CAIRO -- It was the first day of Ramadan and as afternoon prayers ended, men and women spilled out of mosques into the scorching downtown heat. I was relieved to sit with others also fasting inside a tent in Tahrir Square—the symbolic center of the Revolution that for the past three weeks had become a campground for Egyptians occupying it in protest.
Little did I know that a few minutes later, the center would once again be a battleground.
"Do you really think the army will come into Tahrir during Ramadan?" I asked a 21-year-old student named Sara, regarding the rumors I had heard. I had noticed that when she was nervous, she would run her fingers over the pins in her hijab. She did that before replying, "Yes."
"They shot at us when we prayed. They don't care," she said, referring to the uprisings beginning January 25 that in 18 days delivered the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.
A fan powered by a generator blew warm air. Three men napped nearby. Another read from the Qur’an. That afternoon, August 1, the square was the emptiest I'd seen it since people started camping there July 8, after a court ordered the release on bail of 10 police charged with killing 17 and injuring more than 350.
That day, thousands had gathered in Tahrir to voice key demands including: Trials for Mubarak, his sons, police and officials responsible for the killing of more 850 during the Revolution; justice for the martyrs and compensation for their families; an end to military trials for civilians; limits on the power of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and restructuring of the Interior Ministry; minimum wages for workers; a new constitution and swifter movement toward elections; and a treason law to punish the corrupt officials of the Mubarak era.
That evening, hundreds of people and around 26 political parties pitched tents in the square, which soon grew to have an almost festival feel, with vendors selling corn on the cob and Egyptian sweets, flags and "I Love Egypt" shirts; and stages with music and political speakers. An Egyptian friend remarked upon seeing tourists in the square, "Tahrir is the new pyramids."
Entrances to the square were blocked by barricades manned by young men and women who asked for I.D. and checked bags and bodies day and night. It was this community security that, according to Twitter reports, sometimes apprehended men who were suspected of being paid to wreak havoc in the square, a tactic left over from the Mubarak regime. Photos of their confiscated police badges were later circulated by activists on blogs and Twitter.
The air of paranoia was stoked by reports on Egyptian channels of foreign spies, agents and provocateurs or the threat of armed “thugs.” A friend and I were almost denied entry once because of our U.S. passports. Being called a spy in the square was an insult that could lead to a shouting match, fight, or mob attack. Having a camera often made you a target.
As August approached, the propaganda war against those participating in the Tahrir sit-ins reached even a few of my most revolutionary-minded friends, who were frustrated with the stalemate in economic and political progress that they felt the occupation of the square perpetuated.
"We should stop demanding shit and start rebuilding the nation and working," a friend wrote on my Facebook page. "Demonstrations are only there if demands are being slept on, but we need to wait and see first and while we wait we need to work instead of standing in Tahrir and waiting for hand-outs. THIS COUNTRY NEEDS WORK AT THE MOMENT!!!"
On July 31, SCAF announced it would pay the families of martyrs LE30,000, or about $5,100, and the 26 political parties and protest movements said in a joint statement that they were suspending the sit-in until after Ramadan. Walking through Tahrir that night, I saw that blocks of tents had been removed. But some families of martyrs and supporters remained, sipping sweet tea and talking politics.
The following afternoon, the military police and SCAF riot police surrounded Tahrir— just as I spoke to Sara in the tent about her hopes for Egypt's future, for a television project.
It happened suddenly. We heard whistles and an alarm sound. "They're coming!" Sara gasped.
We rushed out of the tent. Boys and men ran past us, carrying wooden sticks they banged on the ground and on light poles while shouting slogans. Teenage boys stacked piles of broken concrete in preparation to throw. A sea of black riot police was marching toward us. I looked up the main street that leads to my apartment, Qasr el-Aini. It was blocked by a formation of soldiers. I looked down the other visible street leading out of the Square and saw soldiers. We were surrounded.
We ran away from the tent area just before two tanks rolled past. Shots were fired into the air. A small crowd of men stood their ground as soldiers moved toward them, and I was grabbed by the arm and carried with a sea of people underground into the metro station. A few minutes later, two men rushed past us carrying an injured man. People were reportedly beaten; those with cameras were targeted. I filmed police using batons to smash any equipment or belongings that remained intact. At least 100 people were arrested.
Within an hour, the campgrounds had been turned into a mess of torn tarps, broken fans and chairs, abandoned clothes and shoes, and spilled food. Most of the people had scattered, though a few hundred remained around the Square, some trying to salvage belongings. Once video of the forced removal hit YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, debates began online and in the streets. Some were happy to see the protestors go. Some were maddened. Others were torn.
“I wish they had left and threatened to come back if they didn’t get what they wanted, so that we didn’t have to see them lose to the army,” one man told me. “Now it’s 1-0.”
Traffic continued to flow through Tahrir, which remained guarded by the army, police and tanks and armored trucks on Wednesday, the first day of trials for Mubarak and his sons. Small crowds gathered around shops with televisions to catch a glimpse of the former president lying in a hospital bed behind fencing in court. Many laughed when he was seen picking his nose. Some scoffed at his condition, saying it was an act.
Military police encircled the center of Tahrir in anticipation of public reaction. Mubarak and his sons pleaded not guilty to murder charges. But the streets remained quiet as the first day of the trial ended. Police and troops rested in the shade. I caught up with Sara and her friends at a cafe near Tahrir.
A 15-year-old boy named Sief shuffled alongside us in a pair of men's plastic house slippers. His belongings had been lost during the tent removal. His friend laughed as he tripped trying to walk.
Sara was saddened by the removal of the Tahrir tents, but was glad to see Mubarak in court. Her overall sentiment is echoed by many Egyptians I talk to, no matter how they feel about the sit-in.
"It is a hard Ramadan this year," she said. "But I hope to see a free Egypt."
Shadi Rahimi is an independent journalist traveling in Egypt.