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For a boy on the streets of Cairo, revolution is his only hope

Hosni Mubarak's ouster has done nothing to change the plight of Ibrahim Shaban -- and many others among Egypt's 3 million homeless children. But revolution is still in the air, feeding his dreams.

November 27, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • Protesters demonstrate in Tahrir Square in Cairo.
Protesters demonstrate in Tahrir Square in Cairo. (Mohamed Omar / European…)

Reporting from Cairo — Ibrahim Shaban said he was 15, but he looked much younger in his pajama pants and sweat shirt with the worn-away rhinestones, dirt caked on his bare feet, a knife scar on his face. He strolled through the crowds in Tahrir Square the other day, watching banners unfurl, listening to speeches. He sometimes sounded like a miniature rebel, distilling the nation's rage in his narrow body.

"My father died a month ago, so I've been living in the square," he said. "He had heart problems. He sold cups and glasses in the street. I used to help him. He's gone now. My mother died too. A few years ago. I don't know what of. She just died."

He looked over at the makeshift hospital at the mosque. A man overcome by tear gas lay unconscious. Another was bleeding. Police were firing birdshot in the streets. Mobs surged toward them. More wounded would be coming. A cleric bent to pray.

FULL COVERAGE: Unrest in Egypt

Ibrahim waved to an ambulance driver.

"I want to be part of this protest," he said. "I want my own rights one day."

His bed is cold dirt beneath the stars. There are many like him, orphans who have found a home in rebellion. You almost don't notice them. They slip like small, ragged spirits through the square. They lived poor before the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak in February; they live poor now. They are the legacy of his failure, and of death, broken homes and slums filled with families whose burdens are too big to bear.

"Me and boys like me work together. We clean cars. Sometimes, someone will give us a blanket. I sleep here in the square, but other boys sleep other places," said Ibrahim, one of Egypt's estimated 3 million street children.

The crowd protesting against military rule grew in the square. Ash piles and stones littered the ground. Young men with cotton in their noses ran toward security forces and then quickly fled clouds of tear gas, which swirled around a bearded man wearing a tunic and a gas mask and carrying a walking stick, as if a gnomish figure from a "Star Wars" movie. Black-clad riot police took shape when the smoke cleared. They reloaded and waited at the corner.

"I used to work six days a week with my father," said Ibrahim, who quit school when he was 7. "He bought me a bicycle. We saved money once for a long time, and one day he surprised me when he came home with a TV and a satellite dish. My mom was alive back then. "

He looked into the sun.

Ibrahim didn't know the kid who walked up and stood next to him. The two exchanged glances. Islam Ramadan is homeless too. He's 12. He held a bullet casing and had turned an Egyptian flag into a bandanna; his zip-up jacket was a few sizes too big. He listened to wasps buzzing over a mud puddle.

"I've been living here since the revolution started against Mubarak," Islam said. "My parents divorced and I had been staying with my grandmother. She died. My stepmother beat me and my real mom didn't want me. Her new husband's a cop."

He edged into the rhetoric of an activist, simmering anger, wisps of conspiracy. He has listened well over the months to those carrying banners and shouting slogans: "It's all a lie. Mubarak is still in power. He never left. Everything is still the same. The country is no better. Someone should help poor people like us. I could be a handyman or a mechanic."

He once had a place in the square to hear fairy tales and do math. Ibrahim nodded toward an open space near the subway entrance.

"A charity put a tent up over there during the revolution. They tried to gather homeless kids to feed and educate. The police came and tore it down."

Ibrahim shook his head.

Flags rose. Revolutionaries marched again toward the barricades. Other boys, not homeless ones, but ones with parents, ones who just got out of school, ran farther behind the flags, carrying backpacks, their faces hidden behind surgical masks.

A man with a beard was making promises. Millions of promises blow through the square.

Ibrahim has heard them all.

He said he wants to be a doctor, but then settled for something closer to touch.

"I'd like a home and a very small shop," he said. "I want to have enough to get married and have kids and give them something better than this."

Ibrahim looked down at his pants. He knew they were too small, riding way above his ankles. They were the only pair he had. He lost his shoes a while ago. He sat like a cat, relaxed but ready to run. He touched the scar on his left cheek and remembered when he stayed out late one night and returned home to his angry father, who wanted to scare him but waved the knife too close.

"He didn't mean to do it," he said.

He goes back to his old neighborhood sometimes. He plays with his friends and sleeps in the street, and eventually drifts back to the square. It was loud in Tahrir. Some were calling it a second revolution. Others were busy working on a truce between protesters and police. Footsteps and voices echoed like thunder. Ibrahim wouldn't sleep that night. He rose toward his family of strangers.

"Everyone should have the right to call for his rights," he said. "Even me."

FULL COVERAGE: Unrest in Egypt

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Amro Hassan of The Times' Cairo bureau contributed to this report.

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