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The Faces of Tahrir Square

A boy rests under the treads of an Egyptian army tank in Tahrir Square, in downtown Cairo. Protesters gathered there beginning on January 25, 2011, calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled the country unopposed since 1981

ISSUE:  Winter 2012

Egyptians are famous talkers. When I lived in Cairo in 2008 and 2009, I whiled away entire days at the grubby street-side cafés, practicing my Egyptian slang and getting my ass handed to me in game after game of dominoes with old men who were happy to talk my ear off about almost anything—Israel, Islam, George W. Bush, 9/11 conspiracies, how their dialect of Arabic was the only one worth learning—while they sipped endless cups of tea and coriander-spiced coffee.

Egyptians are also famous jokers, a cultural attribute that took on a special importance under the thirty-year drag of the Mubarak regime. There was so little to be proud of, and so much injustice, that making a joke of it all may have been a mass psychological survival tactic. “Egyptians have no self-respect under Mubarak,” I remember one man confiding to me. “They parade through the streets when the national team ties with Holland. They don’t even know what it means to win anymore.”

One of the most popular slogans shouted in unison during daytime rallies was: “Ehna mish hanemshi, howa hayemshi.” Translated, the chant means, “We will not go, he will go!”

All of this talking and joking happened under a cloud of cigarette and shisha smoke, to the rhythmic gurgling of waterpipes and a chorus of coughs and cackles, because Egyptians are also epic smokers. Cairo is a terrible place to even think about quitting, because nothing lubricates the wheels of conversation better than tobacco. Not with all of the Marlboros in the world, however, could I have walked into a café and gotten a Cairene to share his private feelings about President Mubarak. The president was the one topic capable of corking even the most loquacious among them. No one talked specifics about Mubarak or his regime, especially not to foreigners. The best you might have gotten was another joke, like the one about Mubarak and the turtle. It’s too involved to repeat, but I’ll tell you that it ends with Mubarak asking his friend how long he expects his pet turtle to live. When the friend responds, “I don’t know, maybe a hundred years,” Mubarak laughs and says, “We’ll see.”

In and around Cairo, people were afraid. Loose lips made people disappear. The word on the street was that one out of every four adult Egyptian males fed information to the mukhabarat, the state police who cultivated a level of paranoia among Egyptians that would seem irrational if it weren’t for the fact that just about everyone knew of someone who’d run afoul of the regime. The State Security Investigations Agency was the official branch of the Ministry of Interior responsible for waging Mubarak’s quiet war against dissident intellectuals, Islamists, and political figures, all enabled by a perpetual State of Emergency. No one knew how many mukhabarat were really out there—a hundred thousand seemed like a safe bet—but the numbers didn’t matter, because it was the perception of total state control that would cause an invisible vise to tighten around Cairenes’ necks at the mention of the president’s name. It was the perception that Mubarak’s men were watching and listening to everything, everywhere, that kept people in line.

Boys and men of all ages pass their free time in Cairo’s numerous cafés. They smoke cigarettes and shisha while playing dominoes and cards and, until recently, avoiding talk of politics.

For all their jokes, the Egyptians I met when I lived in Cairo often seemed burned out, like they had been awake days on end and had reached a point of exhaustion where even sleep had become impossible. That’s why, when I came back to Cairo to witness the revolution in Tahrir Square, it wasn’t the tanks on the airport road, the streets emptied of the normal throngs, or the unfamiliar threat of violence that made me feel like I’d slipped into a parallel universe; it was the willingness of Egyptians to finally talk to me. Suddenly, everyone from taxi drivers to shopkeepers to bowwaabs (doormen, who mostly came from rural Upper Egypt and were widely believed to be the mukhabarat’s main conduit) had something to say about the regime.

Tahrir was a collective unburdening on an enormous scale. If people weren’t shouting slogans, they were sitting in circles, talking excitedly about democracy and constitutional reform. If they weren’t making any noise at all, it was because they were catching their breath, or because they’d shouted themselves hoarse. “Irfa rasek fo’! Inta Masri!” they shouted over and over. It was the antidote to the crisis of self-respect: “Hold your head up! You’re Egyptian!”

