Tahrir Square has once again become a makeshift community of tents, field hospitals and wounded protesters. “We are exhausted but morale is high,” says Omar Marsafy, 24, who has gunshot wounds to his legs, arms and head. Many have been sleeping there since Saturday 19 November, when the state security forces attacked the south-eastern side of the square with tear gas and rubber bullets.
The square hosts a mix of ages, genders, background and religious persuasions. “On the front line it’s mostly young men from the poorer and more disaffected areas,” explains Omar – although, he adds, not exclusively. This becomes abundantly clear when you visit the morgue and speak to bereaved families. The official body count is 23, and many news agencies are reporting 33.
The front line, next to the American University in Cairo library, is a constant battle for ground. The protesters face lines of the Egyptian Central Security Forces (CSF) and a handful of plain-clothed officers. “They shoot directly at the people, some aiming at our faces,” says Ahmed Fathi, 23, a student. These fighters rarely leave the battlefield, Fathi explains – only if they are hurt.
There is a continuous stream of men on scooters and pick-up trucks bringing the injured back to the square. Women with bottles of vinegar and men with saline solution, anti-acid solution and eye drops to alleviate the effects of tear gas are scattered along Mahomed Mahmoud Street, helping protesters as they stagger from the attacks. Street children as young as six run through the centre of the fighting where, it is now confirmed, live ammunition has been used.
There are now more than seven makeshift medical centres on and around the square. Men and women link arms around these areas to give the doctors, who have been working 18-hour shifts, room to treat the wounded.
At approximately 5.30pm on Sunday 20 November, the army stormed Tahrir. I witnessed officers beating protesters. One activist told me: “They shouted, ‘You deserve it!'” as they hit them. I saw a heap of bodies and at least one death at the hands of the army – a soldier dragged the corpse of a young man and left him on a pile of rubbish.
The presence of the army was an important development. Since the beginning, the resounding chants on the square have been “Down, down with the military regime” even though, aside from Sunday’s attack, most of the battles have been with the Egyptian police, who are controlled by the national ministry of interior. When you talk to people on the square, there is one united demand: for a civilian-led government and the removal of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has ruled since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February.
Why now? “It’s accumulation and escalation of tension and violence between state and the people,” says Salma Shukrallah, a journalist for Ahram Online.
“Like Mubarak, the SCAF has been creating enemies with everyone – with the workers, the Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood and the protesters making social demands.”
On 18 November, hundreds of thousands came to the square protesting against the military junta and their attempt to expand the army’s powers. With one eye on the forthcoming elections, Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood were in full force on Friday, while liberal and revolutionary groups focused on the military trials for civilians and the detention of the internationally renowned blogger Alaa Abd el-Fattah and thousands like him. By the next morning only a few hundred remained. The forced clearing of that tiny sit-in by the CSF is what sparked the clashes.
“The SCAF is incapable of governing,” says Ghada Shabender, of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights. “This is a national crisis.” The constitutional declaration, which in effect is the constitution until an assembly is appointed to write a new one, is vague and allows the SCAF final say over legislation. “We have a puppet government right now,” Ghada says.
In addition, the supra-constitutional declaration that the SCAF is trying to push through would give the military powers over the new president. Many important political groupings, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, have rejected it.
There are also grass-roots grievances. I asked one boy, 15-year-old Mohammed Abdalla, who had a rubber bullet injury to his forehead, why he was on the square. “The revolution has not been fulfilled,” he says. “The financial situation is worse than when Mubarak was in power.”
While the fate of what people are calling the Second Revolution remains in the balance, the driving force behind it is clear. As a young field doctor, Ahmed Saber, tellsme: “I’m here for Egypt, for freedom, for our future, not just mine.”