A Tale of Two Revolutions: Tahrir Then and Now

 

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.

Eighteen days: A Tribute to Tahrir

In the future, when someone asks me where I was when I heard the news that Mubarak had finally stepped down, I will have to be honest and say this: I was putting away our shopping. That’s the way life goes – after 18 days when our world consisted of either going to Tahrir or watching it on TV, all seven of us were somehow away from the TV at just that moment when Suleiman finally conceded defeat. In 30 seconds, as someone pointed out, 30 years of this country’s history was irrevocably changed forever.

We hugged, we danced around our living room and then we grabbed our coats and headed straight out to the place where it all began: Tahrir.  We had made this journey so often over the last 18 days, always with different emotions. I remembered the first Friday of this revolt – the day of rage – when our internet and phone services were cut and police and security men manned each street corner.  Somehow we’d made our way to Kasr-El-Nil Bridge where we watched the battle of the bridge unfold, amazed at the courage of the men and women on the frontlines as they pushed their way through the tear gas and bullets, in silent shock later as  we watched the city burn.

I remembered wandering around Tahrir the next morning as buildings still burned and tanks took over the streets and wondering where we went from here. Cairo was at war, but no one was entirely sure who, or where, the enemy was. The police had disappeared and looters raided the streets at night. But the city re-grouped and re-discovered itself and volunteers came out in their thousands to protect the streets.  Soon after, there was that wonderful second Tuesday in Tahrir, the first million man march, when the sun shone down and it seemed like nothing could still the voices of hundreds and thousands of people who wanted – for the first time in their lives – to be heard.

Then there were the terrible days after – an aberration in this overwhelmingly peaceful revolt – when hired thugs roamed the streets and Tahrir became a bloody battleground. Civil war loomed and Cairo, for the first time, became a dangerous city to venture out in.  Yet somehow, the men and women in Tahrir remained and thousands flocked there again the following Friday, unsure what the future held but knowing that, in Tahrir at least, there was still hope.

When I went on Monday last week, I doubted, for the first time. Tahrir had become a carnival, a revolution theme park, as I dubbed it. Hawkers sold everything from roasted sweet potatoes to popcorn, there was a trendy music band in one corner and all urgency seemed to have been lost. The celebrations seemed to me premature – Mubarak remained in power and the old guard, seemed, if anything, to be tightening its grip.  Tahrir was intoxicating, as always – in there, it seemed impossible that the revolution could fail. Outside, on the surface at least, the country was returning to normal.

But when I went again last Tuesday and I could barely move because of the number of people there, I realised that Tahrir had simply gained a new kind of power. Ordinary Egyptians – people who had never dreamt of change – were flocking there in droves to experience it for themselves. We bumped into a friend’s colleague from out in Haram, a working class area near the pyramids, who said he had been too scared to come to it before. He had only seen a few images on State TV, but he’d been told how wonderful it was by his friends. He was overwhelmed now – by the crowds, the sense of freedom, the music, the impromptu chants and the ability to say out loud what people had only said before in the privacy of their own homes – we want the end of this regime.    

It was this sort of momentum that in the end Mubarak was unable to control. The spirit of Tahrir and what it came to symbolise was simply too powerful to tame. It was a microcosm of the very best of Egypt, distilled into the symbolic heartland of this city. In Tahrir, class, creed, gender and age meant nothing – Muslims and Copts protected each other as they prayed, women moved freely without harassment, there was new respect for the young and the urban elite stood shoulder to shoulder with the city’s poor. I met my old professors from the American University in Cairo there and I met the man who parks cars on my street. The spirit of co-operation, of freedom and most of all, of pride was overwhelming. For the first time, Egyptians were doing it for themselves – from cleaning the streets to producing their own Tahrir newspaper.

In the end, this was a very Egyptian revolution, characterised by the warmth, good humour and tolerance that you find daily on these streets. It often struck me that, even in the darkest days of the revolt, there was little appetite for bloodshed or violence – amongst the plethora of signs I would see in Tahrir, I never saw one that called for Mubarak’s blood. For a Western-educated outsider like me, the lack of organisation and leadership often confounded me – how could a revolution possibly succeed when there was no formal opposition, no official spokesman or spin doctor to voice its demands? But here again was its strength – because the opposition was everywhere, from every stratum of Egyptian society, it was impossible to divide and impossible to fight.  It was absolutely a revolution of the people, by the people and for the people.

