Tens of thousands of protesters crowded into Tahrir Square Friday afternoon calling, for the seventh consecutive day, on Egypt’s military leadership to relinquish all power. For most of those days, hundreds of protesters fought running battles with riot police defending the country’s infamous Interior Ministry.
This is the picture of Egypt being watched worldwide: A popular uprising that already led to the ouster of one ruler and threatens another, a struggle between secular liberals and the country’s leading Islamists and a state of anarchy that has led to at least 40 deaths and put next week’s election in doubt.
But there is another Egypt that starts just 10 minutes away from the square, where worrying about politics is a luxury most people can't afford, and where security matters most to their tenuous grip on life.
Two or three kilometres south of Tahrir, across the flyover that passes above the railway tracks, you come upon crumbling brick buildings with livestock grazing in dusty spaces between structures. Washing hangs from second-floor windows attesting to life inside the unstable, dilapidated structures.
This is the Sayeda Zeinab neighbourhood of Cairo, an old section of town, and some of it is unspeakably poor, making even the Gaza Strip look prosperous in comparison. People’s needs and desires here are basic.
Amal Saad Mohammed, 18, is engaged to be married – her pleading brown eyes hint at her longing to get away, but her family is too poor to afford a wedding.
Her father, Farouk Saad Mohammed, 64, makes about $2 a day working at a falafel stand near Tahrir Square. Standing barefoot at the entrance to the family’s rooms, he describes how he has lived there for 63 years. His home and others all around it do not have running water.
He has no sympathy for the protesters in Tahrir Square. “They are not patriots,” he says. “They take money to carry out their violence, from people who want the country to fall apart.”
This is something neither he nor his sons would ever do, he says, even if they do need money.
On the street nearest the Mohammed home, music blares from six large speakers set up around a small mattress-making business. Mohammed and Hassan Hanafi prepare a bridal bed stuffed with cotton, under the watchful eye of the mother-of-the-bride, Nadia Zenhom. It’s a festive moment – all the family really cares about these days.
“Tahrir Square is causing instability,” Mrs. Zenhom says. “People need jobs, not this kind of trouble.”
She adds that her family loves Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt’s acting chief executive, and the primary target of the Tahrir protesters.
“I’m not as well-educated as the people in the square,” acknowledges Mohammed Hanafi, covered in bits of cotton as he feeds bundles of it into a kind of rotor that fluffs up the packed fibres. “They must know what they are doing.”
“But I believe that elections can bring us stability,” he adds, using the same word so many employ to describe what the country is lacking. “With stability we can finally get back to normal,” he concludes. “That’s what I want.”
Whom will he vote for if elections proceed Monday? He motions to a poster on the wall depicting an independent candidate that used to belong to the former ruling party.
Hassan Hanafi, who is busy sewing up the end of an unimaginably soft mattress, says “the army is the only thing protecting Egyptians right now. Tantawi has to stay in charge,” he insists.
That’s exactly what Major-General Mukhtar el-Mallah, a member of the military council, declared Thursday at a news conference: “We will not relinquish power because of a slogan-chanting crowd,” he told reporters. “Egypt is not Tahrir Square.”
Not everyone in the Sayeda Zeinab neighbourhood is opposed to the Tahrir uprising. Saed Mohammed abdel Rahman, 55, sips tea as he supervises the rebuilding of a holding pen for animals destined for his brother's butcher shop next door.
Mr. Abdel Rahman is upset at the violence the police used against protesters. “Tantawi is covering up,” he says, “just as Mubarak did.”
“Mubarak’s police put people in jail who did nothing,” including a relative of his on whom drugs were planted, he insists “He spent seven years in prison. For nothing.”
Interestingly, people throughout the neighbourhood say they long for the days under Anwar Sadat, the president who was assassinated in 1981, and those under Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ruled in the 1950s and’60s.
Neither of those leaders would have tolerated today’s protests. The difference, observers say, is not so much in the leaders, such as Hosni Mubarak or Field Marshal Tantawi, but in the media coverage that allows millions to watch heavy-handed police tactics almost instantly.
It’s made many Egyptians very suspicious of journalists, viewing them as bad for the country.
In the deepest recesses of the crumbling neighbourhood of Sayeda Zeinab, there is a clear impression that no one has ever asked the people here what they think. Certainly no politician has ever visited them, the people say; not even with an election in a few days.
Wary neighbours call out to people not to talk to the journalist, or not to tell him anything bad about Egypt.
Who are people voting for? What are the things that concern them? The majority of these uneducated people say that they don’t know, say that they’re confused. Life was simpler when no one asked them such questions, when they didn’t have to make such choices as who to vote for.
While the Tahrir revolutionaries are relishing the power they wield over political leaders, life for most Egyptians has gotten worse since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. All of which feeds a growing paranoia.
Tahrir Square, itself, is not immune from that. Protesters are increasingly wary of foreign journalists, believing many are Israeli or U.S. spies. With their sense of empowerment coupled with their suspicions, there have been several reports of protesters groping and sexually assaulting a number of foreign female journalists.
It’s as if the anarchic situation has broken down Egyptians’ former decency.
And those outside Tahrir – not just the 50 per cent of Egyptians who live in poverty but others such as the 15 per cent who are fearful Christians – resent those who are calling for the immediate surrender of the country’s military leadership. Indeed, for every protester in Tahrir Square, there are hundreds of Egyptians who don’t agree with the path the protesters have chosen.
“What right do these few thousand protesters have to force their will on the 24 to 25 million people who plan to vote?” asks Hisham Kassem, the founding publisher of Egypt's only independent newspaper, Al Masry al Youm.
“I fought the Ministry of the Interior for 20 years,” says Mr. Kassem, who also served as chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, “and there’s only one way to fix it, over time, through democratic principles – not by throwing firebombs at it.”