Lively community takes shape behind Cairo barricades

Thu Feb 3, 2011 5:30pm EST

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Jonathan Wright worked for Reuters between 1979 to 2010 as a correspondent in the Middle East, Africa and the United States. He began and ended his Reuters career in Egypt, where he now lives and translates books. He was standing meters away from then leader Anwar Sadat when he was assassinated by Islamist soldiers in 1981. He was kidnapped in Lebanon, managing to escape. In this item he gives an account of Mubarak's rise and the challenge he now faces. Views expressed are his own.

By Jonathan Wright

CAIRO (Reuters) - Beyond the barricades, beyond the sniping from the edges by people acting on behalf of President Hosni Mubarak, a new, festive and diverse slice of Egypt has suddenly appeared in the heart of the capital Cairo.

Tahrir Square has free food and drinks, a bandstand with live music, dedicated medical staff and a sense of community which Mubarak's opponents say makes them proud of their country for the first time in decades.

When they do bag and body searches to keep out guns or knives, the volunteer security staff are friendly and apologetic. Unlike the thugs roaming central Cairo, they want everyone to bear witness to an achievement they see as almost miraculous. "Welcome" and "come in" are the usual greetings.

Even when they catch an intruder in battle, usually muscular men with papers identifying them as police or state security, they do not give them the treatment to which Egyptians who fall foul of the police are accustomed.

A posse of a dozen men surrounds them and escort them through the crowds to a makeshift security office in a commandeered travel agency. "Peaceful, peaceful," they chant, to warn off anyone with vengeful intentions.

The ad hoc security committee gives them a quick interrogation behind the shop window, in full view of all, to find out who sent them and for what purpose. Then they hand them over to the Egyptian army nearby. "We understand that the army then releases them," said a security official.

Some of the protesters have now spent six days and nights in the area they seized from the government last Friday, one of the critical days in the popular uprising which is bringing the Mubarak establishment to its knees.

Some of them have pitched tents on the patches of grass in the square, which is usually a busy traffic hub in the center of the modern city. Others sleep on the roadways at any time of day and night, exhausted from the task of mutual defense against Mubarak supporters trying to remove them.

Around the clock people appear with trays of bean sandwiches, sacks of bread and crates of juice cartons. They give them away to anyone who wants them.

People have come from across the country, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, urban liberals and provincial farmers, leftists and Islamists -- all united behind the goal of ending 30 years of government by "the regime," Mubarak and his narrow clique of associates.

HISTORY

Some of the women wear the full face veil and long loose dresses typical of devout Muslims, others wear tight jeans and T-shirts, their hair uncovered. Doctors and lawyers come in suits, the urban working class in whatever they were wearing when they felt the urge to join the movement.

Farag Abdel Samad, a 58-year-old smallholder from the middle Egyptian province of Minya, said he took the train to Cairo on Sunday when he heard what was happening in the capital. Alone, away from his family, he said he hoped to make history.

In his brown galabia, his hands calloused from work in the fields, he sat on the pavement in a mental state somewhere between euphoria and anxiety.

"Nobody wants him (Mubarak)," he said. "When is he going? Do you think the Americans want him to stay?"

Samad had never heard of Omar Suleiman, the new vice president Mubarak appointed after the unrest erupted, but he knew what he wanted. "Mubarak is a thief and a criminal. Isn't 30 years enough?"

Fawzi Khalil, an evangelical Presbyterian pastor who lives in eastern Cairo, said he had been coming on and off since Friday. Corruption was the driving force that committed him to the cause of the protest movement, he said.

In this microcosm of Egypt's 80 million people, you can hear Koran recitals, inspirational lectures on the new Egypt or live guitar music and popular songs, broadcast from a bank of speakers set up close to the Mugamma building, the notorious labyrinthine heart of the country's bureaucracy.

But it's not all fun and games in Tahrir Square.

Keeping the uprising alive brings some urgent, onerous and sometimes dangerous tasks, such as prizing out the paving stones for use as missiles, filling sacks with rocks to carry to the front lines, breaking up burned-out vehicles for sheet metal to make barricades and, most important of all, manning the defenses when pro-Mubarak bands attack.

Others stand watch at the front, perched on oil drums or the flatbeds of army trucks they took over on Tuesday night when the attacks intensified. When they see their enemies approaching, they sound the alarm by banging metal bars or wooden staves on the railings and lamp posts. "Move up, guys, move up!" they shout, and reinforcements pour in from the rear.

More than 1,000 people were wounded on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, mostly with head wounds from rocks, some from live ammunition. Hundreds are walking around in bandages but many of those are still on active duty.

With limited resources, they have constructed makeshift helmets with whatever comes to hand, even cardboard and plastic water bottles strapped together with strips of cloth.

So far their spirit is unbowed. They say the decisive day might be Friday, when the informal alliance have called massive protests. In hope, they have called the day the Friday of Mubarak's Departure.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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