Dispatch

Two Cups of Tea

How I got detained in Cairo, and why the battle of Tahrir Square lives on.

CAIRO — I met two generals today.

Both were exceedingly polite, welcoming me to Egypt and stressing their concern for my safety. The first, the top Army general at a Defense Ministry office in Mohandiseen, a middle-class neighborhood in Giza, across the Nile River from Tahrir Square, offered me tea and cookies. He told me how he "liked America very much," where he attended training as a special forces officer "many times."

The second, a senior general at the sprawling military police headquarters way across town -- not far from the parade ground where Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 -- spoke fondly of his training in England. As seemingly staged "man-on-street" interviews played on state television, he insisted we have a friendly chat.

"It's one thing for people to demand their rights, OK," the first general said. "But not like this."

"The educated young people with Facebook and all that are one thing," the second general chimed in. "But the Muslim Brotherhood is another subject."

I asked them whether they thought the situation would end. "One or two days, maximum," the first general averred. "They will get tired -- sleeping in the dirt like that -- and go home."

And what about the police? He laughed. "They're on vacation. Their day off."

"The police are bad," the second general offered. The unspoken implication: but we, in the Army, are professionals.

I wasn't exactly their invited guest, however. Two hours earlier, I had been heading home to my hotel after a long day of reporting, when I was stopped at one of the hundreds of informal checkpoints that have sprung up across the city as the police have disappeared. The teenagers who stopped me in Mohandiseen were apologetic as they ejected me from my taxi and turned me over to the Army; it was just "normal procedure, yanni." I had foolishly stayed out past the 5 p.m. curfew, and orders were orders.

"What are you doing here?" one lower-level officer asked, after frisking me and confiscating my passport, driver's license, and camera phone -- but thankfully not my notes. "And where are you from?"

I told him I was a journalist who had arrived yesterday from Doha, Qatar, and wanted to see the situation with my own eyes.

"Min ad-Doha, eh?" Eyebrows rose at the mention of the home base of the Al Jazeera network, whose impassioned, daring reporting has put most other outlets here to shame. "Sit here."

As I waited on a shabbily padded bench behind the front desk of the Defense Ministry office in Mohandiseen, where the guard wearily watched BBC Arabic, whose reporting on the incredibly tense situation in Egypt has been widely praised, the officer took my belongings upstairs to his superiors.

I wasn't sure what would happen, given all the reports of journalists being harassed, brutally beaten, or detained for hours on end. But nearly every officer I met was polite, if firm, in warning me not to stay out past curfew.

Upstairs in Mohandiseen, where I met the first general, a 37-year veteran of Egypt's armed forces, there were more polite questions. What are you doing here? What's your opinion of the situation? (I told him I just wished the best for Egypt, and that I had studied Arabic a few years back at the American University in Cairo -- whose former campus faces Tahrir Square.) You came here from Doha? What are you doing there?

And then, with the tea finished: time to go. The general told me he would personally escort me back to my hotel, which I had been trying to reach before I was detained. He jumped in the back seat next to me, and we drove across an eerily quiet Cairo, bypassing the fouda -- chaos -- in Tahrir Square and heading suspiciously toward the airport. I thought I might be getting an early exit from the country, especially because I had been asked for my hotel and room number. Instead, we arrived at the military police headquarters where I met the second general -- more questions, more tea, another free ride back to my hotel ("for your safety").

They bid me farewell, and I piled into a silver four-door sedan with three MPs. We drove through deserted streets, passing through checkpoints set up by local legnaat shaabiyya -- popular or people's committees (the MPs didn't seem to have any better intelligence on the unfolding situation than I did). They briefly stopped at a downtown military police headquarters to consult with local officers about the safest path to the corniche.

As we drove, the young captain sitting next to me grinned as he told me of his training in the United States. "I love Maryland," he said. "I stayed at the Marriott and had seafood every night for two months. Oh, my God."

And then, three hours after my friendly visit with the army began, I was back at the hotel, where tired European journalists sat drinking Stella, the not-so-stellar local beer, and trading stories about the day. Five or six had also been detained for being out after curfew (though I don't think they enjoyed the experience quite as much as I did).

The Republic of Tahrir

Earlier in the day, around 12:30 p.m., I made it into Tahrir Square just in time for Friday prayers, pushing through the main Qasr el-Nil checkpoint as hundreds of Muslim men knelt on the garbage-strewn street, guided by a megaphone-wielding imam.

Inside the square, a bulging crowd of thousands was milling around. Near a makeshift hospital on the way to the Egyptian Museum, I found Alaa Abd el-Fattah, a well-known computer programmer-cum-activist whose father had just been arrested the day before in a raid on the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, a hub of efforts to document human rights abuses against protesters and provide legal aid to those arrested.

"We don't know why," Fattah said, before assuring me that the raid didn't matter in the grand scheme of things. "These activists do not lead this crowd. Tahrir is in control."

Nearby, various Islamist leaders, including Montasser al-Zayyat, who famously represented Ayman al-Zawahiri before the latter became al Qaeda's No. 2 man, held court.

Several hundred yards away, at the southern end of the square, various politicians congregated near the megaphone that serves as the most visible sign of the emerging attempts to channel the crowd's energy into a political program. Wael Nawara, the secretary-general of the liberal (and illegal) Ghad Party, told me that Egyptians "know how to take care of ourselves" after years of building a parallel state "in every field -- education, health care, everything."

"We can get organization within hours of chaos."

