CAIRO – It was 1952, according to the old man selling pencils on a stairway to the footbridge, when they named it Tahrir Square.
That was the year King Farouk was deposed, and "tahrir" – "liberation" – was the cry of the times.
But the square had been there long before, at the center of the sprawl that was Cairo. All routes seem to lead there, by car, by bus or by foot, and all Cairenes pass there now, as they have for so many years.
The plan of the square is grand. A wide traffic circle goes around a monument of sorts, and there is a footbridge around the square that is supposed to carry pedestrians over the traffic. Around the footbridge and the square as a whole stand imposing buildings of stone and steel and, on top of them, tall neon signs advertise airlines, appliances and automobiles.
But the advertisements are not for the thousands in the square, because they are Cairo's poor. Bus routes from all over Cairo end here, and hundreds of thousands of passengers each day transfer at El Tahrir.
And the imposing buildings are not for them, but for wealthier people. Past the bus stops at the north side of the square stands the vast Egyptian Museum. It houses the best collection in the world of artifacts from Egypt's past. But the price of admission to all its exhibits is equal to the average Egyptian's daily wage.
To the west of the museum stands the Nile Hilton, bright blue and white, between the Tahrir and the Nile. The hotel is filled with Americans and oil-country Arabs. The room rates exceed the average Egyptians's monthly wage.
On the eastern side of the square, wrought iron fence and tall thick hedges hide the American University in Cairo. Most of the students are Egyptian, but they are not the people who ride buses to El Tahrir. The annual tuition and fees at the university equal the average Egyptian's annual wage.
So the rich and the poor meet at El Tahrir. But seldom do they mingle. This is the way it has always been at Liberation Square.
In the center of the square, at the open-air terminal, a steady rain has mixed dust with the oil and grease from thousands of buses, to coat the pavement with black slime. The battered red buses hiss.
Behind the fence of the American University, the traffic noise fades. The lawns are green and smooth and soft. In the snack bar, the talk is of shopping in Paris or skiiing in Austria – plans for the midwinter break.
These are the children of Egypt's elite. In a few years, they will inherit control of the society that produced El Tahrir.
But most often it is the Americans who bring up the question of the crowds in the square.
"Maybe I notice it more because I've lived here less long," says Schuyler Borton, 20, of Wilmington, Del., who is studying here. "But it's really hard to believe that there are so many people seeming just not to care.
"I bring it up a lot in discussion-...Sometimes people here are really offended. They say, 'Well, who are you to say anything about the problems of our society?' And in a way, they are right.
At another table, Paul Geday, 21, a senior, says that he would like to help the people of his country, but he doesn't think he will be able to.
"I'm a chemist. I'll try to find a job as a chemist, but I probably won't find one here. I might get one in a foreign country.
"I don't really want to leave, but it would be a government job. You're not well paid. It's not enough if you are starting life."
What will happen to the country he leaves behind "is a question I've been asking myself for a long time," he says. "I think if it continues this way, we'll have a revolution or a civil war or something."
In the Egyptian Museum, the curious of all nations wander among sarcophagi and jewels. There are Swedes and Italians, Nigerians and Japanese. The only Egyptians inside are guards.
In the room full of funeral furnishings from the tomb of Tutankhamen, a guard beckons a visitor, then points to a solid gold coffin case resting in a glass display cabinet.
"Solid gold," the guard says in halting English. "Tutankhamen. Tutankhamen."
Then he turns, with an engaging smile, to the visitors. "American?" he asks, and he smiles and salutes.
With one hand, the guard makes a sweeping gesture toward the fabulous treasure on display. Then the same hand pats his chest and he says, "Egyptian," as if to identify himself with the glories of the 14th century BC.
As the visitor leaves, the guard asks for baksheesh, or a little tip, for his efforts. "Egyptian," he says. He pats his chest, then holds out his hand for a coin.
Outside the museum, Mamdouh Sadek Ahmed, 19, is waiting for a bus in the rain and talking about the people in the Mercedes.
"Yes, I think about it," he says. "I'd like to be like them, but what can I do?..."
"This is God's will, the way it is."
But as Ahmed talks, he gets angrier. His voice draws a crowd in El Tahrir. "There are roads in the city that are completely destroyed. Nobody can pass. But the officials know nothing about it because they can't feel. They live in other places…"