Tuesday in Tahrir: Field Notes, with Novelists


Podcasting colleague Mark Fonseca Rendeiro high over tents in Tahrir Square. Tuesday, November 27, 2012

CAIRO — On the way into the tumult in Tahrir Square today, we’re in conversation with the novelist Mona Prince of So You May See and My Name is Revolution. And on the way out late Tuesday night, we are listening to a beloved writer in this crowd, Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, author of many novels, four in English translation, including Nobody Sleeps in Alexandria. From my own “archives of the feet” (Simon Schama’s phrase) Egypt’s Tahrir Revolution of January 2011 appears to be roaring back to full life — spirits higher, some say, even if numbers may be lower than two winters ago. And the chants are full-throated echoes of the slogans that drove Hosni Mubarak out of power: “The Egyptian people say: leave!” and “We want bread, and freedom.”

I found myself at one point in a mass of lawyers stretching out a 25-yard red-white-and-black Egyptian flag, shouting over and over: “Gamal Abdel Nasser said: You can’t trust the Muslim Brotherhood.” Lawyers and judges I met today are up in arms because President Mohamed Morsi’s decrees last week put him formally above the law. So they chant: “The Brotherhood is not legal.” Other rhythmic rants that caught on: “It’s a joke! How much can we take?” And dead seriously: “People demand to remove the regime!”

Hardest to absorb and pass on are the extreme emotions around what could look like a festive football crowd. Ecstasy and the deepest sadness and remembered pain are all in the mix. A 40-year-old man named Hassan told me he himself had carried 70 dead or dying people out of Tahrir Square in February 2011. “It was horrible,” he said. “Horrible! But we succeeded. The people succeeded. Mubarak was a thief,” and then he spelled out the word “thief” in ballpoint on his newspaper to be sure I understood. He added: “Freedom is fundamental for the Egyptian people.”

I saw one flash fight on the edge of Tahrir this afternoon, eight feet from me. Suddenly a tall suited man with a handsome Nubian look was swinging hard slaps at the face and head of a smaller man with a formal beard. An undercover cop beating a civilian, was my first thought. No, my friend Hassan explained, it was an outraged civilian taking warning shots at a man with the “black chin” of the Muslim Brotherhood, as if to say — maybe saying: “how dare you take a picture of me? You people don’t belong here — and here you are spying on me!” Braver men than I jumped quickly between the combatants, who melted as quickly into the crowd. And wave after wave of practiced, peaceable protesters poured into the ocean of Tahrir Square.

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