Tahrir Square: Egypt’s new transit

Moved by photos of young martyrs on satellite television, Afaf Mohamed, a 44-year-old housewife, decided to ride the train from her hometown in the Delta province of Daqahleyya along with her two sons and head to Cairo to join hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who rallied for the one-million march on Tuesday.

“I came here for the sake of change which we have been dreaming of for so long,” says Mohamed with a strong tone, sitting with a group of women from her hometown underneath one of the hundreds of plastic tents erected to shelter protesters in the heart of Tahrir Square.

One meter away, her sons were sitting with a group of older men and holding banners challenging President Hosni Mubarak’s rule.

“I came today so that I could feel I participated,” says 17-year-old Amr Mostafa, a high school student.

Amr's elder brother, Abdel Rahman Mostafa, came to Tahrir to develop a better understanding of the uprising away from all the media brainwashing.

“In our hometown, people are divided. Some say the revolution is good and others say it is not. When you come here, you see things by yourself. It makes a huge difference. When I go back, I will convey the true image that has nothing to do with what the media say,” says Abdel Rahman, a 19-year-old civil engineering student.

“Here, everything is beautiful," says Amr. "People are very civilized and aware of what is going on. They are not barbarians as the Egyptian media try to portray them.”

Mohamed and her two sons are like thousands of Egyptians who have been flooding from various provinces to Tahrir Square for the last two weeks to express their support for the cause. Delta residents and Upper Egyptians seem to have thrown themselves into a competition over the most articulate expression of public outrage. Creative anti-Mubarak banners signed on behalf of inhabitants of different cities have been raised everywhere in the square.

“In the beginning, we didn't come because we were scared of thugs,” says Mohamed. “But now, we are no longer scared. Let them beat us up, we are ready for that. I brought my sons with me; they are not any better than martyrs killed in clashes,” says Mohamed from behind her dark-blue niqab which covers her face.

At least 300 people have been killed since the uprising erupted last month. In recent days, local and international media have been circulating photos of young victims who were killed by riot police or regime-backed thugs over the last two weeks.

In an attempt to turn public opinion against the Tahrir protesters, state-owned media has been contending that the square is being hijacked by Islamists. For decades, Mubarak's regime has argued that genuine democratic reforms will bring fundamentalists to power.

Mohamed admits that her family sympathizes with the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet, none of the group leaders pushed her to travel to Tahrir, leaving her husband and youngest son behind. Her decision was based on a personal initiative.

“We come from a small town. People know each other. We deal with the Muslim Brotherhood and we find them very ethical. Why do they [the regime] keep scaring us from them. We support them because they are our neighbors,” says Mohamed.

A few meters away from Mohamed’s family sits Shokry al-Sherbiny, a 23-year-old science graduate who does not identify himself with any political group. Following the first wave of mass protests that erupted two weeks ago, the young man departed from his village in Daqahleyya province to camp in Tahrir square.

“I came to Cairo to be at the heart of events,” says al-Sherbiny. “I never felt liberated until I came to Tahrir Square. This is the most secure place in Egypt….I am here until the regime is changed.”

Al-Sherbiny was raised in a lower-middle class family. His 63-year-old father is a retired worker with the largest public sector Egyptian textile company in Mehalla province who owns a small piece of agricultural land.

Frustrated with slim job opportunities and meager family resources, al-Sherbiny’s three elder brothers left to France six years ago. Despite their university degrees, they ended up as wood floor workers in the West. Al-Sherbiny doesn't want the same fate.

“I want to live in this country so I can change it. We should not all run away,” he says. “Now, I tell my brothers that I am living an era of freedom. God willing, they will come back and find jobs here.”

The influx of non-Cairenes is not limited to individuals or families. Distinct professional groups have been commuting to the capital to express their disenchantment with the Mubarak regime.

Standing in his religious uniform among a dozen fellow preachers, Ahmed Gamal Eddin, a 38-year-old state-sanctioned imam, explains why he left his wife and two small children to join the sit-in last week.

“This is a national cause, nobody asked me to be here. We were dreaming of this day long time ago. ..I dream of a better life for my children. I hope my kids can enjoy freedom and good education away from oppression and despotism,” says Gamal Eddin.

“My wife is happy that I am here. She never asked me to go back,” he says. Gamal Eddin has been sleeping in Tahrir for over eight days.

By adopting a clearly anti-Mubarak stance, Gamal Eddin and colleagues might be jeopardizing their jobs with the state religious establishment. These low-rank clerics have refused to toe the line with Egypt’s top religious figures, namely the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar and the Grand Mufti, who have remained supportive of Mubarak’s regime throughout the uprising.

“I felt sad when I heard the comments made by the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, who I hold as my professor. He should have joined the nation here in the square and stood with them against injustice and despotism,” says Gamal Eddin, who was detained for two months in 2005 for joining a pro-reform protest held by judges.

“We have to be patient and persevere until the regime falls.”

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