Visions collide in a sweltering Tahrir Square

Sandy Tolan writes:

After midnight the Cairo heat finally broke. Mamdouh Hamza, an Egyptian civil engineer, businessman and longtime government critic, was sitting in a plastic chair in an outdoor café at Tahrir Square, puffing on a water pipe. The white-haired Hamza was holding court with his cadre of young revolutionaries, to whom he’d become a kind of beneficent godfather. My colleague Charlotte and I had met him an hour earlier, having interviewed him for a story on Egyptian agriculture and food issues we’re producing for US public radio and TV.

Hamza – builder of major Egyptian development projects but nevertheless a longtime critic of the regime – had been trying to keep a dialogue going between the military council and his “kids” But recently things had broken down, and that morning at 5am, he said, something disturbing and perhaps unrelated happened: Someone called Hamza to say he’d been hired to kill him. But the would-be hit man had changed his mind – “I like you,” he told Hamza – and so he had given the blood money back. Or so the story went.

Hamza seemed to think this was all a hoax, designed to rattle him, and he had no plans to heed the reluctant killer’s warning: that Hamza shouldn’t show up at the square the next day, lest he take a bullet.

Now came Wael Ghonim, he of the social media revolution, with his own followers, to say hello to Hamza. He engaged the older man about finding common ground with the Islamists. Charlotte caught the moment on camera – a young man in a purple pinstripe shirt and designer wire-rim glasses, talking to the shaggy haired professor nearly old enough to be his grandfather – but when Ghonim spotted Charlotte, he insisted she stop shooting. “If you use this,” he said, “I will sue you”. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to be seen speaking of reconciliation with the Islamists; rather, a friend reported, he said he didn’t want to be caught on camera being friendly with Hamza, a fellow secularist.

“If you use this, I will sue you,” the Google MBA repeated to Charlotte, a smile frozen onto his face, before moving off with his entourage.

Signs of strains between secular and Islamic forces have been showing for months. But both sides were expected to be represented in Friday’s mass demonstration. Hamza predicted between 800,000 and a million people would show up.

At two in the morning we headed back downtown to catch a few hours sleep. As we climbed into the taxi, the bearded Salafis, bussed in from all over the nation, were pouring single file into the square: a stream of white robes and skullcaps, part of a planned show of force by Islamists. They would be spending the night in the square, ready with their banners and chants as the sun rose on Cairo three hours later.

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