Cairo is a very unhappy place these days. While Tunisia and Libya are pretending to be optimistic and appointing new governments and Yemen is finally getting rid of the flip-flopping President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Egypt demonstrators have returned to Tahrir Square to fight for democracy – a "democracy" that has waited so long it has grown old.
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During my current visit to Egypt I did not see the enthusiasm and unity that characterized the wintertime "spring" of the Mubarak revolution. The Tantawi revolution (current efforts to remove Field Marshall Mohamed Tantawi from power) looks different, wintery. No one is talking about "spring" in Egypt anymore. Not even in jest. This time around, Egypt is divided, disappointed, not expecting anything, scared, violent, opportunistic and in terrible pain.
In today's Egypt, the khaki uniforms of the army that were so highly revered during that 18-day revolution back in January-February have been replaced by beards. Lots of beards. Muslim Brotherhood beards but also many Salafist beards. Beards that have joined forces to ensure that not only deposed President Hosni Mubarak is gone, but that any memory of his legacy is gone too. Beards that promise that everything will be alright only because "Allahu akbar" (God is great).
Tahrir Square, the symbol of the original uprising, is no longer the home of the revolution. Thousands still rush to the square, perhaps the most famous square in the world today, to protest in the afternoons, but the second, more combative, revolution has a battlefront and a homefront. Tahrir Square has become the homefront, where you would bring your kids, but the battlefront is now on Mohammed Mahmoud Street, the street that leads from the square to the Interior Ministry. That is where protesters and police officers violently clash, where the battle is waged. That is where people are wounded and killed.
An Egyptian network has placed cameras on Mohammed Mahmoud Street and is broadcasting from there around the clock. The images only serve to spur the protesters, which in turn incite the police. The only one keeping silent in Egypt these days is the Sphinx.
"Show me your passport," says Gamal, a young father and veteran of the Tahrir revolution, when I try to enter the square shortly after arriving in Cairo on Monday. "What for?" I ask. "We don't want Israeli reporters," he says. When I ask why, he replies, "Israel is helping the army."
Lila, a pharmacology student, joins in, saying, "Israel is no friend of the Egyptian people. They support the army that is shooting at us. What can you expect from a country that kills our soldiers?"
"Israel is killing us"
"Wait, I want someone to show you our accomplishments," Gamal tells me. "We've conquered a kilometer and half. I want you to see what these dogs are doing." The dogs, for anyone who does not yet know, are the police who shoot to kill without hesitating – just like nine months ago – or so the masses believe. There is only one difference: These days the killing is orchestrated by the army and not Mubarak. "Look at how they are settling old scores from back then," Gamal says. "But we're not afraid to die. What have we got to lose?"
Osama, an engineering student, insists on accompanying me to Mohammed Mahmoud Street. I do not have much choice and it is hard to turn him down. I do not really know what I am getting myself into. Even from several yards away one can see that this is where everything is happening. A cloud of tear gas hovers over the street. "Buy a gas mask," Osama says to me, but I make do with the surgical masks being handed out free to protesters. I see how the young protesters, some of them no more than 12 years old, are provoking the police. I see them charging in waves. Then a fleet of motorcycles evacuates the wounded to a field hospital nearby. There's lots of noise. Chaos dominates.
It is apparent, however, that not all the protesters are flying by the seat of their pants. Some protesters are organized: the bearded ones. And they come in groups. The women, covered in black from head to toe, also take part in the demonstration. Normally you would not be allowed to photograph religious Muslim women, but these days they do not run away from the cameras. On the contrary, they seek them out to show the soldiers' bullet casings. "Look," one young protester tells me while displaying bullet casings. "These bullets are from America, Israel and Italy."
It is sad to witness what is going on in Egypt these days. The country is no longer unified – youngsters, military and Muslim Brotherhood. Today the division is clear: The army is in the palace, the "brothers" are in the square and the shabab (youth) are at the front, on Mohammed Mahmoud Street.
I walked around the square taking pictures, of course. One person dressed as a civilian asked me who I was taking pictures for. My escort had to convince him that I was "clean." "What did he say?" I ask my friend Gamal. "He thought you were a spy coming to agitate the masses."
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