Egyptian protests: How to collect trash, set up bathrooms and charge cell phones in the middle of a revolution.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Feb. 5 2011 5:50 PM

Revolutionary Logistics

Where do the thousands of people gathered in Tahrir Square go to the bathroom?

Read more of Slate's coverage of the Egyptian protests.

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"This is the main problem," Amr told me, and then explained the men have three choices: the metro station (i.e. the submerged sidewalk going to the underground which has been shuttered for over a week), and the bathrooms of two mosques. If you're a woman, there's only one option: the women's section of the square's major mosque. That's also where many women, especially those with children, sleep.

As we entered the mosque, I got a gentle pat down and a soft apology for the inconvenience. Inside, women sit and chat in the dim light. The cool green tiles of the bathroom are a far cry from the open sewer just 10 feet away from the entrance. There are only two working stalls, but they are immaculate.

Outside the mosque is more mass organization in action. As I left the women's section from the back, a cry rang out from the men's entrance. "Army! Army!" someone screamed to get the nearby soldier's attention.

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A man was being dragged from inside the mosque. Other men surrounded him, one keeping a hand over the man's mouth. He didn't struggle. An informant, possibly plain clothed police—but the jig was up.

The men took him to nearby army officers and released him into their custody. Who knows what they'll do to him. Maybe they will keep him, but it's just as possible that they're under orders to release him back on the street. No one on the square really understands what the army is doing. The important is that they're still here, and that they haven't fired on the protesters.

There are other things too. In order to tweet a revolution, you have to charge your phone. Your family also wants to know you're OK. This morning someone jerry rigged a street lamp in the square. The lamp now provides electric charge to two power strips. On the ground next to them are too many cell phones to count. The man running the cell phone station doesn't know who set it up—his job is keeping track of the phones people are keen to recharge.

Azza Shaaban, a filmmaker, has been living on the square—in a tent or on the ground, depending on the night. It's loud and you don't get much rest, she said. "Of course, it's not like sleeping in your house. It's not like camping," she said, chiding me for asking. "We're doing something important. Revolution has a price, not just sleeping on the ground, they've been shooting at us." She eyed me indignantly.

People trawl the square selling blankets, food, cigarettes, phone credit charge cards, tea—you name it. The city within a city has its own garbage collectors. Most people say when they're not sleeping or volunteering, they're talking about politics. Doctors, farmers, unemployed men, activists—they all say they are talking about revolution and what comes next.

"Revolution doesn't happen everyday—most people are talking about that," said an activist named Gigi Ibrahim. "Maybe I'm tired, but I'm not bored. … Obviously some people will lose steam, that's a reality. But I know a lot won't."

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Sarah A. Topol is a journalist based in Cairo. She has reported from Yemen, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, and the New Republic, among others.

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