The 18 Days of Tahrir

 

The below are some extracts from “A Revolution Undone: Egypt’s Road Beyond Revolt”, my book on Egypt from 2011-2015 – particularly from the chapter entitled, “The Eighteen Days of Tahrir”.

THE EIGHTEEN DAYS OF TAHRIR

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I remember that when Shaykh Emad Effat, the Azhari scholar, was killed after the uprising, a number of his more famous statements were collected. One of them was: ‘The first time I entered Tahrir Square (during the revolutionary protests) was the first time I saw Egypt.’

I know exactly what he meant.

As we drew closer and closer to the Tahrir Square side of the bridge, my heart started beating harder and harder. In an eerie sense – and though it sounds utterly naïve to say it – it called to me. I know that sounds peculiar, but surely anyone reading this will understand. Tahrir was better known to the world than to many of us in Egypt, because all we had was access to incredibly skewed sources of information. I knew, nonetheless, there was something very special about that square – and as I saw us drawing closer and closer, I turned to my father in law and said, ‘I can’t. I have to go.’ He didn’t approve – entirely out of concerns for my safety, I am sure. But he didn’t try to stop me. I asked the cab to pull over. I jumped out, and walked towards Tahrir Square, for the first time since the revolution had begun. It was 2 February.

Some indescribable force had grabbed me from the car, and I decided to venture in. I say ‘venture’ because, until this point, I had not been given much of an opportunity to actually see very much of the square. My family did not have a satellite dish – we purposely tried not to have any television in the house – and as such we were at first confined to radio (which was invariably state radio). We then dug out an old mini television set from my university days, and hooked it up, which gave us state television. As we quickly understood that we were watching pure propaganda, we ceased to rely on the television as a source of news[1] and came to see it as more of a barometer of how concerned the regime was about the protests, which we could judge by the preposterous material it fed us.

That day, however, I walked into the square myself. I waited in line with scores of other people, not all of whom were in favour of the protests. Nevertheless, even those who seemed to support Mubarak wanted to see this strange exhibition of ‘people power’ in the centre of Cairo. For a generation of Egyptians, the very notion of gathering in such large numbers for any sort of cause was anathema; such was the Mubarakite state. The ‘curtain of fear’ had been that strong – but now it had been ripped to shreds. Even those who had been opposed to that curtain coming down were curious as to what its destruction might lead to.

That was more than a week after the revolution began. I think I will forever be saddened that I did not spend more time in that square from the first day – and forever grateful that I was granted the opportunity to be there at all. As I got into line, just across the street from the Arab League – a building which represented so much of the bankrupt politics that the square was revolting against – I could little but wonder what lay ahead of me.

I would say most people who went to Tahrir went in solidarity. But there were many who went out of curiosity, and there were many who went even though they opposed what the square actually stood for. I remember so clearly being in line that day, and two people in the crowd who were arguing about whether or not it was the correct cause. A middle-aged man, who had brought his child, and had him hoisted onto his shoulders, argued with another, rather jovially, about the legitimacy and integrity of Tahrir. But they were all there. They all wanted to wait in line and to see what Tahrir was about. I remember thinking then, as I do now, how wonderful it was that two people could actually argue about politics in the open in Cairo, without fear of reprisal or retribution. We might take such things for granted in many Western countries, but in Cairo that wasn’t a given at all.

As I think back now, I wonder if that child was the child who was killed later that day when pro-Mubarak thugs stormed the square, and killed so many people in the infamous Battle of the Camels.[2]

As I drew closer to the checkpoints – there were several of them on the edge of Tahrir, near the entrance to the Arab League, but on the Mogamma side – I was stopped, and asked for identification. I had my British passport – the only passport I ever had – and showed it to the gentleman. And yes, I thought of him as an incredibly dignified gentleman because he behaved with such cordiality and generosity of spirit. He searched me and patted me down but he was just so utterly apologetic as he did it.

I was amazed. I’ve been through Cairo’s airport many times, and while I have never been searched in such an invasive fashion before, I’d never thought that being stopped and searched could be such an unobtrusive experience. I find most Western airports to be rather intrusive in the way they stop and search – but in Tahrir I didn’t feel any of that. After another person searched me, again apologising for having put me through the bother of being searched, but insisting it was for their sakes as well as my own, I couldn’t help but stop and kiss him on the forehead. God bless you, I thought.

One of them said, ‘Welcome to Egypt’. It was as though God had placed words of profound truth upon his lips without him knowing it – for, indeed, that moment I felt as though I had finally arrived in Egypt for the very first time.

