January 25, 2011—February 11, 2011
Friday, January 28th, 5:00 p.m.
A month before, a week before, three days before, we could not have told you it was going to happen. Yes, there had been calls to use National Police Day on January 25th as an occasion for protests, but there had been so many protests and calls for protests over the years that it hadn’t seemed special. Those of us who were in Egypt intended to join, for form’s sake and to keep up the spirit of opposition. Those of us who weren’t—well, weren’t.
Me, I was in India, at the Jaipur Literarature Festival. Late on the 24th I did an interview with Tehelka TV:
… [F]or a very long time now, our perception is that [Egypt] is not being run in the interests of the Egyptian people. And the primary motivation of the people who are governing us is that they should remain in power in order to continue ransacking and looting the country. Now, the main support that they have to remain in power is of course the Western powers—particularly the United States. And the price that they pay in order to be supported is to run policies that favor Israel[‘s hawks].
We’ve been watching what’s been happening in Tunisia and we’ve been very excited by it. You hear: now, will Egypt move? And you hear: Egypt is too big … too heavy.
It really does not look as if the government is going to allow a peaceful and democratic change. So … what’s going to happen? Will we get a situation where people … sort of, erupt? And you get … blood on the streets? And will the army come down? Nobody knows. It feels very unstable. And it feels dangerous. And all the activism that happens is in speciﬁc areas. And it’s all young people and it’s all really without a leadership … but it’s there. It’s keeping the streets alive. We’ve never had as much civil unrest in Egypt as we’ve had in the last ﬁve years. And that is good. That is good—but, how will it coalesce? And what shape will that take?
We now have this information. You, my reader, in more advanced form as you read these words than I as I race to write them in the summer of 2011. I won’t try to guess at what’s on your news bulletin today—but whatever shape Egypt is in as you’re reading now, this is the story of some of the moments that got us there.
And it’s also, in a small way, a story about me and my city, the city I so love and have so sorrowed for these twenty years and more. I am not unique, but Cairo is. And her streets, her Nile, her buildings, and her monuments whisper to every Cairene who’s taking part in the events that are shaping our lives and our children’s futures as I write. They whisper to us and tug at our sleeves and say: this is where you were born, this is where a man, a boy, ﬁrst reached for your hand, this is where you learned to drive, this is where the picture in your schoolbook shows Orabi facing down the Khedive Tewﬁk, this is where your mother says she and your father stood in ’51 and watched the ﬁre take hold of Cairo. The city puts her lips to our ears, she tucks her arm into ours and draws close so we can feel her heartbeat and smell her scent, and we fall in with her, and measure our step to hers, and we ﬁll our eyes with her beautiful, wounded face and whisper that her memories are our memories, her fate is our fate.
Then he said it out loud: “Ya Masr, it’s been a long time. We have missed you.”
For twenty years I have shied away from writing about Cairo. It hurt too much. But the city was there, close to me, looking over my shoulder, holding up the prism through which I understood the world, inserting herself into everything I wrote. It hurt. And now, miraculously, it doesn’t. Because my city is mine again.
“Masr” is Egypt, and “Masr” is also what Egyptians call Cairo. On Tuesday, February 1st, I watched a man surveying the scene in Tahrir with a big smile—the sun was shining and people were everywhere, old and young, rich and poor, they talked and walked and sang and played and joked and chanted. Then he said it out loud: “Ya Masr, it’s been a long time. We have missed you.”
What transﬁxed me so completely was that the picture on the screen was from Tahrir. Unmistakably from Tahrir. Midan el-Tahrir.
It was evening on Tuesday the 25th when I realized something was happening back home. On my Jaipur hotel TV I could only get CNN, but there the Americans were, transmitting from Tahrir, and the whole world was wondering what was going on, and the spokesperson for the Egyptian government, Hossam Zaki, was cheerily dismissing the crowds we were watching on the screen and reassuring the world that our government and our people were very close and the government knew the people and knew what they wanted and would supply the bits of it that it saw ﬁt. This was the line that the regime was unable to let go of; throughout the three weeks of the confrontation, every speech given by (now deposed President) Mubarak or his Vice President, Omar Suleiman, or any member of his party or regime, maintained the patronizing “we know what’s best for you” stance that had been so roundly rejected by the people.