The protests began on January 25, spurred in part by the success of protests in Tunisia and brought to a boil by a massive social media campaign. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were so effective in getting Egyptians out onto the streets that Mubarak shut down the Internet. He even shut down Blackberry messaging temporarily, and the comprehensive data communications infrastructure freeze cost the economy tens of millions of dollars, which only agitated the public more. The government also raided Al Jazeera’s offices and attempted to shut down the station’s satellite feed, since their street cameramen were willing to broadcast interviews and footage of police brutality that no Egyptian channel would touch. Al Jazeera responded by making their feed available to any satellite channel willing to carry it, which meant that the government suddenly had to contend with dozens of Al Jazeeras.

Protesters built temporary encampments in Tahrir Square, and hundreds of Egyptians, like these set up at the foot of the statue of Omar Makram, slept in the square at night.

In the first days of the protests, street battles broke out between protesters and police and pro-Mubarak “thugs” in Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez, but by the time I arrived on February 3, the violence was mostly over. “Thugs” was the An Egyptian protester erupts in joy at the news— received via mobile phone—that President Hosni Mubarak would resign following eighteen days of protests. word everyone used to describe the plainclothes henchmen who threw Molotov cocktails into the crowds and terrorized the neighborhoods at night, but most everyone suspected they were actually mukhabarat under direct orders from the Ministry of Interior. By early Feburary, when the Egyptian army made it clear in a series of statements that it would not use force against the protesters in Tahrir Square, the thugs all but vanished. Fathers hoisted their kids atop tanks and armored personnel carriers and photographed them standing alongside Egyptians troops, and the protesters raised a cheer: “The army and the people are one hand!” At night, people continued to sleep under the tank tracks, more for theatrical value than anything else.

February 4 was my first day in Tahrir Square, and though there were still thousands of protesters walking around with bandages on their faces and slings on their arms—evidence of the rock-throwing battles of the previous days—there were to be no more clashes in the square. The protests in Tahrir gradually took on the air of a festival, with enterprising people setting up tables with snack cakes and water, and others circulating through the crowds hawking flags, balloon animals, and light-up gizmos.

Slowly people went back to work during the day and the crowds diminished, but at night they would return in such numbers that it was possible to move hundreds of yards across the square without ever taking a step. You would simply find yourself sandwiched in a conga line a thousand people long and fifty people wide, and before you knew it, you would be catapulted out somewhere on the other side of the square. There were several stages on which famous Egyptian bands like Wust El Balad whipped the crowd into a frenzy. It was the Burning Man of civil disobedience, and there was no Egyptian in the square who had ever seen anything like it.

On the eighteenth day of protests in Tahrir Square, Egyptians waved flags and chanted slogans as they sensed the ouster of Mubarak was drawing near.

An Egyptian protester erupts in joy at the news—received via mobile phone—that President Hosni Mubarak would resign following eighteen days of protests.

I was standing outside the State TV building, which had become one of the main targets of the protests, on the night of February 11, when President Mubarak announced his resignation. The streets ignited, and I raced back to the square to photograph the victorious protesters on top of burned-out cars, hugging each other, shooting giant plumes of fire out of aerosol cans. Then I wanted to see what the celebrations were like in the outlying neighborhoods, so I decided to walk back toward my apartment in Zamalek. The roads and bridges were jammed with cars. Children were hanging out of the windows and sticking out of sunroofs, and everyone was smiling. The street party carried on until the wee hours, but the hangover was short: the next day, brigades of people turned up in the square with brooms and mops, paint brushes, and garbage bags. They were finally taking ownership of their capital and their country, and they were running high on symbolism. They were washing away corruption, cleaning up the square.

To be honest, it all seemed a bit too easy. “We protested for eighteen days and got rid of a dictator. We can do anything now. Of course we can build a democracy.”

