Cairo has returned to normal – almost. From my flat, up high in Zamalek, I can hear the familiar sounds of the city once again – the steady honk of horns, the hum of traffic, the buzz of street chatter – all sounds that had disappeared over the last few days. Most of my friends have gone back to work. Banks and shops have re-opened and the Stock Exchange is due to open on Sunday. Even the hormonal teenagers that congregate outside the Hardees at the end of my street have re-appeared – a sure sign that things are returning to normal.
At Tahrir, the symbolic heartland of the revolution, the demonstrations go on – even if they increasingly feel more like a celebration than a protest. That wonderful Egyptian ability to turn any event into a party is alive and kicking – there has even been a wedding in the Square. When I went there yesterday afternoon, it felt like a revolution theme park, complete with popcorn sellers and cotton candy (albeit one where tanks and soldiers patrol the entrances). Most of the people heading inside could have been going out for a picnic.
Already there’s something historic about this revolution – a temptation to talk about it in the past tense (compounded by the fact that Al Jazeera started showing a documentary about it yesterday). Another million man march is planned for today and the protesters remain in Tahrir but it’s impossible to maintain much revolutionary fervour when the rest of the country is busy getting back to normal. The government’s strategy of ‘business as usual’ and containment rather than confrontation, as well as sweeteners like the 15 per cent pay rise for public workers, is already marginalising the protest – and increasing the gulf between the protesters and the rest of the population.
For a big percentage of Egyptians, the battle has been won: the fact that Mubarak has promised not to run for president again and is shaking up his regime (removing figures like the much-hated Ahmed Ezz) is good enough for many. The old language of paternalism has returned – I’ve heard many references to Mubarak as the father of the nation, someone who should be respected regardless of his faults. There’s a perception – helped along by the regime – that the protesters are naughty/rebellious children who should simply be told to go home by their parents.
Other Cairenes (who are nothing if not pragmatic) are simply resuming a new kind of reality – one where it’s possible for the protests at Tahrir and the ‘business as usual’ ethic of the rest of the city to co-exist. The majority still want an end to the Mubarak regime – the disagreement is on when and how he should go. There is a tacit understanding amongst some of these people that without Tahrir and its protesters, all the ‘gains’ of the last few days could still be lost.
Then there is the question of how long the Tahrir protesters can continue – there may be no overt force now but the regime is keen to force them out (apart from anything else, Tahrir is a major thoroughfare for this city). There have been subtle attempts to hem in the demonstrators over the last few days – heavily resisted by those inside. A friend who went to Tahrir told me he had to queue for nearly two hours to get inside because the entrance had been narrowed. There are also reports that people attempting to take food or supplies into the Square have been stopped and the items removed. More worrying are the reports of protesters being detained – or worse – as soon as they leave Tahrir.
From an outside point of view, the ‘revolution’ is in danger of failure – if it hasn’t failed already. Mubarak shows no signs of relinquishing the presidency, the emergency laws are still in place and the constitution remains the same. While the regime has been engaging in (unprecedented) talks with the opposition – including the banned Muslim Brotherhood – its grip on power, and the accompanying state security apparatus, is tighter than ever. Insiders at the talks suggest that the government’s mood is hardline, with few real concessions (I heard from one good source that Suleiman’s contribution at one meeting was to read out a pre-prepared statement – when he was questioned on one point, he read out the statement again).
But inside Egypt, the mood is slightly different, at least for the moment. Many feel that real gains have been made, with Egyptians finally sending a clear message to the government, and the world, that they are ready for democracy and willing to fight for it, if necessary. The idea that they have broken the ‘fear barrier’ and the political apathy that dogged them is a powerful one. They trust that Mubarak will fulfil his promises, which will one day pave the way for real democracy and constitutional reform. It is a process that will take time and they are prepared to wait for it.
The country is moving again, but no one knows where it’s heading. In some ways, everything has changed. In other ways, nothing has. It all depends on who you ask.