A view from Tahrir's barricades


CURRENT AFFAIRS: MICHAEL JANSENreviews Cairo: My City, Our RevolutionBy Ahdaf Soueif Bloomsbury, 202pp. £14.99

IN THIS TOO-BRIEF book, the acclaimed Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif captures the essence of last year’s events in Tahrir Square. She hurried home from Jaipur Literature Festival, in India, when the protest against the 30-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak erupted on January 25th last year. She and I both arrived in Cairo on January 27th, she to take part in the protest that became an uprising, I to cover it for The Irish Times. Although our paths must have criss-crossed during the next 16 days, we never met in Tahrir – Liberation – Square, on Qasr al-Nil Bridge, on the streets radiating off the square or on the wide walkways along the banks of the Nile. Each of us had our roles to play, she as revolutionary and commentator, I as witness. I must declare my interest in this book. I longed to relive those intoxicating days that transfixed the world. Cairo: My City, Our Revolutiondid not disappoint. For a few hours I rejoined the tens of thousands of Egyptians who camped out in Tahrir or flooded into the square from all directions day after day to bring down Mubarak’s self-seeking, corrupt, brutal regime. They sought to transform Egypt into a country that allows its people to breathe and grow into citizens with rights and dignity.

Those were days of fellowship and hope, when Egyptians of all classes and backgrounds mingled in Tahrir. She observes, “Together . . . we have discovered how much we like ourselves and each other and, corny as it may sound, how ‘good’ we are. I sneeze and someone passes me a tissue.”

When it was hot, a water bottle was pressed into my hand; at lunchtime food was proffered. Every morning, hundreds of Egyptians walked into the square carrying bulging bags of bread, plastic containers of foul(cooked beans) or spaghetti, cartons of fruit juice and bottles of water to supply the revolutionaries.

Ahdaf – everyone in Tahrir was on first-name terms – describes how her family and friends had been “protesting” for a decade in support of the Palestinian intifada and against the US war on Iraq, rigged Egyptian elections and plots to “perpetuate the regime by slithering Gamal Mubarak [the president’s son] into power”.

Casting her mind back, she tracks the progression of small protests through the formation of the Kifaya (or Enough) movement for change and mass strikes by labourers in the Mahalla textile works “to the point where every sector in civil society – judges, lawyers, farmers, teachers, pensioners, journalists, tax collectors – was fighting with the government”.

Even though the Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidin bin Ali had already been deposed by people power, she admits no one expected that 50,000 would turn up on January 25th. For years, protests in Tahrir had been small affairs, brutally crushed by security men. This time young Facebook activists thought, perhaps, 150 would turn up. The rally was too large and too ready to occupy and defend Tahrir for the authorities to simply oust its participants. The young revolutionaries repelled vicious assaults by Mubarak’s plain-clothes baltagis, or thugs, and black-clad police commandos.

Ahdaf writes, “We, the older revolutionaries, have been trying since ’72 to take Tahrir. They are doing it. They’re going to change the world. We follow them and pledge what is left of our lives to their efforts.”

The critical day for the uprising was January 28th, when the regime deployed full force against the people in Tahrir and those trying to reach Tahrir. Ahdaf and two nieces attempted to cross October 6th Bridge from the western to the eastern bank of the Nile and walk into Tahrir. “We get to the middle of the bridge before we realise that there are no cars, that the air is dim and funny and that the few people around us are not moving forward . . . A young man comes up and gives us tissues, then sprinkles vinegar over them . . . We can’t yet smell the gas.” When they reached the other side and approached the Ramses Hilton – where I was on the pool terrace observing the clashes in the streets behind Tahrir – we all were engulfed by clouds of scentless gas “that made you feel the skin peeling off your face”. Unable to enter the locked-down hotel, they ran down the embankment to the river and took a motor boat, reaching the centre of the broad, brown Nile before turning around and making their way to the Qasr al-Nil Bridge entrance to Tahrir. The pull of Tahrir was irresistible.

Once in the square they stood at the back of the throng “while our comrades at the front, unarmed, fought with the security forces . . . we stood our ground and sang and chanted and placed our lives, with all trust and confidence, in each other’s hands. Some of us died.”

Many died that day and on February 2nd, when baltagiswielding whips entered the square on camels and horses and attacked revolutionaries as snipers fired on them from roofs of buildings.

At least 846 Egyptians died in the period to February 11th, when Mubarak was removed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, whose members opposed the elevation of Gamal Mubarak as his father’s successor. Former intelligence chief and temporary vice-president Omar Suleiman appeared on television to say Mubarak had stepped down. Tahrir drew a deep breath. The empty streets of Cairo exploded with hooting cars.

Adhaf was home, missing the uproar in Tahrir, writing an article: “In Tahrir Square and on the streets of Egypt the people have reclaimed their humanity. Now they will reclaim their state . . .”

Tahrir filled with people singing, laughing, drumming, letting off fireworks, waving flags. The next day, Egyptians returned with brooms and buckets, paint and polish, and cleaned the square, taking back Tahrir from a neglectful government.

Tragically, Egyptians have not yet reclaimed their state. The fall of Mubarak was only the beginning of the revolution that, Ahdaf shows, continues to battle remnants of the regime, the generals who have seized power, and the passive mindset of Egyptians who still do not understand how famous was the victory of Tahrir Square.

Michael Jansen is a Middle East analyst for The Irish Timesand the author of several books on the region