The way we were (November 2011)

Another in the “Lest we forget” series. Because There is a need to remember how it was and disallow opportunity to the junta that wants to repaint the way events unfolded. But also because, frankly, I care not for writing much at this point in time.

I read this and it serves as a constant reminder of what the army did. And I am also reminded by how enthusiastic and angry we were then. Our enthusiasm’s gone. Our anger’s devolved into apathy. And all I know who staked the square throughout 2011 are only thinking about migration anymore. Reborn three years ago. We grew up quickly since then.

“Tell the cowardly soldier the revolution persists in the Square,” chant a large group of young faces taut with anger after long hours of skirmishes with regular and military police. Night has fallen on the square, but the numbers are only increasing. The more the people, the less likely the “cowardly soldiers” will attempt to charge the square at the break of dawn to clear away the protestors.

Very few intended to pitch tents after November 18th’s massive protest against the military’s reluctance to stay away from politics. The few dozen who remained were bludgeoned the next morning, setting the pace for a new wave of protests where the revolutionaries poured on the square again. This time round, they’re their to stay.

“Liberated” or “occupied” is how the dailies describe the square depending on the strength of their affiliation to the state. On the ground, not a single uniform can be seen in the open area between the Egyptian Museum and the American University. The navel of the city has been retaken by a mixed band of brigands and intellects who cannot reach a consensus on demands but can at least agree on the fact that the military “blew it”.

From the square, narrower streets lead towards the frontlines closer to the Ministry of Interior where only the brave-hearted dare to tread. Walking towards the “battlefield” a sense of gloom dissipates through the ranks. Broken streetlights and shuttered down shops mean that the only lighting radiates from bonfires around which young men sit breaking rocks into stones and preparing Molotov cocktails; ammunition for those further at the front.

Shifty characters with questionable moral compasses pack these streets. Some bang on the shutters of shops, while others throw rocks at any building that conveys the slightest sign of officialdom, the glint in their eyes disclosing a desire to find something else to burn. They fight for the fight’s sake. Their vision of the future is clouded and unclear. “We’ll leave the intellectual hogwash about ‘scenarios’ and ‘roadmaps’ to the pundits in the main square,” say the throbbing veins on their necks as they exchange mortars of gas canisters, glass, and fire sticks with soldiers barricaded behind steel rails.

The new tear gas, courtesy of Combined Systems, Pennsylvania, fills the air entwined with the strong stench of its only antidote: vinegar. How bad is the gas if the sting of vinegar in the eyes is its only cure? We soon find out, the experience being short, blinding, and insufferably scorching. I drag my bourgeois feet and pampered corpus back to the main square passing by one of several makeshift field hospitals. Vesbas run back and forth carrying bodies fallen under the overdose of teargas of his in the face by an improvised ballista. Doctors, mostly residents and fresh graduates don their stained white coats and attend to the casualties with precise professionalism and composed demeanour despite the distracting cacophony of overzealous samaritans. Earlier during the day they dealt with more going scenes of blood filled eye-sockets and gut wounds. They have become the seasoned veterans of “revolutionary” medicine.

Back in the square a protestor explains why pressure has to be maintained against the “cowards”. “It’s absurd to think that we’re trying to take over the Ministry of Interior,” he says. “It’s just that every time we withdraw to the square they barge in on us with harrowing ferocity”. We nod in understanding. We all saw the videos on Youtube.

News from the outside world comes in strings of tweets. Word spreads that the military council issued the Political Exclusion Law that would prevent all Mubarak era politicians from running in elections. The measure is met with impassive faces. “Too little too late,” we all think in unison, remembering how this was a popular demand way back in May. The government resigns, we hear later. Good, but still not enough. Under the current setup any new government will be a tool for the military’s bidding.

When will the military hand over power to the civilians? And will they relent on their insistence to constitutionalize their stature as the main powerbroker in the country? “Every army belongs to a country,” shouts a protestor with graying temples. “This country belongs to an army!” From the looks of it he was out to change that.

Small groups of slogan-chanters walk around the square. Their quivering voices betray the toll that time and wind took on their underfed bodies. One such group is led by a bereaved mother. Part distressed, part defiant, her croaking chants against the military who took away her son’s life wrench the hearts of those who hear her.

The size of the chanting groups is a testament to their lack of leadership. But it is also a sign that political parties have no weight on the ongoing events. As men with beards park a truck with wooden two-by-fours and attempt to clear an area to make room for some construction, two teenagers scream at the top of their lungs: “Don’t let them build stages. Don’t let them build a dais!” Among the protestors, the disillusionment with the military and the government is only as strong as the disenchantment with political parties across the board. The bearded men were only allowed to proceed when they reassured the crowd that their intention was to build a sturdier field hospital.

We part company with a promise to meet the following day and everyday that follows until we’re satisfied. On the Metro back home the carriages are almost empty as citizens lock themselves in their apartments, glue their eyes to their television sets and wait for the uncertain to happen. There is enough room and tranquility on the ride for an amiable conversation. A wage worker in a traditional frock leans forwards to lock eyes with a youth with all the tell tale signs of a long vigil on the square: red-blood eyes, paper mask, clothes that are normally too heavy for this time of the year and a look of tired resolve. The wage worker laments the economic situation and the fact that he can’t find work as long those “yuppies” remain in the square. The young man’s retort speaks of small sacrifices we have to make for a better tomorrow, for a chance that new generations no longer have to be wage workers or business owners depending on who they know or whose seat they polish. Both men don’t see eye to eye, but they at least smile in agreement that the Prime Minister is a stuttering invalid.

A day in Tahrir shares resounding similarities with days in other squares in Alexandria, Suez, Asiut, and other cities. But it is wrong to think that the new movement is as popular as its predecessor in January. The military’s rebuttal to the demonstrations claims that the majority of the people are against them. They’re right about that. But no one holds them in the same esteem they did in February. Behind closed doors the protestors are berated but the military is loathed. The brutality of the military police and the slack that was given to the police to carry out its vendetta against protestors since November 18th has brought the military in a new light, a dark and brooding light, one that doesn’t do justice to the General’s peeling face. We wait and see as events unfold, whether or not the adage is true, that rotting old minds think alike. So far the events following November 18 are almost a copy of those following the January 25. It is time for the Generals to recant.

To those who have written off Egypt as an example of lost opportunities or a revolution gone astray: Not so fast. The revolution persists in the Square.

Persists Indeed. In the words of Aristotle, youth is easily deceived, because it is quick to hope.

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