We’re walking along the Corniche El Nil towards Tahrir – a journey I made several times before during what will soon be called Egypt’s ‘first’ revolution, two and a half years ago. I am with my Egyptian boyfriend and we are going to celebrate the ‘coup d’un peuple’ that has just unseated President Mohamed Morsi, after four days of massive protests. Or rather, I am there to accompany him as he celebrates; as a foreigner, this is neither my battle nor my victory, despite my love for this country.
The noise is deafening. Car horns honk frantically – the familiar five-note beat that provides the soundtrack to most celebrations here. Drumbeats echo in the distance. Fireworks explode randomly around us – occasionally I hear gunshots too. Every other person seems to have a vuvuzela and all of them seem to be going off in my ear. Teenagers hang out of car windows, waving flags and shouting anti-Morsi and pro-Egypt slogans. Every now and then, a motorbike revs up behind us on the pavement and we scramble for cover.
I made a similar journey when Mubarak fell, back in February 2011, with a motley group, mostly expats, all of us in love with Egypt and determined to show our solidarity with our Egyptian friends and colleagues. Back then, the women among us weren’t afraid of being mob raped or violently assaulted. Tonight, it is about all I can think of.
Gang rapes and sexual assaults in Tahrir have come to the forefront again over this latest protest, thanks to a vigorous campaign by groups like Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Tahrir Bodyguard. They monitor the teeming square, and provide regular, depressing updates. Sixty-eight women have been the victims of such assaults over the last couple of days (that figure is much higher now). I hear of one case on Friday, two days before the main protests are due to begin – a young European girl, stripped naked by around 100 men, groped, fingered and probed until she bled, finally taken to hospital where she required stitches.
I am a woman who values my independence and my freedom but tonight I cling to Sherif’s hand like my life depends on it. I am sure the other women were also accompanied by friends, probably even male friends, before they found themselves separated in the melee and set upon like prey. Everywhere, there are groups of young men – these too-thin, slightly feral, lithe, boy-men that congregate in Tahrir, waving flags, blowing their vuvuzelas, occasionally ripping off their T-shirts and breaking into sensual, impromptu dances.
We walk past Maspero and around the Egyptian Museum, dodging motorcycles and errant flags, trying to carve a path amongst the crowds. I can feel eyes flickering over me and I sense how easily things can change – how mob celebrations can turn into mob carnage in an instant. In the midst of it all, I see a couple holding a baby who is – miraculously – sleeping peacefully through this din. Only in Egypt, I think. I see the crowds surging ahead of me as the square comes into view.
On TV, Tahrir’s power is transcendent. You see a vast homogenous crowd, seemingly moving together in harmony, occasionally lit up by flickering lasers and random fireworks, shrouded in Cairo’s iconic skyline. Up close, it’s a disparate, teeming mess – a cacophony of voices, fireworks, music, traffic – of people moving in different directions, hawkers selling popcorn, mahalabiya, tameya, cotton candy. At this time of night too, it is overwhelmingly young and male.
There’s a frantic edge to the celebrations that I don’t recall in 2011. Despite aberrations like the Battle of the Camel, Tahrir then had become a sacred space – the symbolic heartland of an impossible revolution. The majority of us moved around freely (until, ironically, the night that Mubarak fell, when Cairo’s pandemic of sexual harassment returned to the square). Amid those celebrations, there was wonder, a sense of incredulity and an exuberant, unfettered joy – as if we had all stumbled into the same dream by mistake. Anything and everything seemed possible.
In the two and a half years since, however, Tahrir has borne witness to terror: bloody battles and tragic deaths magnified by teargas and thugs, horrific gang rapes and assaults, terrible army intransigence, and an exclusive, rather than inclusive, government, at a time when the country desperately needed unity. From being the heartland of hope, it became a place of no hope, tinged with darkness, where the city’s poor and disenfranchised flocked, littered with rubbish, street hawkers and a million shattered dreams.
Some of that darkness haunts the square still and it is present tonight – the square is dirtier, the people inside poorer, the dancing more frantic. The mood is part blood-letting, part celebration and part sheer relief. The lumbering, charisma-free (former) president, sheltering under his notions of shariya (legitimacy), has left a country in worse condition than before – plagued by inflation, a faltering currency, power cuts, fuel shortages, sectarian strife and rising crime rates. Egypt has learned that revolutions, glorious though they may be, are only the beginning and the concept of democracy is flawed and fallible. And while millions may agree on removing an unpopular leader, agreeing on what comes next is much, much harder.
The last two years laid bare the fault lines that thirty years of dictatorship tried desperately to conceal – a poorly educated populace with no jobs and fewer opportunities, endemic harassment, institutionalized sexism and sectarianism, entrenched economic and political divides, and a crippling lack of leaders with the experience and moral authority to unite the country and lead it into the future. In Egypt’s favour are its people: pragmatic, resilient – and unwilling to suffer fools gladly. Few countries get a second chance at a revolution. If a fraction of the energy that drew millions to Tahrir the first time round can be properly harnessed this time, there may just be a light at the end of this tunnel. Once again, we watch, we wait and we hope.