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Op-Ed

The spirit of Tahrir Square

The pro-democracy demonstrators gathered in Cairo reveal the rich and complex texture of Egyptian society, which may finally get expression in politics if the uprising succeeds.

February 05, 2011|By Ahdaf Soueif

Writing from Cairo — Was it ridiculous that I was perched on top of a ladder hanging curtains before going out to join the revolution in Tahrir?

I don't know. I know I had taken my bedroom curtains down and they'd been laundered and needed hanging — otherwise they'd get creased and have to be ironed again. So I took 10 minutes to hang them and half a minute to take pleasure in their soft, billowing whiteness. Then I slung my bag over my shoulder and left.

We live in Zamalek, a leafy residential neighborhood that is a 5-minute drive from the bridge that connects it to downtown. A quick stroll across the bridge and you're in Tahrir Square, the heart of the action.

On Tuesday, with hundreds of thousands gathered in the square, the atmosphere was brilliant. All the ills that have beset our society in the last decades had vanished overnight. Young men who a month ago were a menace to any woman on the street were chivalry itself. An old bearded guy with the prayer mark on his forehead approached my 17-year-old niece: "May I tell you something?" he asked. "You know, I've been feeling discouraged and thinking of going home, but seeing a young woman like you out here, full of confidence, gives me strength. I'm staying."

People handed out biscuits, dates, water. People queued, actually queued, for the loo. It was as if we had found the best in ourselves and were determined to act it out.

All this last week, with government forces withdrawn from the streets of Egyptian cities, young people have formed neighborhood watches and guarded their areas. They were having fun, constructing barricades and inventing passwords, checking the IDs of those wanting to enter and then ushering them through with a theatrical flourish.

Then, on Wednesday, things changed. Women leaving the square were roughed up and insulted. And on Thursday, as a group of us headed into the square, we were accosted on the bridge and called spies and whores.

It was only after the government sent its thugs out into the streets armed with sticks and stones and Molotov cocktails that the atmosphere changed. They turned the square into a battlefield. They even had a cavalry that came galloping in on horses and camels! But our amazing young people captured them, turning one corner of the square into a stable. Another corner became a first-aid center with young women in crash helmets tending the injured. The battles lasted well into the night, but we held the square.

If we, the pro-democracy movement, win this battle, the spirit that pervades Tahrir Square will pervade the country. In the square, every shade of the political spectrum is represented. The left is here, and the liberals. The Muslim Brotherhood is with us too, comprising an estimated 5% to 7% of the people at the square. The demonstrators reveal the rich and complex texture of Egyptian society.

We need the Mubarak regime to leave. We need the military to secure a space for us to reform our constitution and have free and fair elections that result in a government that will run the country to the benefit of all us Egyptians — and our friends.

By the time you read this, whatever is to happen in Tahrir Square on Friday night will have happened. I hope we'll have won and the wonderful world we're trying to create will be closer to being born.

Ahdaf Soueif is an Egyptian political and cultural commentator and the author of, among other novels, "The Map of Love."

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