Tahrir Square – Cairo, Egypt

Once I arrived in Cairo, Egypt, after a harrowing experience on the bus from the Sinai (I’ll get to that later), I hailed a taxi and said: “Midan Tahrir” to the driver, meaning: “Take me directly to Tahrir Square.” I don’t speak Arabic at all, but have had no problems communicating with Arabs who don’t speak any English (it’s funny how we put so much emphasis on needing language to communicate).

(Photo credit: Xavier Saer)

Tahrir Square is the last stop on my little Middle East adventure that took me all the way from Istanbul, Turkey to Cairo, Egypt. This city’s main, public square has become synonymous with everything revolution. If you want to be factual, the Arab Spring actually started in Tunisia with the self-immolation of street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi. But Egypt gave the protests a central plaza where the world’s attention and media focus could continue the story. Also, Egypt is one of the Middle East and North Africa’s most populous nations, and the country is very economically important to the West.

I stepped out of the taxi at Tahrir Square at 4am and there were about a dozen people gathered there braving the cold night. The reason I arrived so late is (here’s what I was alluding to in the first paragraph) because on the bus from Dahab, Egypt, located on the Sinai peninsula, my bus reached a roadblock set up by angry Bedouin Arabs. Now up to that point, I’ve only heard rumours about Egypt’s Sinai Bedouins and how militant they are, so when we reached the burning mounds in the middle of the lane, in front of two semi trucks blocking the entire highway, I exited the bus only to hear that it was only an act of protest.

Quickly, I returned inside the bus after taking a look at the Bedouins carrying what looked to me like AK-47 assault rifles on the other side of the roadblock. An Egyptian man on the bus explained to me in English that they were protesting the election results and win of a candidate they didn’t support. It all sounded very democratic to me. However, I started to doubt this watered-down reason to a tourist (me) for a very militant action, blocking the entire highway access from Sinai into Cairo. The bus was somewhere between Sharm el-Sheikh and Suez, because it was almost 6pm and I left Dahab just before 1pm.

All I could do was guess what the outcome of this incident would be. I tried not to get alarmed, but the minute I tried to relax I heard repeated gun fire. I sprang out of my seat and exited the bus (I admit not a smart thing to do when armed thugs are shooting, but it was my instinct to find out what was happening) to see Egyptians running back toward their vehicles. It seemed to me the Bedouins were firing into the air to disperse the crowds continually gathering around the roadblock.

By this time traffic was piling up. The bus I was in was near the front of the roadblock, so we were close to the hostility. I could sense violence was on the horizon, but there was nothing I could do as someone trapped on a bus in the middle of the desert in Egypt. At midnight, the roadblock came down and the convoy my bus was traveling in began to advance with the aid of Egypt’s notoriously repressive military. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, I hear three explosions. BANG! BANG! BANG! A plume of smoke engulfs the vehicles in front of us, then a few seconds pass and I see soldiers running toward the bus shouting.

The driver panics and throws the bus in reverse. All the cars around are trying to do the same, but chaos ensues. My eyes are glued to the windows and I’m trying to make sense of the situation (like any rational person would do?). Another passenger heads to the back of the bus and directs the driver how to maneuver himself to turn around on a two-lane highway. Soldiers continually smack the side of the bus to get us moving, while horns are honking all around us. I sat there watching these events unfold and all I could think of is how uncomfortable I felt knowing the military was all around us. Aren’t Egypt’s military the source of conflict in the post-Hosni Mubarak era?

I knew the only way to find out more about this country’s political situation, after the January 25, 2011 revolution that ousted Mubarak and shined a light on the need for democracy, was to visit Tahrir Square and see for myself. I made it out of the Sinai and into Cairo late at night (or early the next morning, to be exact). To witness, first-hand, a Bedouin Arab attack on Egyptian troops made me fully aware of the implications of visiting a country in the midst of revolution. All I could say to myself was: “This is what democracy looks like. It can, at times, be messy.”

Tahrir was alive.

My first foray into the square and there were dozens of people gathered with tents pitched and hand-written signs posted everywhere. Obviously, I couldn’t understand what they said, but I knew they were messages of condolence to the protesters injured, or even killed, over the last 12 months of pro-democracy and anti-military protests. As I walked the streets leading into Tahrir Square, I started to notice how one-third of the access points to the plaza was completely blocked off to traffic and pedestrians.

This troubled me. I wanted to know why these streets were inaccessible to me and other people walking from Tahrir. It didn’t take me long to figure out that these were the streets that lead to the Egyptian government and military institutions that surround the square. Many of the international hotels and banks situated along the Nile River are also sealed off to everything but the main highway into the city centre.

When I took a night time stroll along the Nile to see its natural beauty, I was bothered by all the security personnel working outside, protecting these buildings from some real, or perceived, threat. I don’t know why this bothered me so much. No matter where in the world I’ve travelled to, which is almost exclusively “developing nations” (some people debate this term, maybe “exploited” or “third world” is a better description to use) I always see military (public) and mercenaries (private) guarding Western interests. It’s something that I notice everywhere I go.

Each day in Cairo, I spent either passing through Tahrir Square, or visiting one of it’s many shops for food or tea. Eventually, I did make it to Alexandria to see the Corniche, and out to Giza for the pyramids, but sight-seeing wasn’t the reason I made Cairo, Egypt the last stop on my Middle East adventure. I came for Tahrir. To catch a glimpse of the on-going revolution. And I wasn’t disappointed. On day four in Cairo, I watched a demonstration and march against the military rulers who refuse to listen to the people and hand over power to a civilian government. Even with Mubarak gone, those who propped up his regime are still in power and don’t want to relinquish it any time soon.

Only time will tell. The fate of Egypt is up to the people!

Adam Bemma is a journalist, humanitarian, and media consultant based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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