In the "Republic of Tahrir," Egypt Gets Its Woodstock Moment

Wednesday, 09 February 2011 11:52 By Shashank Bengali, McClatchy Newspapers | Report | name.

In the "Republic of Tahrir," Egypt Gets Its Woodstock Moment
A young, anti-government protester writes an anti-government message on a plastic tarp covering a sleeping area for demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Cairo on February 7, 2011. (Photo: Moises Saman / The New York Times)

Cairo - Sherif Tharwat was stroking his chin, searching for a description for the jubilant scene before him in Tahrir Square, as a large group of anti-government protesters danced past carrying a mock wooden coffin. It was for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, they laughed, to be buried in the country he loves: Israel.

Tharwat, a 25-year-old musician, finally hit on a comparison: "It's like Woodstock or something," he said.

There's no sex or drugs — and apart from nationalist anthems blaring from tinny speakers, not much music either — but the protests that entered their 15th day Tuesday have nevertheless become this Egyptian generation's Woodstock moment. To the protesters, Tahrir Square is the freest, safest, happiest and truest place in long-repressed Egypt, where no Mubarak joke is off-limits and nothing short of his immediate ouster is acceptable.

Outside the barricaded square, this frenzied metropolis is slowly regaining its normal rhythms. In the halls of political power, the Mubarak regime is making once-unimaginable concessions and negotiating with opposition groups to ensure its survival. With every passing day, and the continued backing of the Obama administration, the 82-year-old president seems likelier to withstand the indignity of resignation and serve out his term until the fall.

Inside what's become known as the Republic of Tahrir, however, little of that matters.

A week after violent clashes with pro-Mubarak gangs killed at least 11 protesters in the square — at least 302 have died nationwide since the protests began, Human Rights Watch says — the demonstrators are focused on guarding their territory, not sitting in meetings. They've refused to appoint a spokesman, and they say that Egypt's formal political opposition doesn't represent them.

The youth-driven movement, including thousands who organized online, delights in being leaderless. The farthest they've gone is unfurling a massive banner in the square listing seven demands — starting with Mubarak's downfall, dissolving the parliament chosen in widely discredited elections last fall, and ending the decades-long state of emergency.

Beyond that, asking about politics and negotiations is a buzzkill.

"We don't believe in negotiation," said Youssef Hesham, a 25-year-old filmmaker. "When it's a revolution, you're not supposed to negotiate."

This has begun to worry even some of their own, who say that opposition political parties are riding their wave. Over the weekend, Vice President Omar Suleiman opened talks with the opposition, including for the first time the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which declined to participate in the protests before they began on Jan. 25.

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"I was concerned about it. Those people do not represent us," said Mohammed Allam, a 24-year-old management trainee, "When they organized the protests, they asked the opposition groups for support and they said, 'Screw you, you're a bunch of kids.' When it grew into something big, they jumped in."

In a sign that the regime may be hardening its stance, Suleiman said Tuesday that the government "can't put up with" the protesters occupying the square for much longer, according to the official Mena news agency. The army has vowed not to use force against the demonstrators, however.

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The movement's only policy is to continue to fill the square as they did again on Tuesday, a sun-splashed afternoon that saw thousands brave long lines and army checkpoints to return to Tahrir with the devotion of pilgrims.

To join the protests, Allam took a half-day from work; he didn't even bring his laptop to the office so he wouldn't have to haul it through the checkpoints. Omar Sharkawy, 28, took indefinite leave from his finance job in London to be here.

For now, the lack-of-a-plan plan has worked. Despite charges by pro-government groups that the protests have created chaos, the square on most days resembles a joyous festival of free expression — almost a parallel universe where Egypt's political realities don't intersect and the familiar chaos doesn't apply.

Volunteers have been picking up trash. Some briefly set up a non-smoking area, a bold move in cigarette-happy Cairo. Harassment of women, long an epidemic problem, has been virtually nonexistent.

"This is Egypt," said a young man in his 20s, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood opposition group, as he frisked men entering the square for weapons Tuesday. "Outside is not Egypt."

Crowds milled about as if at a tailgate. An elderly man trailed after a poster of Mubarak, slapping at the 82-year-old president's face. One man dressed as a referee, complete with cleats and a whistle, called fouls on the regime while another paraded around with a giant poster of Mubarak caricatured as Hitler.

Across one end of the square, banners went up in memory of people who died in the protests, mostly young faces frozen in smiles. "Martyrs," the signs read, and strangers stopped to embrace the grieving family members and snap pictures with their cell phones.

One woman sat in a lawn chair while families came with their lunches in plastic bags, snacking on yogurt and cold cuts while taking in the would-be revolution.

"We're happy; we're free here," said Hesham, the filmmaker, who's come to the square every day since the protests began.

Tahrir Square is becoming permanent. Over the weekend, plastic sheets went up to shield demonstrators from rain. Now there are rows and rows of pup tents, turning the city's busiest public space into an urban campground.

Several protesters brought luggage with them Tuesday, planning to spend the night. There are restrooms and even newsstands. Vendors sold Egyptian flags, headbands and lanyards.

The mood was lifted by a television appearance the night before by Wael Ghonim, a Google executive in Egypt who'd been held in secret detention after he launched a Facebook page that inspired the Jan. 25 uprising. Many said that Ghonim's release Monday was drawing first-timers to the square, and they predicted even bigger crowds for the next mass protest Friday.

In a sign that the movement realizes its Woodstock moment could be fleeting, thousands are nominating Ghonim to become their representative. A day-old Facebook page for "Wael Ghonim, politician," had more than 56,000 "likes" by day's end Tuesday.

"If it wants to have long lasting strategic gains, certainly you need to see them put forth some sort of a leader, a political narrative and structure," said Tarek Osman, the author of the new book, "Egypt on the Brink." "If they don't, the liberal movement will have lost an important moment."

(Hannah Allam contributed to this article.) 

Last modified on Wednesday, 09 February 2011 14:54