Last updated: 14 July, 2011

Egypt protesters feel the heat in push for reform

It’s hot, noisy and uncomfortable. Nonetheless, protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square insist on pursuing their sit-in to demand change, despite warnings and concessions from the ruling army.

A “tent city” covers the roundabout in the heart of the bustling Egyptian capital and provides relief from the scorching sun and temperatures of up to 40 degrees celsius.

Activists have been camping out in Tahrir — the focus of protests that toppled president Hosni Mubarak in February — since mass nationwide rallies on Friday against the slow pace of reform.

Protesters who first took to the streets to demand Mubarak’s resignation have increasingly directed their anger at the ruling military council headed by Mubarak’s long-time defence minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.

They accuse the army of maintaining an absolute grip on power that blocks the democratic path and failing to meet the revolution’s demands, which include an end to military trials and the speedy and open trial of former regime officials found guilty of abuse.

Mohammed al-Taher, a 70-year-old engineer, seeks refuge under a small tree.

“I don’t want any money, I have air-conditioning in my apartment but I prefer to be here because this is Egypt,” said Taher camping in the square with his wife and two children.

Street vendors snake through the crowds, selling everything from cold drinks and Egyptian flags to pictures of the “martyrs of the revolution” and caricatures of Mubarak.

A tangle of wires sprouts from lamp posts, providing the electricity to recharge mobile phones and lap tops — indispensable for the online activists who tweet the progress of the protests.

“The council should not run the country, the prime minister is not in control,” said Mohammed Wagih, the rug he sleeps on rolled up under his arm.

“We are not stupid, we know they want us to go home,” said the 26-year-old, after a stern warning from the military council against all those deemed to be harming the national interest.

The warning was perceived as a threat and the protesters say it has only strenghthened their resolve to continue.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces sought to placate the protesters by announcing the sacking of hundreds of police officers and a delay in holding parliamentary elections originally set for September.

A debate on whether to delay the elections had been under way for months, with some calling for them to be postponed to give new groups more time to organise.

Anger over routine police torture was a driving force behind the January 25 uprising, during which clashes with security forces and Mubarak loyalists left people 846 dead and more than 6,000 injured.

Shaking his dice over a backgammon board, Ahmed Khoziem said he was “ready to stay in Tahrir a year if need be.”

The military has been accused of using Mubarak-era tactics to stifle dissent.

The people’s frustration was loud and clear on Tuesday when hundreds chanted for the downfall of the military chief across Egypt’s main cities of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez.

The armed forces, which were hailed as heroes at the start of the uprising for not opening fire on protesters, “have now lost our confidence,” said George Ekram, 18.

“In six months, nothing has changed,” he said, as he sat in Tahrir Square.

The huge roundabout has been blocked off to traffic and the protesters have taken charge of security, demanding to see identity papers and searching anyone coming through.

They say they remain vulnerable to attacks by old regime loyalists, hired thugs or being forced out of the square by the army.

Giant loudspeakers blare sermons, speeches and music to keep the protesters both informed and entertained.

On a wall, a caricature sums up their frustration — Hosni Mubarak as a puppeteer who has the military council on a string.