Tahrir Square of late has come to resemble an Egyptian version of the famed Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park; the difference being, perhaps, that it is ringed with barricades of barbed wire and those gathered here are actually somewhat relevant to their country’s future. Ever-multiplying platforms are scattered around a central encampment where speakers take to the podiums to espouse their political ideas and demands. But, unlike the days of the revolution when the masses gathered at Tahrir with one booming voice to chant the clear and simple demand for the regime to fall, the political demands and aspirations of protesters today range from Islamism to socialism and beyond, and when one stops and attempts to listen, the voices of the pontificates seem to blend into an earnest white noise, with nary two among them expounding a complementary vision for a direction forward.
Egypt’s “second revolution”, as the protesters are calling it, has stemmed from the frustrations with the way the country’s interim military leaders — the group of generals known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) — are running the country. There is a feeling that the revolution is not in fact over and that to bring additional changes they must continue the struggle.
After protesters reoccupied the square on July 8, SCAF quickly began to offer partial concessions in an attempt at appeasement; the cabinet was reshuffled, more than 600 police officers were fired for offenses committed during the revolution six months ago, and while the protesters were not asking for it, elections were delayed, ostensibly to give political parties more time to better organize. Cynics would say that such overtures are aimed at creating additional discord between the protesters, and if such is the case, SCAF would be employing tactics similar to those of the Mubarak regime, just much more refined, subtle and perhaps successful. Whether intended or not, by going halfway on some issues — such as firing police officers as a response to the initial, basic protesters’ demand of bringing policemen to justice for crimes during the revolution — SCAF has placated some and further agitated the debate over what should be demanded from them. The delay in parliamentary elections will let more parties crowd into Tahrir Square and give even more time for the already disunited platforms of the protesters to drift farther apart.
The latest episode of disunity came with the debate among protesters over whether or not to march on SCAF. While at the start of their reoccupation of the square protesters first feared that the military might once again try to forcibly clear them, this was not to pass; instead, SCAF let the protesters come to them. And on July 23, Egypt’s national day, several thousand of them did, marching to the Ministry of Defense only to find themselves confronted by the army, which watched them battle for hours with angry local residents and SCAF supporters wielding stones, sticks and other weapons.
As the clashes — some of the worst violence Cairo has seen since the revolution — kicked into high gear, few spoke of it on the streets downtown. Shops remained open, families ate dinner, traffic was as bad as ever, oblivious to the chaos just miles away.
This is perhaps not surprising. The disunity of Tahrir Square has driven away many who, despite being present in the square during the 18-day-long uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak and still strongly against SCAF, no longer readily see the value in showing up to the square, let alone marching to directly confront SCAF. During the daytime heat, the square is quiet. At night, the numbers swell, but it is difficult to tell who is there for a protest movement and who is there for the food vendors and carnival atmosphere.
Many Cairenes are just plain sick of conflict and yearn for stability rather than more days of broken curbstones and Molotov cocktails. Although they may also oppose the way SCAF is running the show, for them to rejoin the protesters in Tahrir and strengthen the movement, those in the square will first have to agree on what they are fighting for.
JOSH WOOD is a contributor for The International Herald Tribune
and Esquire Magazine