Letter from Cairo
Cairo Journal: Cheering cut short as Mubarak refuses to step down
Wednesday night was uncharacteristically quiet. Our downtown friends who’ve been staying with us since the backlash against foreigners began had gone back home. Most of our valiant neighborhood watchmen got to sleep through the night for the first time in two weeks. The security of our Zamalek neighborhood is now mostly in the hands of the army, with a few police for good measure.
After these reassurances and a good night’s sleep I was ready to go back to Tahrir Square Thursday morning with my husband. On our way, we walked down a street that three days ago saw rocks flying and people being grabbed, blindfolded, and spirited away. This morning, the cafes were full of newspaper-reading shisha smokers and businesses were bustling. As far as I could tell, only a travel agency and a few shops that were badly damaged during the mayhem were still closed.
Of the 10 or so entrances to the square, we chose the northernmost, from Champollion Street. The concertina wire and makeshift metal barricades make it easy to find. We passed through three groups of civilian security, each about 20 meters apart. The first guy who looked at my ID said, “Fursa saida," pleased to meet you. At the last checkpoint, two from a group of six female volunteers frisked me, checked my bag, and apologized for the inconvenience.
The festive atmosphere has heightened since I was there five days ago, and with rows of plastic sheeting lining the perimeters for shelter, it feels like a cross between a refugee camp and a street fair. Every tank is now doubling as a headboard for people sleeping or resting against them. It's to ensure that the military won't encroach on hard-earned real estate.
As we arrived, soldiers were painting over the graffiti scrawled on the hulls of their tanks and sweeping their turrets with brooms. One of the soldiers commanded a man with a camera to stop taking pictures of the tank-cleaning operation. The man completely ignored the orders and continued documenting the scene.
In Tahrir Square, new street art appears every day in whatever space an artist can commandeer. Rock sculptures with messages to Mubarak, symbols of freedom chalked onto the pavement, and altars of photos, flags, posters and prayers commemorating the “martyrs."
I heard someone say that the ambiance it isn’t sufficiently revolutionary. But this isn’t a Marxist or an Islamic revolution. This is totally post-modern. A Facebook-organized movement of Egyptians on the Internet that has inspired millions to believe they have the power to create a better future.
Further inside the square we saw four different platforms with PA systems and fifth being built. One featured a young woman leading the chant, “State Security! State Security! Where’s the state? Where’s the security?”
Another had people taking turns at the mic delivering five-minute rants about how government-sanctioned corruption has drained the lifeblood of the country and left nothing but poverty and heartache. Still another was a DJ station where people were singing along to nostalgic recordings of patriotic songs from the 1950’s.
None of the speeches, songs or chants had anything to do with America, Israel or Islam. In fact, the demonstrators could not have been more on message if they had been media trained by professionals. With a thousand creative variations. the theme is always the same. When Mubarak leaves, we will go home.
Then came the bait and switch. After clear indications from the military, the ruling party and even Leon Panetta had convinced everyone that Mubarak was going to step down, the chanting and ranting turned to cheering and dancing. This evening, for several hours of joyful anticipation, it seemed as if today would go down in history. Instead, the pro-democracy demonstrators were deeply disappointed by the president's speech and renewed their vows to live free or die.
Mubarak must believe that he has supernatural powers because the likelihood of the army getting into a showdown with the demonstrators is slim to nil. The army is in an uncomfortable position, yet they have promised to make a second declaration tonight. It's 2 a.m. now and the suspense continues.
Will the military choose to confront one person or face a million?
Native Houstonian Victoria Harper is a Cairo-based consultant and writer. Read her previous Letter from Cairo: