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.
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)
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
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
"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."
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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."