attempt by SCAF to maintain its illegitimate hold on power.
Everything that happens is being recorded by the people in the Square. One man we saw was livestreaming using his laptop; hundreds of others are recording the brutality and the camaraderie.
The crowd is confused, running in one direction then the next; food sellers and standing next to hawkers selling face masks to keep the gas away.
We stood back from the more intense street clashes while brave Egyptians ran to the frontline of the fight, to push back against the government.
Many of our friends are in the crowd and we wish them the strength to stand firm, and the power to stay safe. If you haven't done so already, please sign the petition calling on the SCAF to stop ruling by emergency law, release Alaa Abd El Fattah (a prominent Egyptian activist and RightsCon speaker), and stop trying civilians in military courts. Sign the campaign in English here or in Arabic here.
CAIRO, ACCESS REPORT DAY 1
CAIRO, Egypt -- Many in the Access community have been extremely concerned about the state of a post-revolution Middle East. Some of the Access team arrived in Egypt to see the situation first hand. We arrived to find Tahrir Square, once a symbol of hope, now charred with burnt memories of the day that Mubarak fell. Saturday night was not a pretty sight.
The anger and disappointment towards the ruling military in the Square was as present as the tear gas. Thousands of people, of all types, swarmed and surged as gas was shot into the crowd from two of the main streets heading into the Square. People chanted as those on the front line were carried to the back of the crowd, their eyes dowsed with fluid to soothe them.
One man looked at us, pointing to the security forces saying, "Our future is beyond them," shaking his head. "This is very bad."
Hundreds were clearly injured tonight. One man even pointed out a sniper on a rooftop, but there were no reports of live munition. Yet rubber bullets were used and people were seriously injured. We saw a lot of bloodied people and many defiant protesters tonight. It is reported that at least one person died in the clashes.
Cameras, videos and cell phones were being used by hundreds of people -- recording everything. The proposed principles of the new Constitution and its concentration of power in the ruling military was clearly rejected by the Square.
Lets see what tomorrow brings -- and how the increasingly defiant protesters will deal with this new regime that appears to have not learned its lessons.