Today, Tahrir has been cleared and Downtown is returning to normal though the after effects are still reverberating around the world. But for eighteen days, it was the centre of the world and the effects of that will remain for some time. There may be cynicism in some quarters, especially internationally, about the future plans of the military leadership but here in Egypt, overwhelmingly, there is hope. Egyptians – driven by the men and women of Tahrir – have shown the world that anything, and everything, is now possible. The fruits of their labour will not be given up easily, despite the struggles ahead.  

When people told me before that Egypt, after January 25, would never be the same again, I was cynical.  Now I believe. To the men and women of Tahrir – I salute you.

The day of no departure

The ‘day of departure’ may not have gone to plan but the ‘revolution’ seems to be back on track. Unbelievably, despite the bloodshed and bitterness of the last two days, thousands and thousands of people made their way once more to Tahrir yesterday (which must surely be re-named Jan 25 Square soon, to accompany 6 October Bridge and 26 July St and 15 May Bridge and all the other dates that mark this city.)

For the first time in 48 hours, we ventured out too, late in the afternoon when it seemed conclusive that the pro-democracy group had taken back the streets. In the morning, there were still reports of attacks on foreigners coming in – one friend sent out a group mail telling us that her friend, an American girl, had been dragged out of a car with a group of Egyptian male friends and they had been beaten and spat upon.  So we abandoned an early plan to go and stayed in – the situation seemed too volatile.

But later in the afternoon, an Egyptian friend called us from Tahrir and said that it seemed safe – he had seen foreigners and press, he said, and the atmosphere was tremendous.  We were watching the images ourselves on TV, in amazement at the numbers who were turning out. So we decided to go – a motley group of us: an Egyptian man, his Dutch wife, who has Egyptian citizenship, a German-Palestinian woman and me, a British Indian. Ironically, out of the three women, I look the most Egyptian but speak the least Arabic. My Swedish friends, who have accompanied me on all of these trips so far, stayed at home reluctantly – both tall, thin and blonde, they simply look too ‘foreign’.

So I left my British ID at home and my camera and anything that might mark me as a foreign journalist. This time the checkpoints started at the entrance to Kasr-El-Nil Bridge, rather than Tahrir itself, and we were searched numerous times along the way (my lighter was confiscated but not, ironically, my Dictaphone which I had forgotten to remove). Hundreds of people seemed to be leaving Tahrir but there were still big crowds heading in. The atmosphere was calm and surprisingly organised, though it was impossible not to feel a little jumpy after the last few days.  Piles of stones and rocks lined the roads, a grim reminder of the violence that erupted here.

Inside, Tahrir looked a little bit like a battlezone, on temporary relief from the war. On the wide road leading up to the Square, exhausted men slept on the pavements. Others simply leaned against walls, too tired even to hold up their signs. Occasionally I saw men with bandaged heads or plasters.  But in the heart of the Square, there was still something of the festive atmosphere of Tuesday, with spontaneous chants breaking out amongst the huge crowds, speeches and singing.  At one point, there was wild cheering and clapping – a rumour had gone round that Mubarak had stepped down which soon turned out to be untrue.

It is impossible not to be moved by the mass of humanity at Tahrir, this great exhausted group of people who started a revolution that is now reverberating around the Middle East.  They have come out day after day – or never left – and battled every attempt to shift them: the riot police, water cannons, tear gas, rocks, hired thugs, the Mukhabarat, even horses and camels in the Square.  What happened yesterday was a reminder to Mubarak that there are still many who are prepared to fight for change. Perhaps the brutality of the last couple of days has also backfired against him – one Tweeter said she had been on his side after his speech but watching the violence on Wednesday had made her shift back.

But painting this ‘revolution’ in broad brush strokes – the people v brutal dictator – as tempting as it may be internationally, is wrong. Although the pro-democracy movement has re-gained some ground after yesterday, this long stalemate is not helping either side. Both sides are now fighting for their lives since both fear serious – perhaps fatal – recriminations if they lose. I have secular friends who fear the Muslim Brotherhood  will take over the protest and are caught between them and Mubarak.  And there is a vast middle ground that simply wants it all to end, with Mubarak serving out his term if necessary.  As one friend said to me yesterday: “We have waited thirty years for him to go; surely we can wait another five months.”

The most popular solution currently is that Mubarak retain his position as president but in an honorary capacity, while his real powers are shifted to Suleiman for an interim period, until elections can take place.  That may be unpalatable to some but it seems the best chance for unity and stability for this fractured country, surely the priority at this time. (As another friend said: There will be time for revenge later.) There are rumours that Suleiman will be speaking to the ‘council of wise men’ that are now representing the opposition soon and that things are shifiting, albeit too slowly for many. The curfew has been lifted today, until 7pm, allowing a degree of normality to return to the streets. But where we go from here is still anybody’s guess. This protest has defied all attempts thus far to predict an outcome. The one constant remains the uncertainty.

