Tahrir Square is where the Egyptian revolution took place and continues to play an important role for everyone who demanded change two years ago. Wednesday morning at 2 a.m it was attacked and people’s tents burned to the ground.
It was rebuilt and burned to the ground again 16 hours later, and three hours after that, things genuinely got ugly.
No one here seemed to know what exactly happened over the last 24 hours, but dozens of people I spoke with had pieces of a story. One high ranking government court worker in the take-out restaurant he inherited from his father asked my translator if he knew who was in charge of the area now.
What he told him, we’d learned from the 22-year-old pizza shop worker, Walid (not his real name), at the spot a few doors down. Walid moved to Cairo from the country three-and-a-half-years-ago, to find work. The shop is open 24-hours, and what he told us pulled together more elements of what I’d seen over the past 24-hours than anything else.
On Wednesday evening a man was attacked in the square, injured baldy and rushed to the hospital (we posted pictures of that Wednesday morning). Walid knew the man from the shop and told us he was from Abdeen, a town about 70 miles away.
At 4 a.m. Wednesday, about 13-hours after the attack, Walid said he saw a group of Abdeen men guys ride in on motorbikes and attack the square. They beat its occupants, and burned the flags and tents to the ground. Aside from one elderly man called “the father of the revolution” I’m told the square was largely filled with criminals, former prison inmates freed during 2011 prison breaks, and drug dealers.
I could not get near Tahrir Square without being confronted, and was told repeatedly not to go at all after dark. I went with the translator. It was hostile, even before the attacks.
Throughout the day, the people living in the square brought in more tents, put up new flags and had settled back in. At 4 p.m. a mob formed at the mall a couple blocks away, and marched past my hotel calling for shopkeepers to join them in clearing the square.
Walid thought that group began with more people from Abdeen, maybe it did. My translator, believed there was a significant Muslim Brotherhood presence after 4 p.pm when we were in the square. The Muslim Brotherhood is Egyptian president Morsi’s party, and my translator believed these men were a group, carrying large slabs of wood or metal pipe. Many of them confronted me, one with hostile intent, and they did not look like the people staying in the square. But no one I spoke with can say for sure who they were.
At 7 p.m. the people who’d now twice been attacked at the park took action. All they’d heard was the call for shopkeepers to join the mob that formed at the mall. A mall employee who’d been punched in the face trying to stop the crowd from tearing down “the father of the revolution’s” tent confirmed that’s where he joined the group.
By 7:10 p.m., the Tahrir Square residents had looted and shattered glass windows and doors in as many stores and restaurants as they could, on the street my hotel’s on before employees hauled the sliding steel doors down for protection. The only spot nearby without a safety door is the pizza place where Walid works.
Walid was returning to the shop with supplies from a store when he saw the crowd smash through his employer’s doors and windows. He saw the thick glass smash onto the sidewalk as the chef ran through the broken door.
When he spoke with us at 10:00 p.m. tonight shards of glass filled two garbage cans, and still covered the sidewalk. He’d spoken to the owner’s wife. She’s 55, her husband is in the hospital, she said she had no idea what to do.
Aside from the chef, Walid is the only other employee and he plans on staying in the restaurant protecting what he can. That’s his only plan for now.
When he called the emergency military number at 7:30, no one answered. The local police station is just several blocks away and no one has seen them anywhere near the square. Neither my translator, who lived in the park during the 2011 revolution, or Walid have seen violence like this in the past two years.
Walid’s nervous, and told us there is a “million-man” gathering of the revolutionaries who were in the park during 2011, tomorrow. He thinks he’ll be fine, but has no idea what’s going to happen.
He just can’t lose that job.
This is what Tahrir Square looked like Thursday at noon after being raided and tents leveled eight hours before.
There were a few tents left. My translator who lived here during the 2011 revolution, as well as others, say it's almost all criminals and drug dealers who live here now.
The place was violent and then absurd, as this man took turns smacking each passing car with a stick and directing them where to go.
Though I didn't realise it until he'd walked past that silver car. Fortunately, my translator has a bit of credibility on the street that slowed the scene down.
And I was able to finally make some distance. Together the men with sticks tracked me with fingers and shouts until I broke line of sight, showing a pretty good amount of organisation and teamwork.
I made my way over to this spot here, finding my translator along the way via a sharp whistle he makes that we'd agreed would be an alert.
But a group here had seen momentum building to move me out, and kept it up, while another man spoke to me in English telling me to take all the pictures I want and guide us back to the angry man with the stick.
Instead, my translator bought us each a small fresh squeezed orange juice at a nearby shop, and we went to the hotel.
... before running off, surprisingly fast, toward the mall where the attackers had apparently gathered. He's sprinting here through the intersection, between the street sign and nearest white car.
The only remaining employee in the only shop without a sliding steel door, he'll stay here until the other employee returns after fleeing today, or the windows replaced.
So while this is what the square looked like at 12:01 p.m. Friday. In the next several hours it's supposed to fill with revolutionaries who owned it in 2011. And nobody knows what will happen then.
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