That was the sentiment in the days immediately following Mubarak’s departure. I heard some variation of that statement from dozens of young people, and as much as I was buoyed by their optimism, the divisions were clear enough already. For one, there was already a raging debate between conservative Muslims, secularists, and Coptic Christians about whether or not to amend the constitution to make Islam the state religion. A month after Mubarak stepped down, a fatal clash between Coptic Christians and Salafists—a fundamentalist group that makes the Muslim Brotherhood seem liberal—resulted in thirteen reported deaths. But when the Copts later turned out to protest after the Salafists burned two Christian churches in October, it was the army, not the Salafists, that shot twenty-seven of them dead.

The same military that swore off violence against protesters in February is now tightening its grip on the shape of Egyptian politics to come, threatening to render parliament indefinitely subservient to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and, tragically, using violence to get its way. On November 21, protesters swarmed back into Tahrir Square to publicly disapprove what were widely perceived as SCAF efforts to delay elections. Confrontations broke out between the army and the unarmed civilians in the square, and by the end of the day thirty-one protesters were dead. Combined with the unlawful detention of bloggers and journalists who have been critical of SCAF—like thirtyyear-old Alaa Abd El Fattah, who was arrested for participating in the protests over the church-burning incident—the recent violence on the part of the army raises the possibility that Egypt may be headed toward an outcome that many Tahrir skeptics foretold: Mubarak’s Egypt, sans Mubarak.

A young Egyptian woman carries a vigil candle in a ceremony honoring the shoheda, or martyrs—those Egyptians who died during protests in Tahrir Square. More than three hundred Egyptians perished in protests across the country.

It’s far too early to say what the new Egypt will look like in a few months, let alone in a year or five years. The willingness of protesters to risk death at the hands of army troops in November, after the terrifying massacre of Coptic protesters in early October, proves that there is still substantial momentum behind the revolution. Over the last year, Egyptians have been able to speak without choke collars around their throats; they have been able to march in the streets and scream whatever they please at the top of their lungs, something they had been literally dying to do. The army and the police may even be coming to realize that they will have to kill and detain many thousands more than they have in the last year in order to silence Cairo’s citizens again, and it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll do that.

As exciting as it was to listen to the middle-class youth in Tahrir—who spoke in slogans as if they’d spent the previous weeks memorizing Fanon and Che—I was most inspired by the older Egyptians who came out publicly against the regime and actually had something to lose.

One of the many taxi drivers I rode with in February, whose name was Tarik, wore the strung-out expression of so many Cairenes. I paid him to drive around with me for an hour and talk about his life and how he thought the protests would change things for him. Tarik told me that business had been dead since the protests began and that he was having an impossible time putting food on his children’s plates. Tarik asked his boss, the owner of the car, for a loan, but his boss was struggling too and couldn’t give him much.

Still, Tarik said he was ecstatic about what was happening in the square. Like most Egyptians, he had suffered on the wrong end of petty corruption his entire adult life. Cops regularly stopped him and made him pay bribes to avoid tickets for trumped-up offenses like having unauthorized prayer beads hanging from the rearview mirror or not wearing a seatbelt. Each tiny incident was a little financial razor nick, but the comprehensive effect had robbed Tarik of thousands of Egyptian pounds and an incalculable amount of his dignity.

I met Tarik three days after Mubarak’s departure, and he told me that he believed Tahrir had changed all that. “If a police officer harasses me now, I won’t be afraid to get out of my car and stand up for myself. If I’m wrong, that’s my fault. But I won’t put up with abuse anymore.” I believed him.

Watching from the United States almost a year later, mourning the renewed violence and chewing my nails in sympathy with Egyptians over the parliamentary election controversy, it’s hard to say that I’m surprised at how things have turned out. It will take far more than eighteen days of protests to uproot bureaucracies and ideologies entrenched over the course of decades. Still, I have hope. And it’s not the Tahrir Twitterati who keep my hope alive; it’s people like Tarik, who have lived long enough to understand the true cost of sacrifice but are willing to sacrifice all the same.

