Read more of Slate's coverage of the Egyptian protests.
On top of a decrepit building at the front line of the continued battle for control of Cairo's central square, anti-regime protesters in hardhats swapped shifts this morning after another night of peaceful demonstrations against the rule of President Hosni Mubarak. The roof's high vantage point has turned into a lookout post into "enemy lines." From here, demonstrators keep watch, spying for the armed thugs that laid siege on the square earlier this week.
We are overlooking the no-man's land that is the street below, where for the last few days Mubarak supporters and protesters against the regime have hurled stones and worse at one another. "You can see everything from here, everything far away, any attack," says Abdel Rahman Gamil, an Islamic law student who has been helping keep watch. "If it comes, we whistle and inform people in the square so they can come here to back us up."
The protesters are well organized: To get here, my ID has been checked twice—once coming into the apartment block and again to get onto the roof. And the organization extends to more mundane aspects of daily life, such as bathrooms, cell phone chargers, and drinks. In a surreal moment of normalcy, I find myself accepting sweet black tea from Abdel, served in a small white plastic cup. Nothing in Egypt is complete without tea. Someone has jerry-rigged the building's electricity, and the lookout encampment has its own electric kettle.
On Day 12 of continued upheaval in Egypt, the protesters are worried the army is removing its makeshift barricades. There are four lines of defense to enter the square from the "hot zone" where most of the clashes with pro-Mubarak forces have taken place.
Onlookers say they've stopped the army from dismantling the metal barricades. It's rumored the army might retreat today, so groups of men and women squat on blankets in front of the tanks.
Beyond the square, there are worries as well. Mubarak is still in office, and though the papers have reports of negotiations to remove him from office, that's not enough to clear the square. Egypt's spontaneous protest has turned into a sustained public mobilization. The main square here has become its own city.
And as it turns out, it's hard work trying to change your government by taking over the capital's main intersection; there are all kinds of logistical things to worry about. The strange thing is, it looks like they have all been solved. The center and sides of the square today look like a shantytown more than a protest. Sheets and blankets have been rigged up into makeshift tents. It's freezing here at night.
A few nights ago, at almost 4 a.m., I watched men run circles around the square. "They are very strong and high in spirit," Amr, a software engineer, told me. A young man overhearing our conversation interrupted. "It's not about spirit or anything," he said. "It's about cold." He would know—he was one of the runners.
The software engineer, Amr, has been sleeping on the ground. His wife Reem, a project manager, takes shelter from the cold in the square's main mosque. There's a section for women there. I ask if they ever tire of protesting. It's an unpopular question—all anyone wants to talk about is his or her resolve—but I suspect there's only so much chanting you can do.
"When I get bored," Reem said, "I think about all the battles the last few days … then I think I have to stay." But there are also other stranger questions as well. Such as: Where do thousands of people pee?