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Community Amid Egypt's Chaos

United against their president, demonstrators in Tahrir Square have managed to bridge the country's political divides.

by Gregg Carlstrom

CAIRO - It will likely be weeks before the world knows whether pro-democracy protesters in Egypt have successfully dislodged their president, but whether or not they achieve that goal, they have already succeeded in offering a new model for a more engaged Egypt.

United against their president, demonstrators in Tahrir Square have managed to bridge the country's political divides. The protesters massing in Cairo's Tahrir Square have set up their own self-contained community and this impromptu entity offers, for some Egyptians, a compelling vision of what citizenship could be – a path towards a more egalitarian and engaged country.

The protesters massing in Cairo's Tahrir Square have set up their own self-contained community. Food supplies are limited, but vendors dispense bread, cheese, water and other essentials.

A sign outside the shuttered Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant advertises medical services. Doctors and nurses in white coats roam the grounds, providing care for the thousands of people injured in clashes over the past week.

A newspaper provides the latest updates on the conditions in the square and the politics outside.

Civic engagement is not a new phenomenon in Egypt, of course, and it would be dismissive to claim otherwise.

Mosques play a key role in providing social services to communities, and Egypt's Coptic Christian community - a large percentage of the population - is a political force.

Opposition groups, like the Ghad (Tomorrow) and Wafd (Delegation) parties and the banned-but-tolerated Muslim Brotherhood, have their own media outlets and organise their supporters on key issues.

But all of these outlets are directed from the top down and rooted in specific identities - political preference, religious affiliation.

Those competing identities were on display only occasionally in Tahrir Square, which is perhaps the most striking feature of Egypt's two-week-old pro-democracy protests.

The community in the square is not centrally directed, and its members appeal almost exclusively to Egyptian (and sometimes Arab) nationalism.

Speaking up

On Monday night, on the outskirts of the square, a bearded young man named Ahmed delivered an enthusiastic speech that was broadly sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.

He called for the group to be legalised, and said that it would push for constitutional reforms, free and fair elections, and the rule of law.

Ahmed told me after his talk that he was a member of the group. But few of the people listening knew it at the time, nor did they seem to care.

"I don't support the Brotherhood," said Ibrahim, a Coptic man listening to Ahmed's performance, much of it delivered as rhymed Arabic poetry. "He's just a very good speaker!"

One of the defining features of the Egyptian opposition - one of its failings, many would say - has been its fragmentation.

Secular politicians like Ayman Nour, the head of the Ghad party, do not trust the Muslim Brotherhood.

The country's legal opposition parties are reluctant to align with outside reformers like Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The old guard of the Coptic community tends to back the Mubarak government, even though many of its younger members blame that government for fomenting the Muslim-Christian violence that has rocked Egypt in recent years.

Protesters in Tahrir Square reject that fragmentation.

Many refuse to endorse specific parties or politicians - asked who should replace Mubarak, several demonstrators simply shrugged - choosing instead to call for an inclusive unity government.

"We should have a new government, a technocratic government," said Negla, a doctor from the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, who travelled to Cairo for the protests.

"We should choose all the best people from all the parties."

'Free country'

Without any official backing, the protesters have been left to organise themselves, providing basic services for a community that has often swelled into the hundreds of thousands.

The most striking examples are the "security forces", the men who check IDs and pockets at the entrance to the square.

Elsewhere in Egypt, security services are almost universally loathed for their corruption and brutality.

They are as likely to commit crimes as they are to prevent them.

Within the square, there have been no reports of theft or violence, and the young men wearing handwritten "security" name tags are seen as trustworthy.

"This is the only place in Egypt where you don't have to fear being tortured when you speak your mind," said an activist named Saeed.

Food and water are shared freely among the protesters, many of whom also pack into tents and huddle together around campfires to keep warm on Cairo's cold winter nights.

The groups are mixed - old and young, wealthy and poor, Muslim and Coptic - to an extent not often seen in the capital.

Some of these scenes have become iconic, like the stirring image of Copts forming a protective ring around Muslims performing their prayers.

The protesters in the square talk often of restoring their dignity, of allowing their children to lead better lives than they do.

In a country that has often felt trapped in stagnation - economically, politically - the new found sense of optimism is a palpable change.

"They [the government] want us to be slaves. We don't want to be slaves," said Hisham, a 30-year-old architect camped out in Tahrir.

"Why are all the people afraid? Look around [at the square]. We are a free people in a free country. We want this to be Egypt."

Sense of community

The sense of community within Tahrir Square extends to the protesters' handling of foreign journalists.

Young men usher reporters through the security checkpoints, and a "press officer" answers questions and offers to help in cases of emergency.

When I knelt down to compose a shot with my camera on Monday night, three men approached me in the space of one minute.

"Inta b'khair?" they asked. "Are you okay?"

This is self-serving, of course: the protesters depend on sympathetic coverage and they fear what might happen if the media spotlight currently trained on the square goes dark.

But their concern nonetheless felt authentic, and it stands in stark relief to the government's handling of reporters, dozens of whom have been arrested by military intelligence or assaulted by Mubarak supporters.

It is hard to say how the protesters' civic engagement is viewed outside the Tahrir Square.

In conversations in several residential neighbourhoods over the last week, Egyptians did sometimes comment on the communal atmosphere in the square.

"There is no strife in the square between Christians and Muslims," said an elderly man named Omar, sitting in a coffee shop in the capital's Agouza neighbourhood.

"This is how it used to be in all of Egypt."

Egyptians have also commented online - on Twitter, Facebook and blogs - at the absence of sexual harassment, a common problem elsewhere in the country.

Thousands of women visited the square each day, and there was none of the catcalling and grabbing that they are often forced to endure in public.

Many of the protesters inside Tahrir argue that the Mubarak government has tried to stifle civic engagement, that it promotes apathy and division in order to maintain its power.

The impromptu community in Tahrir offers, for some Egyptians, a compelling vision of what citizenship could be - a path towards a more egalitarian and engaged country.

"Mubarak always gave us two choices, me or the chaos," said Negla, the doctor from Sharm el-Sheikh. "Maybe this is a third option."

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