In Cairo, Reflection as Revolt Pivots Again
CAIRO — By morning, the first cement block in the wall went up. Then another and another, until no one — not the idealistic youths demanding the revolution go on, not the soccer fans looking for a fight, not the downtrodden simply demanding something more — could see across the street that had emerged as the arena for this week’s uprising in Egypt.
The pangs of violence that posed the greatest crisis to the country since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February ended Thursday — for now — as the Egyptian military managed to pull apart the protesters from the police. But, as tear gas still clung to the winter breeze, their legacy for the promise and peril of Egypt’s revolution had already emerged.
With grit and determination, youths joined in solidarity marshaled what they had to keep their fight alive, running first-aid clinics and feeding the hungry, even as their colleagues on the front line made demands that no government, at least now, can deliver.
“We want social justice,” said Ali Mohammed, 20, who was spending his sixth day near the barricades. “Nothing more. That’s the least that we deserve.”
There were no cries of victory Thursday. The day rather seemed a moment to reflect, as the most spectacular of all the Arab world’s revolts and revolutions pivoted again, this time toward elections, more planned protests in Tahrir Square and other milestones in a transition to truly civilian rule that even now does not seem assured. The week of unrest demonstrated that the voices in the square, yet unarticulated and still unrepresented by the powers that be, will somehow have a say in what ensues.
The cry in January and February was that the people wanted the fall of the Mubarak government. On Thursday, a variation rung out, as crowds marched down a street littered with the detritus of their days of battle. “The people want the right to belong,” it went bluntly.
Soon after the clashes erupted Saturday, social media, television and word of mouth drew people to a square that, until this week, had failed to muster the kind of resilience witnessed in the winter. Party allegiance was faint, as was loyalty to leaders who have failed to channel protesters’ frustration. Often cited was allegiance to one another.
Ibtisam Hamdy, 19, an engineering student, was drawn to the square by the bloodshed. Soon she had placed a gas mask and goggles over her pink veil to fend off the tear gas. Once there, she began ferrying supplies to eight makeshift health clinics.
“I realized there was so much that had to be done,” she said.
Activists soon turned to social media to keep the protests supplied. A Twitter account called @TahrirSupplies garnered more than 13,000 followers in three days, some of whom answered requests for food, transportation and blood donations, as the toll in the fights eventually grew to 38 killed and hundreds wounded. “From the world to Tahrir,” its handle read. “While borders and politics divide, humanity unites us.”
One of those 38 was Rania Fouad, a doctor who died Wednesday night, activists said, from asphyxiation caused by the tear gas, as she volunteered at one of the clinics.
“I am doing all that I can do,” said Ahmed Osman, 22, a dental student helping at another clinic, which amounted to little more than blankets spread on cold tile floors dirtied by what seemed like thousands of footsteps, stacks of donated inhalers, rubbing alcohol, oxygen canisters and disinfectant piled to the side.
He came down after seeing the wounded arrive at one of Cairo’s largest hospitals, where he is an intern. He stayed until the clashes ended. At times, he joined the fray, battling with rocks and bottles the police who were little more than a football field away. Then he returned to help treat the wounded, some of whom he had fought beside only moments before.
“I can help in two ways, so I’m doing them both,” he said. He wore a bomber jacket and a gas mask around his neck. “If there was a third thing, I would do that, too.”
The mood was more sullen on Muhammad Mahmoud Street, which did not look much like a street. As the military deployed a crane to pile concrete block on concrete block in front of a coil of concertina wire, piles of ashen refuse spilled across the asphalt. There were surgical masks, crushed bottles of saline solution, scarves so soiled they were bereft of color, shoes lost in flight and bricks splintered, smashed and thrown in the battle.
“What kind of revolution does this to its people?” asked Mahmoud Abu Shanab, 20, who had been there since Saturday, sleeping on the sidewalk.
The conversations were chaotic, befitting the scene. Some people debated the finer points of the military’s attempt to keep power through the constitution, or the failings of Essam Sharaf, the prime minister who resigned this week. Others mentioned Occupy Wall Street and the origin of the tear gas fired on them: the United States. But a current ran through the crowd, and that was the hatred for the police. It was the same police who had enforced Mr. Mubarak’s order, the same police here this week, and the same police who administered all those years of humiliations, bribes and beatings.
“We broke them on Jan. 25,” said Ahmed Abdel-Galil, a 21-year-old student, referring to the date that Egypt’s revolution began. “And they still think they can put a boot on our neck.”
“There has to be revenge,” he added.
The sentiments heard here Thursday will probably haunt Egypt’s transition. They reflected the feelings of youths yet to reap the benefits of change. The ire at Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the de facto leader, stemmed from his status as a symbol of the old order, or as a measure of the failure of Mr. Mubarak’s fall to alter their lives.
“It is as it was,” said Muhammad Tawhid, an 18-year-old soccer fan. Collectively, the fans are known as Ultras, whose numbers helped form the backbone of the fight.
A group of them sat on the curb. Each offered a notion of what he wanted.
“Freedom and justice,” Muhammad Mustafa said.
“Someone decent in charge,” Mustafa Ahmed added.
Their friends offered more: an apartment, a car, a job and a future.
Finally, Osama Karim spoke up.
“Someone to fix the country,” he volunteered. “That sort of thing.”
By afternoon, the wall was complete. A line of helmeted soldiers stood atop as youths beneath them chanted for the revolution to go on. Only children who had climbed trees could see past the barricade, down the street and beyond, but they were far away.
Mr. Tawhid gazed at the wall, not ready to leave.