Surrounded by tanks and the world’s television cameras, the protesters on Cairo’s Tahrir Square are bedding down to secure their place in history.
The groups challenging the three-decade-long rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his deputy, Omar Suleiman, have built shelters from tarpaulins and made beds from blankets and clothing as they become accustomed to sleeping outdoors next to the caterpillar tracks of the military vehicles.
“We will not leave Tahrir until our demands are met,” said Amr Hassan, 21, a commerce student at Cairo’s Ain Shams University. “We will not allow anyone from the previous regime to stay, not Mubarak, Suleiman, or anyone else.”
Since the Egyptian uprising escalated with the call for a million demonstrators to gather on Feb. 1, the square has become the symbol of unrest that has rocked the Middle East as unemployment and food prices rise. The impasse at Tahrir also may make it tougher for Suleiman and opposition leaders to settle a revolt that won support in the U.S. and western Europe.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said it will take four months to amend the country’s constitution and prepare for elections scheduled for September when Mubarak’s sixth term ends. Mubarak, 82, has said he won’t run again.
‘Open the Way’
“It will be four months until June, and in June, we open the way for presidential elections,” Aboul Gheit said in an interview broadcast this morning on Al Arabiya television.
Dozens of tents have sprung up to accommodate the growing number of men, women and children vowing not to leave Tahrir until Mubarak quits. Tahrir is the Arab word for liberation and the square, named in honor of the 1919 revolution against British occupation, is now home to food vendors, souvenir salesmen, barbers and at least six medical clinics with volunteer doctors.
“Occupying Tahrir Square has always signified a turning point in Egyptian history,” Alaa Al-Aswany, 53, author of “The Yacoubian Building,” said in the square on Jan. 25, the first day of the protests. “That is why we intend to hold on to this piece of land until our demands are met, no matter the cost.”
Suleiman, the former intelligence chief who was appointed vice president by Mubarak on Jan. 29, has been meeting with representatives of opposition groups in a bid to end the protests calling on the president to depart immediately.
About 300 people died in clashes between anti- and pro-government demonstrators and with the authorities. Suleiman, 74, said this week the dialogue involving some opposition figures is the only alternative to the “chaos” of regime change.
Tens of thousands of people filled Tahrir on Feb. 8, the day after the release of Wael Ghonim, a Google Inc. executive and an activist. As dusk approached in Cairo, Ghonim stepped on stage, bringing the crowd to a hush, to declare the protesters as “heroes” and the dead as “martyrs.”
“We feel overwhelming warmth among people here,” said Hafez Mohamed, 23, an engineer carrying a flag who yesterday came to the square for a second day. “Everyone wants to say ‘no’ and when we chant together it looks like a carnival.”
Protesters are calling on Egyptians to demonstrate throughout the country tomorrow following Friday prayers. Chants and banners calling for a march to Mubarak’s presidential palace have been increasing in Tahrir Square.
Egypt’s economic malaise has been exacerbated by the demonstrations, according to the government, which estimated the flight of tourists in the first nine days of protests cost $1 billion. Egypt’s exports dropped by 6 percent in January, state-run television reported, citing Trade Minister Samiha Fawzy.
Banks reopened some of their branches on Feb. 6 after a week-long closure while the stock market remains suspended until Feb. 13. The Egyptian pound lost as much as 2.3 percent against the dollar since Jan. 24 before recovering after the central bank intervened. The pound was little changed yesterday at 5.8805 per dollar.
“Where does it end?” said Moutaz Hassan Rasmy, a 36-year-old limousine manager who was forced to accept a one-third salary cut to 1,350 pounds ($230) per month. “I agree with the protesters’ demands but my family is now starting to suffer. I may be able to get by this month, but what about the next?”
Long lines in front of Tahrir’s makeshift entrances between the dozens of tanks have become the norm, starting at 4 p.m. as people file out of their offices. Around the square, vendors sell Egyptian flags, hats with the red, white and black national colors and food including kushari, a staple dish consisting of rice, lentils, chickpeas and macaroni.
‘A Better Future’
“I come here with my son after work every day,” said Hossam Moussa, 41, an accountant. “I feel it’s important for him to see for himself what it takes to build a better future.”
For the demonstrators in Tahrir, and the thousands of people staging parallel protests in cities including Alexandria, Suez and Mahalla, maintaining momentum and support from the likes of Rasmy in the coming weeks could prove critical.
They are becoming more organized by taking shifts in sleeping, greeting visitors, sharing food, water and blankets donated by others, and chanting, singing and dancing to keep warm at night. They search those arriving to maintain security and urge exiting crowds to come back with their friends.
“The question is not whether Mubarak goes or not -- he’s pretty much gone,” Bassma Kodmani, executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative, said in an e-mailed comment. “If the street continues to push, we will go quite far in the reforms.”