Revolution From Below in Tahrir Square

February 4, 2011

Amidst the violence and turmoil, Egypt’s uprising is an inspiring example of bottom-up organizing and solidarity. As this excellent article from the Australian press suggests “Inside the barricades is “Free Egypt”, an area the size of perhaps 20 soccer pitches ringed by towering hotels, government offices.” This is the heart of “revolution” – a social experience in which market relations are subjugated beneath the needs of the struggle. With bravery, there is also mass generosity:

Tahrir Square is surrounded by baying throngs of Mubarak supporters. They bombard it with rocks and petrol bombs, and drop heavy objects from the apartment blocks…The square is full of men with bandaged heads and limbs, but they wear their wounds with pride. Scattered around it are half a dozen first-aid posts and a couple of makeshift clinics staffed by more than 200 doctors and nurses who have abandoned their normal jobs to come and help the cause.

…In the midday sun, hundreds of dirty, unshaven men lay on the ground on filthy blankets or sheets of cardboard, resting after the previous night’s battle, but the appearance of calm was misleading. This is an enclave on constant alert. There is a shift system for manning the barricades fashioned from burnt-out vehicles and uprooted railings. There are “armouries” of stones and iron bars stockpiled at every entrance.

…Unlike the chaotic city beyond the square, this is an orderly little world. Photocopied newsletters keep its inhabitants abreast of developments outside. The EgyptAir office has become the mobile telephone charging centre. Men queue for two hours to use the bathrooms in the Omar Makram mosque. None of the shops or apartments has been looted.

Donations of food, medicine and water arrive from across Egypt — more than the enclave can use. From a commandeered Hardees’ burger shop, volunteers distribute free meals. Mamdouh Hamza, 63, an eminent consulting engineer, said he had spent 200,000 Egyptian pounds ($33,500) on blankets, sandwiches and a public address system — “I’m willing to spend everything I have for this cause.”…Fatima Josef, 19, a well-off student, arrived with her sister and mother carrying half a dozen bags full of bread and cheese to distribute to the revolutionaries. “It’s our country. It’s our future. If the rich are not going to give this stuff, who is?” she asked.

Everyone has a part to play, however minor. Khadija Salem, 21, an unemployed graduate, cannot break up paving stones or build barricades, so she collects litter. “I’m doing my bit for my country,” she said proudly.

The ability to improvise life saving facilities is inspiring:

In a dark alley behind Cairo’s central square, a mosque has become a life-saving medical clinic...Drips hang from the stained pillars, and the pulpit – usually reserved for the imam – is covered with plastic sacks full of bandages, syringes, pill boxes and other medical equipment.

“I have had to resuscitate people many times,” said Saida, a volunteer nurse who gave only her first name. “We also had many fractures from people who had been beaten by sticks in the protest. We have very little equipment.”

…”Between three and seven in the afternoon [on Wednesday] I received nearly 300 wounded,” said Suzanne Ezmat, a clinic volunteer. “There were skull fractures, arms, legs broken…”They plastered broken limbs here on the spot,” she said, pointing to the dirt. “They used cardboard, and wood sticks to make splints…”I am usually an Egyptology tour guide,” she said. “But here I can be of use; I give injections, bandage and stitch open wounds.”

…The relationship between the clinic and the surrounding government hospitals is beset with problems. There are reports that the hospitals have government orders not to co-operate with the clinic. “The government hospitals are not allowed to help us. But paramedics have been sneaking medical supplies to us,” Dr Bahaa said.

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