Carnage in Cairo

Cairo is on fire once again.  I am at home now and watching the footage live on Al Jazeera and it is horrifying, infinitely depressing. There is carnage in Tahrir today, and it is worse than Friday. There is gunfire, reports of petrol bombs, knives and sticks, 500 wounded, buildings on fire again – including, reportedly, the Egyptian Museum. The riot police were a common, easily identifiable enemy – now it is Egyptian against Egyptian and it is impossible to know who is friend or foe.  Until today, we worried about the army turning on its people but not this. This level of in-fighting has come out of the blue.  

We went to Tahrir earlier today and the change in atmosphere from yesterday was dramatic.  Today is the first day that I felt some fear.  We knew, from last night’s footage of the clashes in Alex immediately after Mubarak’s speech, that the pro-government demonstrators would be out, and they were. At the entrance to Tahrir from Kasr-El-Nil Bridge, small groups of pro- Mubarak supporters held signs saying “We love Mubarak” (unlike the demonstrators’ signs, which are a motley jumble of hand-written English and Arabic signs, all the  pro-Mubarak signs I saw were in Arabic, on photo-copied A4 pieces of paper). We have heard from reliable sources of money changing hands to buy pro-government support – 200LE (around £20) per person.

We made our way through the different groups and headed into the Square – again through the nominal army checkpoint.  Where yesterday was festive, today was tense, volatile.  The army had warned people this morning to stay at home. There were still a few thousand people there but nowhere near the huge numbers of yesterday.  Unlike yesterday, when everyone seemed to share a common goal, today you no longer knew whether you were looking at pro- or anti- government protesters. Everywhere, there were scuffles breaking out.  At one point, three young men – no more than teenagers –  grabbed a huge sign laid out on the Square saying ‘Game Over’ and rolled it up, stamping on it. Others rushed to them and took the poster back, rolling it out again.  There was no violence at that point but the tension was palpable.

I made my way to some protesters to ask them what they had thought of Mubarak’s speech, and what they were going to do next. They told me that it was a ‘joke’; they had been there since the beginning and would not leave until Mubarak left.  At that point, we saw people running towards us, away from something, so we ran too. Looking back, I saw rocks and stones flying through the air, not far from the Egyptian Museum. A friend called us from Mohandissen and told us that 20,000 pro-Mubarak supporters had gathered and were probably heading towards Tahrir.  We started moving towards the exit – already there was a mini-stampede  – and walked slowly back to Zamalek.  On the streets, we passed more people holding pro-Mubarak signs  and photos and cars honked as they passed us, signalling support for the government.  For the first time, I avoided eye contact with the people I passed.

I have no doubt that there is a level of legitimate support for Mubarak. There are many who feel that enough is enough – that it is time for the protest to end and that many of the opposition’s demands have now been met. They want him to be allowed to serve out his term, even though not all belive he will keep his word. The country is in chaos and there is real fear that the economy will not recover from this for a long time.   Mubarak’s speech last night was emotional  and emotive – at times, it reminded me of Evita: “Don’t cry for me, Egypt”.  I have always served my country, he said, and everything I did, I did for the Egyptian people.  I want to die on Egyptian soil.  

But there is little doubt too that some of the pro-Mubarak people out on the streets have been bought – the evidence for that is overwhelming.   The fact that state TV shows a completely different version of events has also deepened the divide between the factions, and intensified the pro-government fervour.  The pro-Mubarak people say they want to ‘liberate’ Tahrir, with their blood if necessary.  The official opposition, such as it is, has virtually disappeared and for the first time, the anti-government protests seem to be losing momentum. If they ‘lose’ Tahrir tonight, few will have the courage to return – for good reason.  So far, the army has not intervened, and I think, on balance, that is a good thing. Whose side would they be on?

It is going to be a long night.

Notes on a revolt – part 2

The eyes of the world are on Egypt, but few of us can communicate with the outside world.  Today is day four of the internet blackout so I have asked a friend in England to post this for me.  Our mobile phone service was resumed on Saturday but we can’t send or receive text messages.  Normal life in many ways ceased on Friday, after the battle of Kasr-El-Nil Bridge.  Since then, those who can have been raiding their supermarket shelves, stocking up on supplies. Public bakeries have already introduced rationing – no more than 10 slices of bread (Balady bread  – a little like pitta bread – part of the staple diet here) per person.  The banks are closed and few ATMs are working.  There are road blocks all over Cairo at night, manned by the men of each neighbourhood, to deter looters, after the police all but disappeared after Friday.  Few shops and no businesses are open. There is a curfew every day, roughly from 4pm to 8am (today, it began at 3pm).

