Last week, traders in Cairo's Tahrir Square were selling chintzy pharaonic souvenirs and the odd t-shirt alluding to the Springtime ousting of Hosni Mubarak. Now, they're back to flogging scarves, gas masks and safety goggles. It's a sign of the times that means times aren't great. On Saturday, police brutally attacked a sit-in of activists who'd been wounded in the February revolution, who were protesting that little had changed. News spread, thousands rushed to the square in sympathy, and soon the incident had become a lightning rod for wider, deeper discontent. Some people are calling it a second revolution, others say that the first one hasn't finished yet. Whatever it is, a lot of people are very angry and at least 33 are now dead. The most serious fighting since February has been going on for three days, and more people are joining by the hour.
I asked Sherief Gaber, an activist here, why ordinary Egyptians were still angry, even with Mubarak gone. “They've been seeing a continuation of the exact same practices of the old regime, which has largely remained in place with the exception of Mubarak and a couple of other heads of state. We've seen censorship of the press, violent crackdowns on strikers, demonstrators and other protesters.
“We've seen the military trial of over 12,000 civilians; a court martial system that goes from targeting people in the street for looking poor, to petty criminals, journalists, activists and other political types who would seek to speak out against the government. “We've seen violence against demonstrators even to the level of massacre, like we saw in front of the state TV building in October where 30 people were killed in 15 minutes.”
On top of that, economic woes are worsening, with unemployment figures and inflation rising unabated. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which currently rules Egypt, claims to be a caretaker government. But for many here, it's simply the old government with a new name.
The clouds of tear gas are so dense here that three people have died from asphyxia. Many have lost eyes to metal and plastic buckshot from shotgun cartridges; it rattles in the trees along Mohammed Mahmoud Street, where this guy was hurt. He is being tended to in a makeshift field hospital that was gassed shortly after this picture was taken.
Some have been fighting for up to 36 hours without sleep. Others are getting patched up and returning to the front lines. One activist named Ahmed Harrara, who lost his right eye on January 28th fighting Mubarak, rejoined the fighting in Tahrir Square on Saturday. His left eye was shot out. He is now blind.
These cartridges, and others recovered by activists, bear imprints from the USA, Italy, and China. Egypt's soccer firms are always to be found at the front of the fighting, and the tide seemed to turn in favor of the revolutionaries for the first time on Saturday night, when they arrived at Tahrir in their thousands. The hardcore fans of the main teams—El Ahly and Zamalek—are seriously well organized. They'd eat Millwall for breakfast.
As a responsible adult, you might think you'd disapprove of children being present in a straight fight with armed police. But when this little guy appears out of the mist and offers to squirt diluted baking soda into your burning eyes, you might have second thoughts. Like others carrying the mixture to flush tear gas, and vinegar to help breathing, he's part of an informal infrastructure which also includes motorbikes ferrying the wounded one way and rocks the other.
Lobna Darwish, who has been in the demonstrations, explained why there's little faith here in the forthcoming elections. “The parliament won't be able to choose a new government, and if the parliament is not able in six months to put together a constitution, SCAF is going to take over the task of putting together a constitution. Parliament has very limited powers because it has the same powers the parliament had under Mubarak. SCAF is able to end the parliament or dismantle it at any point they want.” Many of the candidates are also either wealthy businessmen, or tied to the old regime.
To make matters worse, the police are flailing wildly between extreme brutality and caution. Sometimes they hang back, as if they're conscious of the explosive potential of the sort of atrocities that accompanied their last attempt to take the square. Then they see the crowds taking confidence in their retreat, and lash out again. There seems little way for them to escape this dynamic.
The public's relationship with the army is a little different, given that the protesters aren't hurling rocks or petrol bombs at them. Many in Cairo still hold the belief that the army is on the side of the people; and that there's an important difference between soldiers and police, despite the fact that the army hierarchy is now officially in charge, and protesters have captured some soldiers dressed in police uniforms.
On Sunday night, Tahrir Square was little more than half full. Now it's packed, tents are being set up and blankets are being unloaded. There has been nothing like this since February, when Hosni Mubarak was toppled. For Lobna, it's like this. “The feeling I have in the streets is: we die, or we win. People are not going home. People are telling their parents they either die or we win when they're leaving the house. That's how it is.”
All photos and words by Tom Dale.