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.

Tahrir Square. Click image to expand.
Anti-government demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square 

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.

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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?

"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.

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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