CAIRO — The two doctors say they joined the protests against President Hosni Mubarak to improve living conditions for themselves and for less fortunate Egyptians, some of whom they are now treating in makeshift clinics at Tahrir Square.
The street warfare has changed them in ways they never imagined. When they arrived last week they were idealistic, they say. Now they are battle-hardened.
"I don't care if they arrest us," said laser surgeon Hisham Ibrahim, speaking as matter-of-factly as if he were counting medical supplies. "Freedom will not come easy."
Ibrahim says he was driven to protest because, not being a member of Mubarak's National Democratic Party, he hasn't received the sort of professional recognition he deserves. For years, he says, he has been passed over for top hospital positions that were given to those with party connections.
When the demonstrations began, he said, he just wanted to speak out against Mubarak. Once at their center, he learned that his skills were needed.
Wearing jeans and a button-down shirt, Ibrahim, 49, walks through an improvised hospital set up in the mosque of a gray, soot-stained apartment building. He examines the wounded as they stream in from the streets and organizes the work flow of his younger colleagues.
Some men his age are on the streets, hurling rocks and building barricades to keep pro-government demonstrators out of the square. Ibrahim chose instead to help run the makeshift medical station, equipped with little more than plug-in fans and prayer rugs.
He doesn't laugh or get angry. He just tries to stay afloat as he attends to gunshot wounds, burns from Molotov cocktails and head gashes from hurled rocks.
"I was surprised by what happened, by all the people killed," he said.
He fights by treating those who go out to defend the square, and he speaks of his admiration for the men whose wounds he has stitched so that they can return to the battle.
"I told one 18-year-old who had blood coming from his head to sit down, but he went back out," Ibrahim said. "They are so brave."
Early Thursday, he revived three men who had fallen unconscious. One of them died. The hole in his head was deep and so much blood gushed from it that Ibrahim couldn't save him.
If this were an ordinary hospital, and not a mosque, the patient might have lived, he says. He tries not to dwell on the matter, telling himself, "I'm a doctor."
Sherif Adl, a family practitioner, is doing double duty as a physician and a frontline defender of the square, He laughs at the absurdity of his dual role as he stanches the flow of blood from the wounds of his fellow combatants and dispenses drugs at a makeshift outdoor aid station.
Later, he takes a position at the metal barriers and dashes forward to lob rocks. Bullets whistle by and he runs forward again.
Adl, 30, sees the situation as warfare. Idealism has given way to the mood of an eye for an eye.
The enemy has a will to kill, Adl tells himself. And he says how tired he is of the humiliations in his daily life. At his hospital, the equipment is third-rate. He earns 300 Egyptian pounds (about $50) a month, with a wife and baby girl to support. It has been like a noose.
"You can't live a good life, I'm not talking about the high life. But a good life. You can't keep yourself out of poverty," he said.
So he'll sacrifice now, he says. "I am a fighter and doctor because we want freedom and democracy."
When Adl talks of the other side, they are no longer Egyptian to him. He calls them "terrorists" again and again. "Now people see Mubarak as a killer, not a president. He killed more than 300 people since Jan. 25," Adl says.
He repeats the word "terrorists" to himself, like a curse word, while nearby, fellow protesters push a charred cart to use as a barrier and place medical supplies against the storefront of a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet.
Holding an Egyptian flag, Adl vents his anger.
"Mubarak is a killer," he said with a dead stare. "Maybe we will march on his palace."
Zohairy is a special correspondent.