Walking through Tahrir Square on January 26, tensions were building with every busload of protesters converging on this 490,000 square foot political hotplate in downtown Cairo. Being physically present in the square — which I too often view as a one-dimensional news item on my computer screen rather than a living reality – has given me a visceral awareness of its function as the symbolic and architectural aorta of a 17-million strong metropolis. While many expected the crowds to disperse after the close of official celebrations on January 25, thousands are hunkering down for what could be a long-haul, as the April 6 Youth Movement and the National Front for Justice declared an open-ended sit-in until the military agrees to fully withdraw from political life. The writing on this tent says it all: “The revolution continues,” and the crowds aren’t going home anytime soon.
Shadi al-Ghazaly Harb, a leading figure in the Revolutionary Youth Coalition and member of the Awareness Party, told me that liberal groups – including the April 6 Youth Movement and supporters of former presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei – are currently drawing up plans to secure the square and protect its occupants from potential provocation by thugs and other “counter-revolutionary” elements in the coming days. With around 60 political groups backing calls for a “Day of Rage” on January 27, Harb and other liberal organizers are weighing two possible strategies: (1) either blockading the entrances to the square with physical barricades or (2) monitoring all points of access with popular committees.
Until now, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has taken responsibility for maintaining security in the square with legions of volunteers forming human-chain checkpoints on all streets leading to Tahrir. However, the FJP has said that its members will withdraw from the square on Friday, January 27. With uniformed security personnel conspicuously absent, who will be responsible for security thereafter?
Meanwhile, Egypt’s newly elected parliament is starting to feel the heat from disillusioned protesters demanding an end to military rule and accountability for the perpetrators of violence against peaceful demonstrations. On January 26, the speaker of the Egyptian People’s Assembly, Muslim Brotherhood member Saad al-Katany, called for the mass distribution of a parliamentary statement in Tahrir Square on Friday reassuring the public that the legislature has not forgotten the rights and entitlements of the revolution’s martyrs. Al-Katatny recommended that a committee of five MPs representing different political forces draft a statement and disseminate thousands of copies in Tahrir Square tomorrow, in an effort to preempt potential unrest.
On the morning of January 27, I toured the square with Magdy Samaan, an Egyptian journalist and former visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, who commented on rising tensions in Tahrir Square and the palpable frustration on display around us.