On a regular day, the office district in which Tahrir Square is located, at the crossing of eight roads in downtown Cairo in front of the Egyptian Museum, overlooks one of the busiest junctions in Egypt, with a 100-metre drive taking up to half an hour in peak traffic. Today it's a closed community of pedestrians with its own rules, facilities and even entertainment.
The thousands of anti-Mubarak protestors having been camping here since Police Day on January 25, and tens of thousands have been joining them every day for the past two weeks. Tents and shelters made of bed covers and plastic have sprouted along the traffic islands. Cha (pronounced 'shaay') is available from dozens of vendors for an Egyptian pound (about R8) and stalls are selling kosheri, a lifeless mix of rice, macaroni and lentils. There's constant sloganeering and singing. Men and women, young and old are periodically clearing garbage from the streets. The children, some of them cradled by elders, stare around in silence in this mega-mela atmosphere.
Democratic freedom may be the grand goal, but several Tahrirites have also found a personal axe to grind against Hosni Mubarak. Behraiya, an 18-year-old girl selling tea, stubs out her cigarette and says, "I'm a beggar because of his policies." Reda, a 40-year-old jewellery maker, asks for a cigarette and says, "I haven't been able to marry because of that guy. I would have earned three times in [Anwar] Sadat's time." After three decades of pharaonic power, Mubarak is the System.
Others are here for a slice of history. Emad Osman, a 43-year-old technician who repairs air-conditioners, on being asked why he has been bringing his nine-year-old son Ahmed every day to such a potentially violent territory, replies, "I don't want him to miss these moments." Does Ahmed discuss Mubarak in school? "Yes, but not everyone thinks he's bad," says the boy.
Nearby, two large white cloths serve as screens on which news from Al Jazeera and other television channels are projected round the clock. There's also a smaller screen near a laptop on which people download and beam their personal videos every day. When not used as a makeshift stage for anti-regime rants, a carefully built pyramid of a dozen-odd large speakers blares nationalist songs.
But nobody forgets that Tahrir Square is, above everything else, a battleground. Stones and rubble are neatly cairned on walls and laid by the roadside for another possible pelting match. Charred vehicles are 'parked' on kerbs as if objects in a museum of violence. There are at least half a dozen 'clinics' - small barricaded areas near the tanks blocking all roadheads - manned by seven to 10 doctors with various specialities. "We have to stay close to the frontline. So we move when the line moves," says Dr Taufiq Ala-Iddin, a 25-year-old vascular surgeon. "We treat the bastards [pro-Mubarak 'thugs'] as well as the revolutionaries [the anti-Mubarak protestors]."