Gigi Ibrahim, 24 | Social Media Activist

“Everyone was united under ‘Down With Mubarak,’ but now everyone has to unite under building a bet- ter Egypt,” Gigi Ibrahim told me, moments after getting caught up in street corner argument. The man yelled, “You kids are ruining Egypt. It’s easy for you to stay in the square all day because you don’t have to work.” He chastised Ibrahim for wearing her hair uncovered and spat as he walked away. Thousands followed Ibrahim’s Twitter updates from Tahrir Square. Her newfound celebrity (she gained a spot on Time magazine’s cover) had buoyed her spirits, and her optimism seemed unshakable. “When all these people went out to Tahrir Square after Mubarak left, and they started sweeping and cleaning, it was very symbolic of the revolution,” she said. “They were saying, we kicked out the dictator, we’re cleaning up corruption, now let’s clean up our streets. They never felt like the streets belonged to them until now.” Almost a year later, @Gsquare86 has more than 30,000 followers. Now she finds herself back in Tahrir, protesting the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. “SCAF is building a personal grudge with every Egyptian,” she tweeted on December 6. “I hate them everyday.” 

Moustapha, 22 | Grocery Store Clerk & Law Student

“When we all went down to the square, we were really enthusiastic about bringing the whole system down,” Moustapha told me, as he and his cousin chucked bags of frozen vegetables into an icebox in a hole-in-the-wall grocery store owned by Moustapha’s uncle. Moustapha works part-time at the grocery to pay his way at the Faculty of Law at Cairo University. Grocery sales took a sharp dive after the protests began, making it hard for Moustapha’s uncle to get by. “After we saw the economic impact of the protests we decided we loved Egypt more than we loved immediate democracy,” Moustapha said. “Most of the people—we work day-to-day and live hand-to-mouth. What happened in the square made it very hard for us to put food on our plates.” Echoing the sentiment of millions of bystanders who felt trapped between the government and the opposition, Moustapha said, “I don’t know who to trust. In these days it seems like everyone is lying.”  

Tarik, 42 | Taxi Driver

“In the past weeks we’ve had no work,” Tarik told me on February 14, 2011, just three days after President Mubarak’s resignation. “I had to sell my mobile phone to buy food for my kids!” Tarik complained. Still, he said, “What happened is perfect and should have happened years ago.” Taxi drivers are a ubiquitous presence in Cairo, where they used to face daily harassment from street cops, who would threaten drivers with fines in order to secure small bribes and free rides. “The best thing that might come from this is an end to the petty corruption on the streets,” Tarik said. “I used to pay the traffic cops a hundred pounds ($20) a week in bribes.”

Iman Al Turki, Artist

Under the censoring eye of Mubarak’s Ministry of Culture, Iman told me, artists “were like the monkey chained to the organ grinder.” Iman protested the stifling hand of the Ministry of Culture with her fellow artists for twenty years. She told me she was thrilled to see so many young women taking part in the Tahrir protests. “Egyptians’ views of women are deeply influenced by the Gulf, where people have developed very strange views. No one seems to remember that Mohammad’s first wife, Khadija, was a businesswoman. He didn’t try to control her.” Mama, as folks in the neighborhood call her, said she has always been a supporter of youth, who she said had been forgotten by the government. “If you have a dream, you don’t have to be old and powerful to make it come true. Even a kid can make a dream come true if he pursues it.” 

Bulbul, 59 | Antique Store Owner 

Bulbul’s grandfather opened the family’s antique store in Cairo’s famous Khan Al Khalili souq more than thirty years ago. When I visited Bulbul in February, tourism—which accounts for nearly 12 percent of Egypt’s GDP and all of Bulbul’s income—was down by 80 percent.”You don’t have to ask how business is going,” Bulbul said. “Just look around; there’s nobody here.” He and his son Majid told me they usually see a thousand tourists a day from Christmas to July, the peak season. “But in the last two weeks we have seen maybe twenty foreigners,” Bulbul said. “I’ve had to cut my expenses and prices in half to get by.” Still, Bulbul supported the protesters’ demands for a new, transparent government. “I have a lot of hope. In my whole life I have always been a straight man, but the government has always been crooked. With a new government things could be excellent here. We could have more tourists than ever before. These young people, they are full of energy and enthusiasm. They can do anything. It may take a year or two to recover, but I am willing to suffer for a few years if the future will be better for the youth.” 


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