Reporter's Notebook: The New Tahrir Square

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Cairo is infamous for its traffic, and it's been made worse these days with one of the city's main intersections, Tahrir Square, shut down -- not for road works, but rather because thousands of protesters have taken it over. Marching, chanting, even sleeping here to protest inaction by the country's military rulers that took over when President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February.

Tahrir -- or Liberation -- Square, has become synonymous with Egypt's 18-day uprising earlier this year. As you approach it these days, large suspended white sheets are visible in the distance, covering what used to be a round patch of grass in the middle of the intersection.

At the entrances to the square, those entering are met with basic barricades of steel bars and barbed wire. Egyptians have to show national ID cards to self-appointed security teams to ensure they're not police (there aren't police anywhere in sight).

Foreigners have to show whatever identification they have and everyone gets a pat-down. ("Sorry," a smiling guard apologized after I was patted down twice.)

Anyone entering the square expecting to be met immediately by angry demonstrators would be surprised. At first, it has the air of a street fair with face painters, drink vendors, popcorn carts and souvenir stands.

"Maya, maya," shout kids who look like they haven't bathed in days as they thrust bottles of water at you, not taking no for an answer.

People mill about streets strewn with garbage, others try to find some shade from the sun that one protester called "merciless."

This is the newest incarnation of Tahrir. Not the Tahrir of the throbbing January masses, not the Tahrir with flowing traffic after Mubarak stepped down, but a Tahrir that is now home to protesters who say the revolution is still very much under way and they won't leave until their demands are met.

The most fervent among them have pitched tents in the center and around the edges, they've been sleeping here for more than a week. Some are crude canvas jobs, others more adequate nylon camping tents. But in heat that averages around 100 degrees during the day, nothing is comfortable. Fans whir, plugged into generators that also fuel the power strips that charge the cell phones and PDAs so central to this uprising.

So is this a second revolution?

"It's fair to call this a continuation of the first one," says Mahmoud Salem, a blogger better known by his online handle, Sandmonkey. "We decided to give the military a chance, and the transitional government, a chance to do something. After five months nothing is happening."

Salem is sitting on a blue cooler in his tent, a stuffed monkey hanging from the ceiling, a fan buzzing at his feet. A thin mat is on the ground, sleeping bag stuffed in the corner.

"This is not what we wanted, this is not what the revolution was supposed to be," he says.

Their list of demands is long and -- as with any group as large and diverse as this one -- varied. But at the core of their complaints is the lack of trials and punishment for officials and policemen involved in the killings of more than 800 protesters in January and February, especially Mubarak. Minimum wage, the emergency law and military trials for civilians come up regularly.

There are 73 political coalitions on the square, according to Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram. And as a spokesman for the April 6 Youth movement said at a press conference last week, "No one political group can call the sit-in off."

Ringing the square's center are a number of stages. On Friday, during a million-man march that didn't materialize, a band played on one stage while on two others speakers passed microphones around, leading the crowds below in chants.

As has been the case since the beginning, the gatherings are a mix of young and old, men and women, religious and secular. Families with small children sit next to university students in circles having political discussions that can get heated.

What is clear is that those on the square see this place as their key to change, that nothing will happen if the authorities -- and the world -- don't see the masses out here.

"This is the place of the people's will, this is the place people get strength and power," said Mohammed Hamdi, a 23-year-old who works in customer service for an American company.

The optimism that followed Mubarak's fall can still be felt but it is paired with anger that the revolution, their revolution, isn't turning out the way they'd hoped. And many off of Tahrir have long since tired of these protesters and their myriad complaints. Not to mention the consequences of closing off one of Cairo's main thoroughfares.

But already the Tahrir protesters are looking ahead to August when Ramadan starts, a month of fasting made all the harder because of the stifling heat.

"We're trying to do this as peacefully as we can and this is a last desperate attempt," says Salem, aka Sandmonkey. "If this fails, I'm just going to break down my tent and go home and wait for violence everywhere to erupt."

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