Tahrir Square: Smoke, Despair and a Sense of Defiance

It looks like a war zone. Barbed wire, large barricades and burnt out army vehicles ring the outskirts while protesters take shelter from the sun in make shift tents in its center.

Just hours after peaceful daytime protests, Tahrir Square descended into chaos and violence after dark. Similar to the uncertain days of the revolution, Tahrir became engulfed by violent clashes between security forces and protestors.

After losing control of the square, protesters gathered in side streets battling security forces with sticks and stones against guns and tear gas.

Throughout much of the early morning, gun shots echoed throughout Cairo’s downtown. Around 5.30 AM, the protestors were eventually able to recapture the square, the next morning’s wreckage proof of a violent struggle.

Shattered glass, smashed slabs from the sidewalk, protest fliers and trash (much of it still burning) litter the sidewalks.

Inside the square, masses of young men remain defiant, many of them promising to “protect and defend our square until Mubarak and his thugs are put on trial” as one man shouted out. Fortifications were being constantly added to the perimeter while bus loads of individuals were joining the ranks of the blooded and wounded demonstrators as well. Taxi drivers had sacrificed their cars, lining them up in a row along the outer edges of the square to prevent the army tanks from entering. Men checked ID’s at make shift checkpoints while, inside the square, they prepared for another possible battle.

Away from the square, the mood was much different. In Zamalek, the upscale island in the middle of the Nile River, people were just waking on a lazy Saturday morning. As news of last night’s events reached them, many expressed a mix of anger and despair.

Some were mad at the protesters insisting that most of the demands had been met and that the demonstrations had gone too far. One shop owner says that he wants the protests to end. It was better under Mubarak. His shop was suffering. The economics were bad.

Elsewhere though, there was a sense of prevailing sadness as people heard reports of the military crackdown.

Even in yesterday’s daytime protest, the rather splintered factions had all seemed to agree on one commonality: a growing distrust of the military’s true intentions. Stopping dozens of people along the way on my way to the square Friday morning, I asked them their opinion of the military. Did they still support the military council and did the people and military still stand hand in hand (a reference to a popular chant during the revolution). A resounding majority at best expressed their doubts. Most of them said no. Each group had their different reasons but supporters from each were adamant about their increasing distrust.

Last night’s military crackdown seemed to validate their suspicions. So far the military’s response to the crackdown hasn’t helped either.

At first, the mood was mixed. People seemed to mull the news trying to dissect what happened. Had the protests indeed gone to far? Was the continued unrest worth the cost economically? Had the military’s response been too severe and disproportionate?

As reports were issued from the Supreme Military Council of the Armed Forces, the favor quickly swung back towards the protesters. The army’s response to last night has largely come across as out-of-touch, conjuring memories of the old regime and further sowing fears that true reform isn’t their intention.

The army at first issued a statement saying they had dispersed the crowd peacefully. Scenes of bloodied protesters on the internet (including this blog) begged to differ. Then came another statement saying that protesters were the ones who attacked with two machine guns at 5.30 and that the army was just restoring order and acting in self defense. Many were quick to point out the shooting started around 2 AM rather than 5.30.  Finally the Supreme Council of Armed Forces declared that the protesters were “foreign infiltrators, thugs and members of the old regime.”

I can’t speak for all the protesters but the two dozen or so with whom we spoke certainly weren’t particularly big fans of Mubarak or the National Democratic Party.

As the popular blogger the Arabist tweeted: “The problem Mubarak had and #SCAF has is trust: the history of lying means even if they tell truth no one believes them.”

Another tweet from Ismail Anwar seemed to sum the mood best  ”#SCAF thinks we are blind, dumb and deaf. Might as well just say “It wasn’t me!”. #Egypt#Army#Jan25#Apr8

As night approaches on the turbulent day, protesters prepared for the worst. The military has promised to clear the square in the ‘interest of safety.’ The day seems to have ended as it started: defiance in the square, despair outside it.

Tonight could go along way towards shaping the course of the revolution. Stay tuned.

Photo Credit: Anna Day