Behind him, a giant yellow banner outlined the protesters' demands, mainly: the resignation of the president, free and fair elections, a new constitution. What about Vice President Omar Suleiman, who claims to be offering dialogue?

"These people," Nawara said, "have stepped on the law and the Constitution. They have pissed on it in fact."

Suleiman's strategy seems to be to hold talks with the legal opposition -- a motley collection of hapless political parties that have virtually no representation or respect among the protesters in Tahrir Square. "It's more like a monologue than a dialogue," Nawara said.

"It's irrelevant to the main event," said Hisham Kassem, the dapper former publisher of independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm. "You have the regime trying to put out the message that they are open to dialogue.... It can't happen. Nobody can assume leadership, and there is nobody to negotiate with. There is only one way to defuse this: for Mubarak to leave."

"If they try to play tricks on us, we'll come back here," Nawara said. "If they want real dialogue, they know where to find us."

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Dispatch

Fortress Tahrir

After two brutal days, the epicenter of the Egyptian revolution has a battle-hardened feel.

CAIRO — Up until, Tuesday, Feb. 1, downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square was one of the happiest places in Egypt. Pro-democracy protesters, who have occupied the square since Jan. 28, were consistently positive, confident, and cooperative. Every day seemed to bring a new concession from a backpedaling government; the momentum, they felt, was clearly on their side.

A mass gathering planned for Friday, Feb. 4, was dubbed the "Day of Departure," and there were many in the crowd who genuinely thought this would be the day that President Hosni Mubarak would be hounded into early retirement. But then came a terrible and traumatic two days. On Wednesday -- a day on which many protesters admitted they had allowed themselves to relax a bit -- the square was suddenly besieged.

Seemingly harmless pro-Mubarak gatherings, which at first looked like no more than a sideshow for the cameras, abruptly coalesced into mass of armed men who violently attempted to overrun the square and very nearly succeeded. On Thursday, Mubarak supporters didn't attack quite so aggressively as the previous day, but they expanded their perimeter, establishing control of the two main bridges leading to Tahrir and openly barring people seeking to bring desperately needed food and medical supplies into the square. They also assaulted just about any journalist they could get their hands on.

By Thursday, Tahrir's "people power" vibe had a distinct aura of desperation and paranoia. It was a fitting three-day microcosm of the fast-moving Egyptian uprising that has been marked as much as anything by rapid, jarring shifts in tone. But even amid the genuine fear of being overrun by the pro-Mubarak thugs, there remained a defiant back-to-the-wall attitude. As one female protester told Al Jazeera on Thursday morning, "We know that if we leave now, they'll just hunt us down one by one."

I entered the Tahrir Square on Friday morning to find that it had been transformed. Formidable metal barricades walled off every one of the many roads leading into the square. The protesters had apparently cannibalized two construction sites in the area. Men patrolling the edges wore hard hats. An arsenal of rocks and concrete chunks lay in a pile, waiting to be thrown. On Qasr el-Nil Street, a few doors down from After Eight, one of Cairo's poshest and most popular nightspots, a medieval trebuchet had been assembled -- which, given the mounted cavalry charge the protesters had endured on Wednesday, seemed entirely fitting.

The protesters had received reinforcements as well. Despite the previous day's attempt to cut them off from the rest of the city, at least one entry point through downtown's Talaat Harb Street had remained in the hands of the Tahrir protesters, enabling fresh cadres, food, and medical supplies to enter. In just a partial reconnaissance of the square, I saw three different makeshift medical clinics, each stocked with fresh supplies.

The security procedures around the perimeter, which were already fairly robust, were turned up several notches as well. The thug squads controlling the bridges had melted away, allowing thousands more to flock in. But the security had become so rigid that it caused a serious bottleneck outside the Arab League headquarters at the mouth of the Qasr el-Nil Bridge.

I have never been searched so often, so thoroughly, or so politely. On Friday, Tahrir Square was more secure than most international airports. The buoyant mood had also returned. Once a person made it through the multiple redundant layers of ID checks and pat-downs, they were greeted by a clapping and cheering welcome line.

Internal security was being taken seriously as well. As I was walking around, one man poked his head out of a building overlooking the square and yelled, "I need anybody from security. There's somebody who just went upstairs and we don't know who he is." I watched as a young man picked up a length of iron rebar and entered the building to investigate. I didn't wait around to see whom he found.

Today's physical transformation of the square reflects a similar change in the mood and attitude of many of the protesters. This is a much harder bunch now. They have survived -- just barely by many accounts -- a harrowing experience and emerged battered but on their feet. There is a feeling that the regime had played one of its few remaining cards and failed. The people I spoke with were very aware that the previous two days of mayhem had backfired badly, causing a serious escalation in international criticism of Mubarak.

On Friday, the tide turned back toward the protesters. There is a growing sense that they are stronger, and the regime is weaker. The protesters believed that if they could just hold Tahrir until Friday, they would get another huge turnout of supporters. And they were right: Friday's crowds at least matched and possibly exceeded the largest gatherings of this 11-day uprising.

One final note about the mood in Tahrir on Friday: Nobody there is fooling themselves anymore that ousting Mubarak is going to be easy, quick, or clean. "I think we were definitely a little optimistic earlier this week," said longtime human rights activist Hossam Bahgat.

They know now that Mubarak and the security system he built over three decades are in this fight for the long haul. But today, at least, the protesters show every sign of being both willing and equipped to match his resolve in what could turn out to be a lengthy standoff.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images