By Alice Hackman
CAIRO: At least 15 people have died since last Friday in renewed clashes between protestors and security forces in Egypt, as protestors call for a faster return to civilian rule. In the face of this violence, ordinary Egyptians have found a way to help those in need — even from outside the country.
In late November, a 22 year-old Egyptian graduate student named Ahmed had been watching the violence against peaceful protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square for two days with shock, and was growing more frustrated by the minute. He was in Dubai and felt too far away to help. But after talking to a friend, he had an idea. He launched a Twitter account.
“From the world to Tahrir. While politics and borders divide, humanity unites us,” he wrote. He had no idea that @tahrirsupplies would acquire so many followers in so little time. He had no idea that, with the help of other volunteers, he would create a model of nonviolent civic engagement that could inspire the world.
At one point, the Twitter reporting system told him that he was acquiring 200 followers a tweet. Soon the initiative had over 16,000 fans (or Tweeps) of whom many, helped by a Twitter account that double-checked and broadcast medical needs from the square during the clashes, donated time and money to deliver supplies to the square to treat the injured and save lives.
The Tahrir Supplies team were only some of the thousands of volunteers who helped during the November uprising. In the square itself, brave men and women, some there without their families’ knowledge, tended to the wounded, protected ambulance routes and took stock of available medicine. Beside the human chains that protected field hospitals, people handed out face masks and date biscuits. At the slightest hint of tear gas, volunteers were ready with a mixture of water and yeast, as well as eye drops and asthma inhalers.
It was from Mohammed Mahmoud, the frontline street to the east of the square, that most of the wounded were being ferried out by foot, motorbike and ambulance, some of whom had been shot or were unconscious from tear gas.
In the evenings, the uninterrupted sirens of ambulances threw a sense of urgency over the crowds chanting “Down with the military regime!” as smoke from small fires dispelled the tear gas lingering above. But in the face of heart-wrenching violence, resulting in over 40 dead and 3,000 wounded, there was also incredible community spirit. Violence continued, but by the fifth day the square’s hospitals, which included a mosque and a church, were reportedly overstocked with medicine.
On Twitter, after 24 hours of manning the Tahrir Supplies account alone, Ahmed was joined by three new volunteers: two students in Cairo, Yara and Amira, and Azza, a Ph.D. candidate studying law in London. Delegating responsibilities and drawing up spreadsheets, they took turns answering enquiries and liaising with doctors. When eye injuries increased, as security forces were reportedly targeting protesters’ eyes, they launched an appeal for surgical equipment including a machine worth LE 120,000 (over $20,000). Within five hours, says Ahmed, they had collected enough money for two machines.
When Amira headed down to her local pharmacy in New Cairo with donated money and a list of required medicine, the clerk behind the counter told her she had no medicine left because so many people had come before her. In several other parts of the city, pharmacists were reportedly giving 10 percent discounts or even giving away medicine for free. In the street, she walked, humbled, past people she had never met holding up signs saying “Tahrir Supplies” at donation drop-off points.
At another drop-off point across the Nile, Mohammed, a 27 year-old engineer, spent a good part of the week running down the stairs from his office to his car to receive medicine and food from strangers, before driving the supplies to the field hospitals in the square. When he discovered that his car wouldn’t start, no less than five Tweeps offered him and his supplies a ride.
At the end of November, Tahrir Supplies went quiet on Twitter for three weeks. Military rule remained, but Egypt held its first parliamentary elections since Mubarak. Mohamed launched EgyPatriots, together with over 35 friends and new Tweep acquaintances, to provide injured protesters with long term medical support. In Tahrir, a field hospital announced that it would be open to the general public every Friday, thanks to public donations.
But this Friday, violence broke out again. Amid live coverage of the clashes and shocking photos of women being beaten by soldiers, Tahrir Supplies was back in action. The only positive story on Friday night among the jaded volunteer doctors receiving the injured on the edge of Tahrir was that they were well stocked enough to barely have to call out for medicine.
At the time of writing, after clashes early on Tuesday morning, Tahrir Supplies, now 18,000 followers strong, was calling out for blood donations for an injured engineering student in hospital, and encouraging followers to learn first aid. One Tweep, a scuba diver, suggested asking scuba diving instructors to help.
This is just one more idea — by one of many Egyptians — to make a difference in a country that they now feel is their own.
Alice Hackman is a freelance journalist in Cairo. You can follow @tahrirsupplies and @EgyPatriots on Twitter and Facebook. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).