A spontaneous community

Published February 11, 2011

COUNTLESS hours of television and millions of words have been written about the community of protesters that has sprung up in Tahrir Square over the last two and a half weeks.

And yet, none of it quite does justice to the most extraordinary of spectacles that awaits anyone who ventures to this part of downtown Cairo.

Context here, as ever, is important. Egyptian people aren’t, how to put this, renowned for their politeness or civility to strangers. Loud, brash, seemingly always on the verge of brawling, in ordinary times the advice you’re most likely to get about this city is to hold on to your wallet and, if you’re a woman, to look out for guys trying to cop a grope.

But the Egypt of Tahrir Square is something else.

The roundabout in the centre of the square is where most of the tents have been set up by the live-in protesters. It is so densely packed that only the narrowest of spaces are left to pick your way through. But this tented place is full of men and women, little boys and girls, teenagers.

A tent with bearded men reading little pocket copies of the Quran may be squeezed next to one with a family from a faraway town and that tent could be opposite one full of teenagers from Cairo’s suburbs.

Stop and chat to anyone, everyone welcomes you. Crisscross the tented roundabout for hours and you won’t hear a single argument or raised voice. It’s as if Egypt has reinvented itself here in Tahrir Square, the people unrecognisable to even themselves.

A Cairo resident recounted with amazement a scene in Tahrir Square. A thief snatched a woman’s purse and tried to disappear into the crowds. But the woman raised a cry, and immediately youths from among the crowd pounced on the thief. The purse was returned and the thief marched out of the square, to applause from the crowd in the immediate vicinity.

Mobile-phone battery dying, need a charge? Head to one of the two battery-charging stations set up on the roundabout. Wires from a street lamp have been pulled out to power the electrical sockets that are free to use.

Don’t want to wait in a long queue? No problem. At one of the charging stations, volunteers collect your phone and ID and give you a coupon.

Come back a few hours later and collect your charged battery. It’s a free service.

That the square is free of litter has been widely noted. But the garbage-collection service isn’t just a late-night job. At all hours of the day, teenagers and 20-somethings can be seen weaving through the crowds with big garbage bags in hand, stopping to pick up cigarette butts and even the tiniest piece of litter with their bare hands. The bags are stacked in a specified corner, where a sign encourages people to leave their garbage.

The level of organisation and discipline is amazing. Within hours after protesters spilled out from Tahrir Square and marched across to the nearby parliament building, checkpoints had been set up on the roads leading up to parliament. The crowd, without much encouragement, quickly fell into single file, holding up IDs to the soldiers at the first barrier and to the volunteer youths at secondary barriers. (The protesters organise their own ID checks and patdowns to weed out regime thugs and spies.)

The feeling of safety in Tahrir Square is remarkable. There is an invisible perimeter which marks the beginning of ‘protester territory’, outside the square. Once here, journalists with bulky cameras in tow quickly relax. If anyone tries to harass or question them here, the protester-youth hanging around will quickly ensure nothing untoward takes place.

The protesters know that the sahafis, journalists, are their best friends. Media coverage has helped propel and sustain this movement. Journalists are important allies.But you can tell it’s a two-way street. Even the most professional of journalists, steeped in the discipline of trying to project objectivity, are clearly willing the protesters on. It’s hard not to be infected by the zeitgeist of Tahrir Square.

Perhaps most remarkable of all is the organisational savvy of the protesters.

This really is a youth-led movement. There is no ‘hidden hand’, the youth are not puppets on strings, orders aren’t being given on the phone by a faraway cabal.

Quickly, alertly, the youth — boys in their late teens and early to mid 20s — are responding to the needs of the community in Tahrir Square.

And they have a shrewd understanding of how to sustain their movement. The decision to call for major turnouts on Tuesdays and Fridays was particularly clever. It is easier to motivate the general public with specific calls than an appeal for continuous and endless protest.

The new spots across Cairo where protesters have gathered this week and the call to bring out protests in fresh parts of the country are also designed to convey a sense of a movement that is growing, not running out of steam.

The ancient regime of the octogenarian Mubarak seems at a loss to respond to the Cairo kids.

For a while there were murmurs the protesters were trapped inside Tahrir Square, too afraid to return home without having toppled Mubarak because that could mean facing the wrath of the regime’s thugs. But if there is fear in Tahrir Square it is hard to find. There is singing, there is dancing, there is peace and happiness.

The only ones who look afraid belong to the old guard, confronted as they are by an opponent they do not understand and know not how to control.

The writer is a member of staff cyril.a@gmail.com

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