I have a very subjective viewpoint of that first visit to Tahrir, of course. But it’s a subjectivity that is born out of having been in Tahrir during the eighteen days of 2011, and seeing what was there. It was not, as some now try to retroactively say, an imaginary utopia – it was real. At its core, in my opinion, was the ability of people to engage with their differences, with respect and dignity, without needing the heavy-handed authority of the state machinery to ensure civility.

As I passed through ‘security’, I saw posters on my right that said ‘Cleanliness is half of faith’. It’s an old saying, narrated by a companion of the last Prophet, relaying his exact words. The message was clear: for us all to remain cognisant that this was our land, our home, our territory, and because we had a sense of ownership over it, we ought to respect it and keep it clean. I was deeply impressed as I saw people walking around, picking up rubbish, and hoping to keep Tahrir clean. And indeed, it was one of the cleanest places I’d been to in Cairo. Later protests in Tahrir have been different: the concept of its cleanliness was unique during this occupation.

Tahrir was a fascinating, if unintended, sociological experiment. I remember many arguing after the eighteen days of occupation that sociological studies would have to be made of how the square had functioned because it had defied so many expectations. Order was kept in a way that was truly organic, and even beautiful, though unsustainable on a long-term basis. But it was sufficiently rigorous enough for me to consider Tahrir a precinct of law, rather than the unruly turf the Egyptian media claimed it was. There were zones. As I entered, the Nasserites (socialist Arab nationalists), I think, were up there on the right, kind of centre-ground in front of the Mogamma. The centre of the square, of course, was totally covered in tents and signs, where different political forces and trends slept and rested, and talked and discussed. But no one was there as a political force per se, trying to dominate the narrative of what was happening. Yet they were there and they were identifiable.

I could see, for example, that on the western side of the area in front of the Mugamma there was a group of Azhari preachers, decked out in their quintessential style, with the imama (turban) and the jubba (cloak). They were making du’a – supplicating for the victory of the cause. Religion was never absent in the square, despite the notion that some out of the country held that the protestors were a bunch of ultra-Westernised secularists. Religion was as much a part of Tahrir as the pluralism which defined people’s relation to religion. Those stories of Copts protecting Muslims as they prayed weren’t false or exaggerated. When Copts carried out their own services, Muslims also stood watch over them. Pluralism was in that square: it wasn’t a dream, it was real. There is much to say about religion in the square, and how religion was instrumentalised in it and through it. But that is for later in this book (see Chapter 4).

Across the street from the Azhari preachers there was another crowd. I saw Nawal al-Sa’adawi, the age-old Arab feminist, arguing and discussing with a bunch of young men and women. The discussions weren’t acrimonious, even while they might have been infested with disagreements – but they were discussions I could never dream of having in public before the revolution. Not like that. We would have been too afraid. But not in Tahrir.

I walked around and I thought to myself: this is the Egypt that I always thought existed, but had until now never quite seen. It was an Egypt of many different things: of different trends, world views, genders; of religious people and non-religious people; of those veiled in the niqab (the face-veil that some observant Muslim women wear) and of those not veiled at all; of Muslims, of Christians, and so on.

Thus, the words of Shaykh Emad Effat (the Azhari scholar who was killed – or martyred, as his supporters would say – in a clash with the security forces),[3] quoted at the start of this chapter, so described exactly how I felt. In a very real way, this was the first time I had seen Egypt. And it had come naturally – organically – not because of academic workshops or social awareness programmes. It had come because a group of people had wanted freedom, had fought for it, and had established something unique that was their own.

It was such an opportunity. When, five years later, I look back on that day and others like it I realise how much Egypt, the region and even the world has lost. In 2016, it is easy to forget that in those days of 2011 the Egyptian uprising was affecting the social consciousness of people in southeast Asia, people in North America, people in Australia – movements and mobilisations for all kinds of things, inspired by Tahrir Square. Now, the memories of those days are fading.

But it was real. It was not a mirage, despite how some now like to make themselves comfortable in feeling (because they don’t need to search for anything different to the squalor and fauxian pact they’ve embraced).

Those days were special. I’ve never really been able to put it all into words -or really explain it sufficiently well to do it justice, and show how it affected my own life. But it did. It really did.

‘This is the Egypt that young Egyptians are taught actually exists, even though they’ve never actually seen it.’ Those were the words that kept buzzing in my head as I walked around Tahrir Square. It showed the best of what Egyptians could be.

…………..