And yet somehow, we have simply resumed a new kind of reality. My neighbourhood, Zamalek, home to many of the foreign embassies here, is a privileged one – because we are an island, we have not been hit with the looting and chaos that has engulfed much of Cairo for the last two nights. Instead it is eerily quiet, especially during the curfew hours, although yesterday that was punctuated by the sound of two military fighter jets flying low over the city. We go out during the day to re-stock, get some fresh air, meet friends and neighbours and get a feel for what’s happening. Otherwise, we are glued to our TV sets – for me Al Jazeera English and the BBC mainly. The government has shut down Al Jazeera’s Egypt office, so many Egyptians are restricted to the state news service which is broadcasting a completely different version of events. But somehow, despite the attempted blackout, we are all absorbing information, almost through osmosis.

This morning, I went to Tahrir again with some friends (Downtown is just across the bridge from us – about a ten minute cab ride). The demonstrations over the last two days have been peaceful, mainly because the riot police have disappeared – unlike on Friday, when this heart of Cairo became a war zone.  I went on Friday with a group of friends to witness the demonstration and we ended up taking shelter in one of the big hotels, overlooking the Nile and Kasr-El-Nil Bridge on one side and Tahrir on the other. Riot police swarmed the streets and thousands of demonstrators battled them on the bridge for nearly three hours, despite the water cannons and rubber bullets and what seemed like an endless supply of tear gas. Plumes of smoke and gas almost obliterated the Cairo skyline from where we stood. When the demonstrators finally pushed through just before sunset, the police seemed to scatter.  That night, there were fires all over Downtown, from the ruling party headquarters, just down the road from us, to over-turned cars and police vans, and even the Mugamma – the ugly but iconic monolithic government building that looms over Tahrir.

Today, a few police have reappeared but it is the presence of the army and its tanks that dominate Tahrir. By the time we arrived, at around 11am, there were already thousands of demonstrators encamped in the Square. We made our way through an army checkpoint with no problems – from what I could see, they were doing nominal checks only. The atmosphere in Tahrir was electric, almost festive. The army is not feared here, unlike in many other countries, and they have already said that they will not fire on the people. There were people from all walks of life, young, old, well-dressed, poor, many carrying hand-written signs – one in English simply said “game over”. Tahrir was bathed in sunlight once again – it has been beautiful weather for a revolution. Every now and then, spontaneous chants would break out in Arabic – “The people want the president to fall”, “Go away, Mubarak aren’t you ashamed?”

At one point, we spotted a young doctor and asked him about the makeshift hospital in a former mosque we had heard about behind the Square, and whether he would take us there. The soldiers manning the checkpoint near it were reluctant to allow us through at first but relented. The ‘hospital’ is tiny, manned by volunteer doctors and stocked with a limited supply of mostly donated medicines. They told us they had performed emergency procedures for those overcome with tear gas or hit by rubber bullets or tiny lead pellets, before sending them to the local hospitals.  One doctor told us that they had seen at least 13 dead in there since Friday. Today, the room was mainly quiet, apart from the sound of the Azan nearby, marking the midday prayers, that floated through the air.

Outside, we spoke to a number of the demonstrators who gathered around us. Many are worried that their message is not getting through to the outside world and they are eager to speak to foreigners. Some had been there since January 25, last Tuesday, when the protests began, which seems like a lifetime ago now. They are all, to a man, upbeat and determined to keep going until Mubarak stands down. They sense that the momentum is with them now. But they disagree as to what should happen next – if they think about it at all. Perhaps that is a reality that can’t quite be comprehended yet. There was no particular love of ElBaradei, the closest thing to a leader the opposition can claim. Nor is there any love for Omar Suleiman, the new vice-president Mubarak hastily announced a couple of days ago. One man mentioned Ahmed Zewail, Egypt’s Noble Prize winner for Chemistry, to me as his choice of leader.

There is much more to write but I’m running out of time. These are uncertain times for Egypt but there is also tremendous excitement in the air – a sense that history is being made and that an awakening has taken place. More than anything, there is a sense of pride amongst my Egyptian friends and all those I speak to – perhaps the one thing they feel was lost most under the current regime – and I am happy to be here to share that. I don’t know what the future holds – tomorrow marks the one week anniversary of this revolt and a million people have been called to join the march from Tahrir towards the Presidential Palace. At the moment, they are united with one common aim – to remove Mubarak. If, or when, that happens – it is difficult to believe that he can last much longer – the real struggle will begin. In the meantime, we watch, we wait and we hope.