Egypt’s Protesters Puzzle Over Obama’s Response

A dispatch from Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Egyptian protests.

Egyptian anti-Mubarak protesters in Tahrir square on Feb. 4, 2011

This morning, the lines to enter Tahrir Square snaked out into the streets as people came out in droves to join their fellow citizens demanding an end to Hosni Mubarak’s regime on a day that protesters termed the “Day of Departure.”

People from all walks of life trekked to Cairo’s central square. Nothing the government has done appears to have weakened their resolve. After two days of violent clashes, there was a sense that today’s gathering needed to be even larger than before, and people showed up in swarms. Peaceful protesters took up lookout posts along the roads leading into Midan Tahrir, everyone doing their part to secure the square.

As people walked into Tahrir through even more security than on previous days, protesters lining the entrance applauded those who joined them.

During daylight hours, things have been peaceful in the square so far today—but no one is sure if that record will extend to tomorrow. The situation in Cairo remains unstable, fueled by rumors of a continued government crackdown, which has claimed the lives of at least eight in the last few days and injured thousands. In anticipation of more attacks, the square was peppered with people wearing hardhats. “For you, it’s construction, for us it’s defense,” commercial maritime officer Ahmed Nour told me, chuckling when I asked why he was wearing a white plastic hat.

For the 11th consecutive day, protesters arranged themselves by specialty—doctors took up posts at clinics, volunteers picked up trash and handled security, men and women walked around the square offering their services as translators to foreign journalists—showing a perseverance that continues to astound foreign observers, many of whom have been dealing with their own threats while trying to report on the story here.

In a renewed sign of optimism, and despite the violence of the last few days, children appeared in the square again today. Not as many as before, but it is a sign that beleaguered protesters are willing to risk everything for their ideals.

“I wanted my children to join me. I’m not afraid of the thugs, I believe we have to face them,” Fatima Fowwzi, a mother of three, told me, balancing her 11-month-old on her lap. Fatima hadn’t come to the square yesterday; she was afraid after deadly violence hit the streets on Wednesday night. Spats continued Thursday, but they didn’t deter her for long.

Sitting on the curb next to her were her 4-year-old daughter, Reem, and another toddler. Her husband was nowhere in sight. “He’s here somewhere,” Fatima said, shaking off the threat of violence. When I ask who would carry all those kids if she had to run, she says, “I heard the interior ministry promised not to shoot today, I felt a little safer. Anyway, I believe God will protect us.”

Even after days of violence, the morning’s anxiety had given way to a carnival atmosphere by this afternoon. The movement is changing, hunkering down for the long haul. Everything the regime throws their way seems only to embolden protesters, many of whom stood shoulder to shoulder, creating multiple layers of human barricades at the entrances to the square.

Today, there were fewer hand-drawn signs than in the days before, as people counted on the sheer number of bodies to send their message. “We’re not leaving until he does,” is the most common refrain. Walking around the square this afternoon, the biggest security threat seemed to be getting trampled by chanting protesters—whether or not that holds through the night is another story.

Many ask me about America, puzzling over the Obama administration’s comments about the protests. There’s a lot of frustration, but most say they want the United States to butt out.

“This revolution is an Egyptian revolution against Mubarak and his policies—we don’t want another client regime. We are capable of doing things without America. I don’t need America to teach me about democracy or human rights,” Amira Howeidy, a journalist, told me. A fluent English speaker, Amira got worked up, and then apologized. “I’m not trying to be combative,” she said as I tried to redirect the conversation.

Others just can’t figure it out. “Does Obama really want democracy in Egypt?” one woman wearing a niqab asked me. Her friends joined in the conversation as they debated their options if Mubarak were to fly to London tomorrow.

This is a leaderless movement, so it is unclear exactly what conditions would have to be met for people to clear the square. Some don’t want the new vice president, Omar Suleiman, to head a transitional government; others were OK with him being in charge for 60 days until parliamentary elections could be held.

Who they would vote for doesn’t appear to be the issue right now. “We don’t care. We will think about that after [Mubarak] quits. We believe in the freedom to choose. Not only Mubarak can lead Egypt—there are a lot of good people here,” Dina Zakaria, a feisty young woman in a purple headscarf told me. She is one of the protesters who would be fine with Suleiman heading a transitional government. She says, “He isn’t a dictator—yet.”

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.