For six days, or 144 hours, Egypt’s loathed police and the young vanguard of the country have been fighting pitched battles in the streets, as the country burns, chokes and bleeds its way towards a (some would say second) revolution.
The battlers' arsenal comprises of rocks, .22 calibre bullets, fireworks, Molotov cocktails, rubber projectiles, sticks and coshes, but most of all an incomprehensible amount of gas: CS, CR, CN, cyanide and arsenic – much of it decades old and from Italy, the US and China, rendering it much more toxic. The police fire canisters endlessly into the crowds spilling out of Tahrir Square and towards the Ministry of Justice, home to the country’s deepest, darkest secrets and ruling powers. In Alexandria, a gas canister was shot into the neck of a protester at close range, killing him almost instantly.
When shooting the canisters isn’t effective enough to clear the rabble rousing crowds, they bring in a truck that sprays the shit into the air, blanketing the city around Tahrir and its mostly poor residents with neurotoxins that cause vomiting, blindness, seizures and who knows what ten years down the road.
A week ago, Egypt was dutifully trudging toward elections and a peaceful, inevitable victory by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most powerful political party. It was supposed to look like the by-the-book election that recently took place in Tunisia. But as the Egyptian elections have approached (scheduled for November 28), the Brotherhood realised that even with a democratic victory, they were going to have to govern under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Last Friday a massive protest was organised by the Brotherhood against an attempt by the Supreme Council to write their power over the elected government into the constitution. The peaceful march made it clear to the Army that the Brotherhood were a force to be reckoned with. Concessions were made.
As they struggled to divide up the spoils of the country, the Supreme Council and Muslim Brotherhood forgot about perhaps the most important constituency: the friends and family members of revolutionaries who actually fought and died so that these elections might be possible.
Unlike Tunisia and Libya – who both completely removed corrupt regimes from their governments – Egypt's revolution replaced a dictator with another dictator appointed by a military council. During any other time it would have felt more like a coup than a revolt. The fact that the Supreme Council has arrested and held thousands of protesters and bloggers without civilian trials – while doing a horrible job governing the country on top of that – hasn’t helped.
Everyone wants the impossible: the protesters wish to see the departure of a repressive regime that is propped up by the US and controls a massive section of the Egyptian economy, while the Army demands that protesters go home, also an impossibility given the dozens of martyrs, thousands injured and general realisation that this may be their last chance to create a truly free democracy. Although opinion polls show Egyptians increasingly disapprove of the Supreme Council's dismal record as rulers, many are also afraid of the a future without an authoritarian governing body.
I spoke to a man who works as a public accountant about the situation, among the tack tack tack of rubber bullets careening off the walls of an alley near Tahrir Square. He said he wasn’t too happy about the situation: “The Military is organised, they get things done. Thinking about Turkey, it took a long time for them to transfer to democracy, but eventually the army let go.” The protesters here, however, don’t seem willing to wait another 30 years.
They want their freedom and they want it now. “The people demand the downfall of the council of shame,” the crowd chants. “We are not leaving. He leaves!” they yell, referring to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Their cries echo off the charred walls of the dusty downtown Cairo streets.
Everyone in Tahrir is clear about what they want – the Army to leave power – but it is hard to find protesters with a solid plan for what they would like to happen next. And this is the crux of the problem; Egypt is in a death lock. It’s hard to concentrate on politics when dozens of field hospitals have sprung up all over Cairo, which usually consist of a few blankets, whatever doctors can be rounded up, and a perimeter of volunteers to shelter the endless stream of convulsing patients from the frontline. In hospitals closer to the frontline, workers have been injured or died from the gas.
In the square itself, people cheer the fighters on the frontline, eat cotton candy, sleep on blankets brought in from across Egypt, and smoke copious amounts of cigarettes, which start to taste pretty good after a bracing wave of teargas. Unlike the springtime revolution where the square felt like the centre of Egypt, this time everybody is facing the battle weary streets between Tahrir and the Ministry of Interior.
Yesterday, protesters pushed the police back behind the military tanks and soldiers stationed just outside the Ministry. Bizarrely, the protesters rarely direct their anger at soldiers, focusing more on the police responsible for so many deaths. Religious scholars dressed smartly in white robes and red hats charge through the broken streets, trying to broker a truce between protesters and the military, but as the sun sets and the protesters kneel to pray, police fire yet another volley of tear gas over the heads of the military and into the kneeling crowd. They respond with a quick volley or rocks before scattering into the dusk followed by the sharp crack of bullets.
Motorcycle ambulances rush into the smoky darkness picking up the collapsed bodies and rushing off to the nearest field hospital. And the battle continues to rage. After a long night of fighting, yet another truce has been established after the Supreme Council pledges to hold elections and apologises to the protestors. For the people in Tahrir, this is not enough. They have called for a massive march on Friday. Meanwhile, the military builds cement barricades around the ministry of Interior and every one prepares for the battles to commence.
I walk out of the dark gas clouds of Tahrir and into the brightly lit streets of downtown Cairo, where life goes on as normal. It's a surreal experience. No one is dying, or throwing rocks, or firing tear gas, yet this normalcy is directly tied to what happens in those few dark blocks of Cairo just around the corner.
Streets like Monsour or Mohammed is where the fate of this country rests, in the hands of a few scrappy youths who won’t give up an impossible dream: To tear down the country's most powerful institution with their dirty, soot-covered hands.