In Cairo, Two Faces of Tahrir

Last night, the city saw two autonomous sets of protesters: one dark, violent, and uncertain; the other light, peaceful, and committed



CAIRO, Egypt -- Wednesday night, the light in Tahrir Square was bright enough to read by, and the crowd of demonstrators was so thin that I could sit with a book under a street-lamp for hours, my light blocked only rarely by a passerby. Three times I witnessed violence of the mildest sort. Twice, someone chucked a stone at a passing police truck (once, the stone zinged right past my head, and I had to chase grit from my hair). And once a shoving match broke out between a guy who had brought a small horse to the square (Tweeters were calling it the "Thawra Pony," or "Revolution Pony") and protesters who wanted to keep Tahrir a pony-free zone. By the end of my book, at around 10:30, the police had stopped doing drive-bys, and the Thawra Pony was still being led around the Square, seemingly without further controversy.

It hadn't been so calm for any part of that day. I'd been away for Tahrir for five months, and violence erupted late on Tuesday, as if to welcome me back. The families of those murdered in the revolution -- beaten, shot, sliced, and simply disappeared -- have been agitating for the prosecution of those responsible. On Wednesday, their protests turned sour, and Cairo erupted again into rock-throwing. This time the police (now universally called "khanzir," or "pig," by the protesters) have been more liberal in their use of tear-gas and rubber bullets.

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But by evening this fighting had died down to embers, in large part because of the soccer game between the popular Zamalek and Ahly teams, a sports showdown capable of distracting Egyptians from all occasions other than their own weddings and funerals. (There were rumors that the game was going to be canceled -- a disastrous turn of events for the government, since it would have kept the Tahrir crowd big and angry all day and through the evening.) I walked around the circle and saw a level of rage that was palpable but insufficient to bring much real change. Tents went up, suggesting that their residents were planning to stay put, but there were only four of them. Souvenir stands sold postcards of Che Guevara, Yasir Arafat, and, more worryingly, Osama Bin Laden. Chants against Field Marshal Mohamed Hussain Tantawi, who as head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is the de facto ruler of Egypt, began and ended, like a wave at the soccer game that fans kept trying and failing to keep going.

What a difference, though, a block makes. To Tahrir Square's east is Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which was once the main drag of the elite American University in Cairo, whose students would toss frisbees across the road, over the rush of traffic. A little further is the Ministry of Interior -- and there the skirmishes continued, with unpredictable results.

Tahrir Square was a cathedral of light, but Mohamed Mahmoud Street remained dark and had every sign of being the front line of a danger zone. Stones and broken glass crunched underfoot, and the protesters milling in the dark were all men. When I got close I could see their faces, which looked dangerously indecisive, as if ready to be talked into doing anything at any moment, if only two or three people around them would make up their minds first. Occasionally, I'd see dozens of them run at a time -- never more than about 50 yards, and then they'd return to their positions. Several people walked around with clubs made of street-signs. Now and then someone dropped his with a clatter, but always another person picked it up.

At Mansour Street, police had formed a line, and around midnight they stood about 20 feet from this indecisive mob, their riot shields ready. The active side was the protesters': now and then someone yelled, or lit a fire on the road (a prelude to a fire-bomb strike), or threw a stone. But nothing ever happened. Some protesters -- as well as residents of the neighborhood, who wanted more than anything to keep their apartments from getting burnt down -- yelled at the rest and urged them to return to Tahrir. The protesters stayed put, milling and milling, half afraid of their potential and half thrilled by it.

When I left around 1:30 a.m., the line still held. And when I passed through Tahrir, the atmosphere of peeved solidarity remained, and the crowd looked very far from being ready to throw bombs or rocks with the intent to maim rather than menace. These were the two autonomous sets of protesters: one dark, violent, and uncertain; the other light, peaceful, and committed.

The latter was a much bigger group than the former, but also less clear in its methods. Would it have to seize and hold Tahrir again to keep pressing its demands? The dark group could throw a single Molotov cocktail and provoke a fight. (Indeed, a single member of that group could provoke a fight.) The light group prevailed on Wednesday -- so far, it seems the violence at the Interior remained minimal after I left -- but whether it will again tomorrow is anyone's guess.