As the protests in Cairo stretched through the weekend, much of the international news coverage has focused on looting and violence. Newspapers have been describing a state of near-anarchy, and cable TV has been streaming reports about violence throughout the country, and gangs of thugs terrorizing Cairo’s neighborhoods. Last night, gunshots were ringing into the early hours of the morning.
There is certainly violence occurring in Egypt, but after returning from Pakistan a day ago to cover the upheaval, I was actually struck by how peaceful the protest is at Cairo’s main gathering spot. In Tahrir Square, the site of the major gathering which has only been growing, despite the 4 p.m. curfew and the ominous sound of F-16s and helicopters overhead, people were passing around donated soda, juice, water, and packets of food. Others had enthusiastically taken to cleaning the square, sweeping the streets or collecting trash in plastic bags. “We are taking turns, protesting and cleaning, this is our country, this is our square, we will do anything for our country,” a young English teacher with a broom in hand told me.
Even as burnt-out police vans remain from Friday’s violence and neighborhood militias formed to ward off looters, the downtown protests had taken on the air of a jubilant sit-in. Doctors, university students, and working people are all camped out in the square—an amazing and almost bizarre sight in a country where, in my experience over the last two years, political protests have rarely exceeded hundreds of people. “We are not leaving until [Mubarak] leaves,” Sahar El Said, a young veiled journalist, told me. She had slept in the square last night with her two children—that’s how safe she felt in the protesting mass. “I was shivering and very cold last night,” her son Adhan told me. “And by the way,” he added, “I don’t want Mubarak.” Adhan is four years old.
Far from disrupting the popular upheaval, the previous violence seemed only to have emboldened peaceful protesters taking the high road and even bringing out some who had previously stayed indoors. Nagwa Botros, a 50-year-old ophthalmologist is one of them. “I’m so proud of our young people. Those of us in our fifties have just stayed inside and complained. We just waited, but these young people, they won’t stop. We are witnessing a miracle.”
Nagwa is Christian, a minority that makes up around 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people. The last few years have seen an upsurge in religious tension here—most recently a suicide bombing at a church in Alexandria on January 1 that killed nearly two-dozen people. But Nagwa is not worried about potential sectarian chaos in Egypt’s streets if a government leaves. “We are all Egyptians,” she says, and launches into a diatribe against the Mubarak regime for stoking religious tension. “When Mubarak leaves, he will take his rotten system with him,” the stout doctor told me before setting off to join her compatriots.
Unfortunately, it is too early to tell whether today’s peaceful atmosphere will prevail. The biggest question on everyone’s mind in the coming hours will be whether or not the army will open fire on the masses or the roaming gangs of thugs, which most Egyptians I speak to assume have been unleashed by the regime to stir up trouble. But for now, the mood in Tahrir Square is tranquil and buoyant.
Sarah A. Topol is a freelance journalist based in Cairo.