What was, however, a choice that ought to be examined here is how the uprising unfolded internally. Here, the protesters did have a choice. They could have turned into wanton vandals and rioters, or they could create new potentials for space to action. By and large, they chose the latter option. The eighteen days were not an utopia all around Egypt – there was violence that led to the burning of police stations, for example, as the symbols of torture and oppression. Some shops were broken into, far away from any of the protest sites, by those who took advantage of the absence of the police forces. But the eighteen days did not turn into utter mayhem. On the contrary. A few months later, the London riots were the next example of ‘public disorder’ that occupied the world’s television screens – and they were far more tumultuous and frenzied than what transpired in Egypt. Egyptians chose a different path. Months later, I commented in a public speech that Egyptians had to give Mubarak due credit for what Tahrir Square became, because had Mubarak not been so utterly stubborn and short sighted, Tahrir Square would never have materialised into the remarkable counter-reaction it became.

The catastrophe was what happened after the eighteen days. I remember clearly where I was on the eve of 11 February, the day Mubarak was removed. Sitting in a café ten minutes away from Tahrir Square, I was waiting with friends for Mubarak to give his speech. It was due at 9pm on Thursday night, and we waited for forty-five minutes for him to make his appearance. The restrooms were constantly engaged, as the stress of simply waiting for this man, the ruler of Egypt for some three decades, to give what was expected to be his farewell speech, proved overwhelming.

If Mubarak had given that speech ten days earlier, he might have rescued his reign. At that point his speech, which we later learned was pre-recorded, only served to rile the emotions of the protesters. Mubarak offered some concessions, but refused to resign, and that refusal was met by a huge swathe of disappointment among the protesters.

That disappointment turned to anger and then to resolute determination. One of my friends in the café told me, ‘OK, that’s that then. Tomorrow, we are ready to die.’ Not to kill – but to die if necessary.

Shortly after Mubarak’s speech, it was announced that the army’s leadership would make its own declaration. They never did. But the following day, it was all over – or, at least, something was. Just not what most were led to believe at the time.

The last time I was in Tahrir Square during those eighteen days was on 11 February. I had been home, after having been prepared to march in Tahrir all night the day before. The news came through: the stone-faced vice president and spy chief, the infamous Omar Suleiman, had announced Mubarak’s resignation.

I made my way, as quickly as I could, to Tahrir Square. Just before I was about to enter, a good friend called me from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where he was staying. He was an Egyptian-American, and only a few months before, had told my wife that he was utterly opposed to any movement to pull down Mubarak, out of fear that the result might be catastrophic. That evening he called me and asked, ‘I’ve been in a meeting for the last hour. Is it true? Is he really gone?’ I replied, ‘Yes. It’s true. And I see Tahrir Square in front of me.’ He went silent. He then murmured a prayer – a prayer not out of fear of what was to come, but of gratitude for what had been possible.

‘Can I ask you for a favour? Can you please get a copy of Ahram for me tomorrow?’ Al-Ahram was Egypt’s national newspaper, and for the first few days, reflecting the state line, it did not cover the protests in print at all. By 11 February, Al-Ahram had tentatively changed its colours and, indeed, that copy was a sight to see: ‘The people brought down the regime’ was the headline.

‘Of course,’ I replied. And then I walked into the square, and was greeted by young and old Egyptians chanting: ‘Raise your head high – you’re Egyptian.’

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces removed Hosni Mubarak from power, as it became clear that his very presence as head of state was an immediate source of instability for the country. With his departure, the immediate impetus for the crowds of protesters to remain vanished – which was the point. Nearly all of what was to become the ‘revolutionary camp’ departed the squares of Egypt on 11 February after celebrating Mubarak’s removal. That was a choice they made – and it would be one that would come back to haunt them.

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May God have mercy upon the martyrs of #Jan25.

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[1] Ursula Lindsey, ‘Revolution and Counter-Revolution in the Egyptian Media’, Middle East Research and Information Project, 15 Feb. 2011, http://www.merip.org/mero/mero021511, last accessed 16 Feb. 2016.

[2] Sharif Abdel Kouddous, ‘Live from Egypt: The True Face of the Mubarak Regime’, Democracy Now, 2 Feb. 2011, http://www.democracynow.org/2011/2/2/live_from_egypt_the_true_face_of_the_mubarak_regime, last accessed 16 Feb. 2016.

[3] ‘Remembering Sheikh Emad Effat’, Egyptian Chronicles, 22 Dec. 2014, http://egyptianchronicles.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/remembering-sheikh-emad-effat.html, last accessed 16 Feb. 2016.

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