Protests in Tahrir Square take on an everyday feel

CAIRO -- Emad Mohammed’s morning commute these days is a 5-mile trudge through the streets, at dawn.

The soft-spoken 35-year-old accountant dodges roving bands of armed regime supporters, who would beat him or worse if they knew where he was headed.

Then he walks across the Kasr-al-Nil bridge, a main artery into central Cairo, as pale morning mist rises from the broad green river. Steps past a line of weary young army conscripts squinting in the morning sun. Stops in front of rolls of barbed wire to dig out his identity card so he can pass into Tahrir Square.

Easy, he says. I’ll do it every day forever, if I have to.

Of course, he and tens of thousands of others of protesters are hoping that forever is at hand. They have dubbed this “gomat el-raheel” -- the “Friday of Departure.” On this day, they want President Hosni Mubarak gone.

That didn’t happen, though pressure for the Egyptian leader to step down intensified.

In the meantime, the daily trek to the square -- its name, Tahrir, means Liberation -- has taken on an almost matter-of-fact, workaday feel.

Momentous events unfolding? Yes, of course, people say as they stride hurriedly across the bridge. But right now, I’m just getting myself where I need to be.

Salma Ayman, with a mop of curly graying hair tied back from her face, has a very particular job in mind on this morning. She has gathered up dozens of juice boxes from her own kitchen and is headed to the square to deliver them to the protesters. It’s going to be a hot day. People will be thirsty.

“Everyone has to do what they can,” she said.

In cool winter evenings, the Kasr al-Nil bridge -- a majestic 1930s-era span with sweeping views up and down the Nile -- is popular with Cairenes out for an evening stroll, a favored venue for an inexpensive date. In normal days, tourists sometimes posed by the giant lion statues flanking the bridge. Now the stone just beneath them is daubed with graffiti: “Mubarak -- Game Over.”

The crowd of bridge-crossers thickens, and Ahmed Samir, a dapper engineer, keeps an eye on his family: his daughter, his mother and a cousin, all on their way to the square. “We have a comfortable life, you know,” he says. “But comfort is not what matters.”

As for Kameer Ihsan, he has a new workplace wardrobe: a white, hard-plastic construction hard hat he will wear in the square.

“Rocks, they will bounce off,” he says, tapping it. “Bullets, maybe not. God will have to protect me.”

As protesters continued streaming into Tahrir Square throughout the morning, men laid down measuring tape and drew chalk lines to prepare the lines for Friday prayers. About 1 p.m. they prayed the afternoon and late afternoon prayers together; something permissible in the time of war, many protesters reasoned.

On the ground along one wall, someone had laid out each section of that day’s newspaper, weighing down at the corners with a rock. Men and women who had been in the square overnight crowded around it to read the news they helped make.

Much of the protesting lacked a loud, clear voice that everyone could follow.

As crowds of men and women moved around the square, pockets of different chants rose up, the protesters seemingly unable to agree on one message.

A woman in a black abaya suddenly yelled out in a high-pitched voice from behind a black veil, “Say no, say no, the president needs a shove.”

But her attempt at getting a unifying chant started was thwarted by its inability to catch on, and her husband hushing her.

“They need to all chant in one voice,” said Fatma Anwar, a high school Arabic teacher from Oubour, a city three hours drive from the square.

But if not in chants, she hoped the Egyptian people were united in message.

“Despite the factions that we have, they are united on one word: the fall of a dictator,” the mother of two said. “They all hate him and call for his fall.”

Her 21-year-old son had been sleeping in the square since Jan. 27. She had wanted to stay too, but had to go home for her husband and other son.

On Friday, though, she vowed to stay in Tahrir Square until Mubarak resigned.

As more Egyptians poured into the square in the afternoon, crowds formed alongside both sides of the road that leads from the Nile River to welcome them.

“Freedom, freedom,” they chanted in something that resembled parade meets “Soul Train.” “Them, them, them, the Egyptians are them.”

Behind them, an impromptu checkpoint sprang up as men and a few women formed a line frisking newcomers and checking IDs and bags.

Egyptians pointed to the informal security as a sign of how, when left to their own, Egyptians can get organized quickly. But when speaking about the slights against them, the protesters often yelled over each other trying to make their point, as if years of grievances were trying to get out in a matter of minutes.