Daniella Peled

Voices from Tahrir Square

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Revolution is back on the streets of Cairo. Veterans of the last uprising (which unseated Hosni Mubarak) say that the police brutality is more intense than ever before, but the protestors are determined not to back down. ‘It’s like January but on crack,’ says Mohamed El Dahshan, an economist and blogger who spends his days in Tahrir Square. ‘The police are shooting rubber bullets directly in people’s faces. Many, many people have lost an eye, because aiming at the eyes is now deliberate police policy,’ he says. Some activists say that the police have also taken to shooting canisters of tear gas directly into the crowds. And that the clouds of concentrated gas have become so intense that even those deep underground in the Tahrir Square Metro station find themselves choking. ‘We’d learned to use cut-up onions or ginger to combat tear gas, but it’s not working any more,’ says one young woman. ‘We think the authorities have spent the last nine months developing more advanced equipment.’

What started as a sit-in by around 200 protestors following last Friday’s regular Tahrir rally has now escalated to violence that makes the elections, due to begin on 28 November, much less certain. So far 30 people have been killed and nearly 2,000 injured. The regime denies utilising live fire, but doctors in the square say they are seeing injuries consistent with it.

‘It’s as if the police are taking revenge for the events of January, using excessive force against people who are protesting peacefully,’ says the blogger and activist Ahmed Awadalla. He has, he says, also witnessed the police destroying field hospitals set up for the injured in Tahrir Square. The only explanation he thinks feasible is that the military council want the clashes to continue, so that the elections are delayed or cancelled.

Raghda el-Halawany, another activist, isn’t so sure: the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) are at risk if they do this; and the elections will be held anyway, because the Islamists are pushing so hard for it. ‘They believe it’s their moment now, that they will win 77 per cent of the vote — and I believe them too,’ she says. ‘If you go into the governorates, ordinary people want the Islamists. After all, Egypt is a very conservative society.’ Ordinary citizens outside Tahrir Square seem to have mixed feelings about the protests. Some say there has been enough violence, that they need elections. ‘Your average taxi driver wants the streets to be clear, as protests go against his business — but at the same time, people know that nothing has changed since the days of Mubarak,’ says 30-year-old Hussain Yousif.

But perhaps the general opinion in Egypt is skewed by the state media, which is demonising the protestors just as it did last year — claiming they are part of some plot to destabilise Egypt. ‘The national TV and newspapers have learnt nothing from what happened in January,’ says Yousif. ‘They are calling the people in Tahrir Square names and saying that they are guided by a foreign agenda or are Islamists. But the people here now are the same ones who started this in January. Young people, with a few from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups, as well as Christians, secular people, and those who are independent and not aligned to anyone.’

Yousif, an IT specialist from Bahrain, says that for the last nine months he has been in contact with like-minded people back home in the Gulf, encouraging them to copy Egypt. Now, he acknowledges, it is clear that ‘the revolution is not complete in Egypt. We have more steps to take.’

For Mohamed El Dahshan, in the midst of the violence, the elections have become a secondary concern. ‘Nothing is worse than seeing a 23-year-old being sent home to his parents in a coffin or a 17-year-old dying from a bullet wound in the neck,’ he says. ‘We must restore security and trust before we can possibly have a fair vote.’