Egyptians returned to Liberation Square last Friday for yet another demonstration to voice disapproval of their military rulers.
Two prominent signs with the word kaathiboon or “liars” in bold red were displayed in the square. The epithet refers to the military junta or Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) which last week ordered soldiers to assault peaceful protesters in the square. In doing so, they beat a young, veiled woman unconscious on the pavement, her headscarf and shirt ripped off, revealing a blue bra against a pale chest.
A few soldiers surrounded her, dragging her limp body. They carried batons and one of them stepped on her half-naked body. This is only one of the various images that Egyptians have witnessed this week in their ongoing revolution as they struggle with a basic question of who will rule their new political system.
Even under Mubarak’s regime, such an act was never perpetrated. Many Egyptians feel a new boundary has been crossed. Taxi drivers now talk of going to the square to “restore her honor.”
I asked one of my Egyptian brothers, how does one go to the military council to “restore” lost honor? The question tripped him up a little.
In visiting Liberation Square this past summer, I witnessed a number of so-called debate circles, where Egyptians would discuss calmly and cordially different subjects. Now, these same debate circles are filled with venom. Men shout. Women shout. Men shout at women. Young men shout at other young men. They are angrier than before. I admit I am a little distressed at these images. Somehow, they frighten me a little more than the men with machetes who walk around the square.
I ascend the stairs from the metro station and am met by the civilian guards who ask me for my passport. I display my Chinese teacher’s ID from my year teaching English abroad in 1998—more than 13 years ago. I hope my youthful picture still matches my current mug. “China? You Chinese? We like China. Enter!”
Gamal, one gentleman in his 40s, was accompanying his colleagues in carrying a giant Egyptian flag. Sporting a Palestinian kufaya around his neck, Gamal first asks me to take some pictures of him. I oblige him. He then asks me to send him the pictures. When I ask him for his email address, he asks another gentleman on the side to write his address for him. I surmise that Gamal is illiterate.
Gamal invites me to a cup of tea and gently pulls me to the side where a tea lady has set up shop with a few bottles of bottled water, instant tea and a Bunsen burner on a piece of wood. I ask her, “how’s business?”
“Pretty good today. Pretty good,” She replies cheerfully.
As we talk, Gamal tells me that he works in a hammam, or bathhouse nearby in Boulaq, a working class neighborhood by the Nile. As he speaks, he reminds me of a Chinese monk with his shaved head, high cheekbones and long eyebrows. He even has a wide nose and piercing eyes. Yes, definitely Chinese monk from the Ming Dynasty.
Using hand gestures, he describes the bath house and the international clientele. They are open every day and he would like to invite me there to try it out. “We have all the best techniques!” In all my time in Cairo, I had heard of the bath houses, but only got close to one a few years ago, but it was closed at the time. So, this intrigued me.
Gamal hinted that perhaps, he could show me the bath house after we finish the tea.
I hinted to him that maybe we should walk around the square a little. He hooked his left arm in my right arm and led me forward.
Every few minutes or so, we stop and he would ask me to take a picture of him in front of a flag or sign or some other background. Then, he would offer to take my picture, even though I was not particularly interested. He insisted. Being polite to my new guide, I relented. When he stepped back to get a better angle, I had the momentary feeling that he would run off with my camera.
I stopped at some hand-drawn cartoons posted on the side and spent a few minutes trying to decipher them. He urged me to hurry up by saying, “yella?” or “let’s go?” I took my sweet time.
Sometimes, when I gave him the camera, he held onto it for an extended period of time, not returning it to me right afterwards.
Close to one of the main stages a man holds up a religious protest sign: “our revolution will not kneel except for one God.” A noose wrapped in the Egyptian flag is attached to the sign.
Gamal spotted a young lady and her mother with some colorful signs. He snapped a few photos and then climbed the concrete platform to take additional photos. The young lady held a home-made sign: “to the military council—we don’t want your service. Return to your barracks. Thank you!”
On her chest was pinned a black and white poster of three photos of women abused by the military police in recent days.
The young lady explained that these actions were simply unacceptable. She was present tonight to protest military rule.
One man on crutches and missing his right leg is on disability, but only receives 130 LE ($21) a month. I asked him how he could live on that small amount. “I can’t!”
A young student of about 14 in a crisp white shirt asked me if demonstrations like tonight’s were possible in China. I replied “no.” While China has economic freedom, there is no political freedom. Whereas Egypt is the opposite. The young boy asked me which one I preferred. I explained that ideally, both would be good.
While I was talking, Gamal stepped off the platform and disappeared into the cro—with my camera. My worst fear now confirmed, I ran after him and quickly caught up with him. It appears that he was simply following the crowd, taking pictures. My guess is that he’s never owned a camera before.
We followed the chanting protesters for the next 30-45 minutes down empty streets.
A mock casket draped in red bunting floats on the protesters’ shoulders. The words on the side read: “Martyr of the military rule.”
A car with a large sign displays the same image of the police battering the women protesters from last week: “Where’s the glory?”
A middle-aged man approaches me and asks me politely: “you are not Egyptian, are you? You don’t belong here. If the police see you, they will arrest you. You should go.”
The teenagers around me tell me that I can do anything I want and should ignore the man. We wait a minute or so for the crowd to pass before we head back to Liberation Square.