THE BLOG

Tahrir: A Square of Innovation

It is mid-July and day 12 of renewed protests in Cairo. As we make our way to the epicenter of the sprawling mini-city that has become Tahrir, the collective feeling of anticipation is palpable. To find our friend Aly, we navigate past vendors of Revolution memorabilia and through clouds of smoke billowing up from barbequed corn in a square that has housed this popular sit-in for nearly two weeks. Through a corridor of colorful tents bearing signs calling for an end to military trials for civilians, then left past a makeshift barbershop offering the usual list of services, we eventually find our friend sitting on the ground with fellow activists discussing the news of the day. It's a long way from where we met just a few months back in Cambridge, MA, and we barely recognize him. Spending sleepless nights in a restless square apparently changes the look of a person.

We are introduced one-by-one to Aly's friends, of the famous Shabab Al-Thawra, or Youth of the Revolution, that have sustained an energetic resistance against Al-Nizam Al-Adeem, or Old Order, from the very first days of the January 25th Revolution in Egypt. We learn that the main concern of the Shabab this evening is on protecting the square from elements of the counter-revolution. There are rumblings that old tactics are being used to cause rifts between people, such as paying individuals paltry sums to spy on protestors. Beyond strategizing about how to keep security, the Shabab are working to unify a myriad of political messages to add pressure on the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF.

As we look around, we notice how much Tahrir itself has changed over the past 10 days. The latest calls for a popular sit-in to protest lack of transparency and progress by the interim military government have led thousands back to the square. But this time, it feels a little more permanent. In just the past week, a cinema has sprung up with daily screenings at 10:30pm of films that highlight the values of the revolution. A library has been formed with donations made by local bookstores, and a small school has developed to teach the children who have temporarily made Tahrir their new home how to read and write. In the span of a few weeks, Tahrir had transcended its identity as an intersection for civil disobedience; it had become a sprawling cultural center in a New Egypt. Each night, it seems, Tahrir takes on an additional dimension, absorbing innovations to reflect the dynamism of Egyptians that have arrived here from near and far.

With late night in full swing, we decide to keep ourselves awake by circling the square, taking in the constant activity. "It's almost 3ayb, or a personal shame, to sleep in this country," we muse out loud, as we watch Egyptians of all ages buzz around as if it's midday rather than 3am, as if sleep is an optional undertaking for normal human functioning. We strike up conversations here and there and finally resettle with a group from Mounifiya, a governorate near Cairo in the Nile Delta. We want to learn more about why one of the women, Um Ali, has come here with her sister and their kids to sit in with the protesters.

Um Ali explains that she is a nurse living a simple life with her family -- never engaged in politics and never read the newspapers before January. But when the revolution started to take shape, she began listening to political debates and agreed with the youth in their calls for justice, equity and accountability from the corruption of the past regime. She has been bringing her children to the square regularly over the past months so they can experience this historic moment and be a part of the change. On this night, she is so taken by the atmosphere that she finds it hard to leave. She decides she will go straight from Tahrir to her work in the morning -- "We spent years sleeping," she profoundly declares, "It's time to wake up."

One of Um Ali's friends, a young man by the name of Alaa, tells us about a business he has recently started recycling plastics that are left as garbage in their neighborhood. "I started thinking, I want to do something that provides income for other people as well," he goes on, "So I began teaching others how to recycle too, and how to start their own businesses by turning these small things into profit. It's important that we uplift ourselves," Alaa tells us.

As the hours go by, our new circle of friends grows larger, and although the conversation veers back to politics, we continue to be captivated by the entrepreneurial spirit on full display in the square. While the media has focused largely on political unrest in the country, and a wariness about this revolutionary experiment has indeed grown deeper, it is also clear that a parallel story is unfolding -- a story of hopefulness, a story of greater civic engagement, a story of individuals who insist on building a stronger economy with their own ideas and efforts.

Over 7 months have passed since the January 25th Revolution began in Egypt, but Tahrir Square remains a leading indicator of change in the country. This pubic square has become more than a physical space for citizens to voice their concerns and demand their rights. It has become a center for creativity and innovation that will serve as a strong foundation for a thriving New Egypt.

Mona Mowafi and Nadine Farag are Egyptian-Americans currently working on a new project to promote social entrepreneurship in Egypt. They recently returned from a one-month trip to Cairo.

Mona can be reached at mmowafi@post.harvard.edu. Nadine can be reached at nadine.farag@post.harvard.edu.