Cairo – The conflict between protesters and security forces around Cairo’s Tahrir Square has settled into an uneasy routine of attacks and counterattacks. The security forces are aggressively using tear gas, seriously injuring many protesters. Despite the dangers, more and more women are showing up to protest and tend to injured demonstrators.
The protesters are demanding the ruling military regime hand over power to a civilian government. Rana pushes her way down Mohammed Mahmoud Street toward the Interior Ministry building, the epicenter of the violence in the recent clashes. Rana makes her way past piles of rubble and burned-out cars to the front line to support her fellow protesters. “We are doing our first aid here to help the people,” she says.
Protesters with red, swollen eyes and faces stream in from the front line. Many of them are desperately gasping for breath. This scene has been playing out since last weekend, when protests erupted after the ruling military council, the SCAF, published a proposal for the future constitution that gives itself ultimate say in all major political decisions and keeps its budget out of parliamentary control.
Rana stops time and again to rub a treatment for the tear gas on the protesters’ faces. The tear gas used by the security forces in this bout of protests is ten times stronger than the more common tear gas used during the January uprising that led to the ouster of then-President Hosni Mubarak. Protesters have been picking up empty tear gas canisters that show expiration dates from five years ago. Human rights groups say that the tear gas being used, especially the expired doses, can cause damage to the lungs, liver and heart and even kill in high concentrations.
“On Saturday and Sunday it was almost only men on Tahrir Square. There were girls but not a lot of women. But now there are a lot of women,” says Basima Jazeery. The 18-year-old has been spending as much time as she can volunteering. “There are doctors and pharmacists helping the injured. Some girls demonstrate. Others come and bring things or help people, and when they need anything they take their car, go and buy it. And some girls were sleeping here in the Tahrir Square,” the high school student says, beaming with pride.
Basima and other women and girls have organized themselves into groups. They sit on thick woolen blankets and mix a treatment for tear gas made of stomach antacid and water and fill it into spray bottles. The liquid helps against the immediate burning pain caused by the tear gas. “The people come here, take the spray bottles and then they go back,” Basima says.
Protester Rana got halfway down to the Interior Ministry, clenching one of the bottles in her hand. “From this line on they say it is very dangerous,” she says. Like many other protesters she tries to protect herself with inexpensive face masks, sold for two dollars on the square. Their effectiveness is doubtful.
Rana moves on down the street, as the security forces have momentarily stopped their barrage of tear gas grenades. Protesters inch forward to within a stone’s throw of the police. “They are standing over there, waiting for us to come over and over again. And then they shoot us. That is the way they’re doing it,” Rana says, nestling her nose into her face mask. “There are always many injuries, but we are ready to be injured. We want a civilian regime,” she says as the protesters suddenly launch a hail of stones at the security forces.
The security forces respond with a bombardment of tear gas, immediately drowning the street in white clouds. The grenades hit the ground and burst into a ball of fire. The protesters on the front lines flee toward the square, calling out toward the crowd, “Don’t breathe! Don’t breathe! Close your eyes!” The protesters have to run through the gas for 500 meters, coughing and stumbling. Some collapse.
Only seconds later motorcycle ambulances race down the now empty, rubble-strewn street to pick up the injured. Rana is one of them. Two other protesters hold her before she is hurled onto a motorcycle and rushed to one of the makeshift hospitals.