What transﬁxed me so completely was that the picture on the screen was from Tahrir. Unmistakably from Tahrir. Midan el-Tahrir—
I prefer the Arabic word, midan, because, like piazza, it does not tie you down to a shape but describes an open urban space in a central position in a city. The space we call Midan el-Tahrir, the central point of Greater Cairo, is not a square or a circle but more like a massive curved rectangle covering about 45,000 square meters and connecting downtown and older Cairo to the east, with the river and Giza and the newer districts to the west, its southern boundary the Mugamma building and its northern the October 6th Flyover—
The Midan has been our Holy Grail for forty years. Since 1972 when (then President) Anwar Sadat’s forces dragged the student protestors at dawn from around the empty plinth at its center and into jail, demonstrations and marches have tried and failed to get into Tahrir. Two years ago we managed to hold a corner of a trafﬁc island in front of the Mugamma building for an hour. We were fewer than ﬁfty people, and the government surrounded us with maybe two thousand Central Security soldiers, the chests and shoulders of their ofﬁcers heavy with brass.
Since Egypt’s ruler Khedive Ismail established it in 1860—its core modeled on Paris’s Étoile, six main roads leading out of its center and a further six out of the larger space surrounding it—control of Tahrir has seemed central to controlling the country. Ismail himself stationed the Egyptian army and the Ministry of Defense here, and when the British occupied Egypt in 1882 their army took over the barracks and the Ministry on one side of Qasr el-Nil Bridge and they put their embassy on the other. The Americans were to follow suit and put their increasingly fortress-like embassy next to the British. Then in Nasser’s revolutionary times, Egypt put a statue of Simón Bolívar between the two embassies, the Arab League building and the headquarters of the Arab Socialist Union went up in place of the British barracks, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs faced them from the (nationalized) palace of the Princess Nimet Kamal across Tahrir Street.
From the airport I called my sister, Laila, and asked: “Where’s the revolution? Should I go to Tahrir?”
But as well as housing the symbols of military and political power, Tahrir is home to the civic spirit of Egypt. The Egyptian Antiquities Museum (1902) marks the northern end of the Midan, and when in 1908 the Egyptian national movement founded, through public donations, the ﬁrst secular Egyptian University, they rented the palace of Khawaga Gianaclis—now the old campus of the American University in Cairo—at the other end. In 1951, the government decided to consolidate all its departments that the citizen directly dealt with in one central building, and so Mugamma al-Tahrir was built. And, early in the 1952 revolution, the small mosque near the Mugamma was enlarged and dedicated to Sheikh Omar Makram, the popular leader against Napoleon’s French Expedition in 1798, the British “Fraser” Expedition of 1807 and, later, against Muhammad Ali himself when he felt the ruler was taxing the people unfairly. Omar Makram died in exile but his statue was part of our revolution: a meeting place, an inspiration, a bearer of ﬂags and microphones and balloons.
In 1959, the ﬁrst modern international hotel in Egypt, the Nile Hilton, opened in Tahrir, next to the Arab League. Eleven years later, on the evening of September 27, 1970, having just closed the two days of negotiations and arm-twisting that ended Black September and killed him, President Gamal Abd el-Nasser—whose picture was raised by many during the revolution—stood on the balcony of the thirteenth-ﬂoor suite he had occupied for a few nights and gazed at the Nile. He turned, smiling, to Abd el-Meguid Farid, the Secretary to the Presidency: “How come I’ve never seen this amazing sight before? Look at it. I’m buried alive out in Heliopolis.” Then he went home. And it was from a window in the Arab Socialist Union next door that, two days later, his wife and daughters watched his funeral surge across Qasr el-Nil Bridge towards Tahrir. This is the building that became Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party headquarters—the only building in Tahrir to be torched by the revolutionaries.
The Hilton—now bearing the Ritz-Carlton sign—has been undergoing renovation for years. In front of it is a waste ground surrounded by sheets of corrugated iron, which we will use in the battles for the Midan. This massive space in the central midan of our city has been in this ruined condition for twenty years. We are told it’s to do with the construction of the Metro. Also to do with the Metro, we’re told, was the removal of the empty plinth in the middle of the garden of the central roundabout, the plinth around which the students gathered in 1972 on the night Amal Dunqul wrote of in “The Stone Cake”:
Five o’clock struck
with soldiers a circle of shields and helmets
drawing closer slowly… slowly…
from every direction
and the singers in the stone cake clenching
like a heartbeat!
Lighting their throats
for warmth against the cold and the biting dark.
Lifting the anthem in the face of the approaching guard.
Linking their young, hopeless hands
a shield against lead
Now, the whole country is gathered around that central, plinth-less garden. In one of the most moving moments of the revolution—and there were to be many—the people’s delegations that had come in from the cities and the provinces to the Midan set up their banners and sent up the chant, “El-shar‘eyya m’nel-Tahrir,” legitimacy comes from Tahrir.
I got myself to Delhi in the morning and, next day, caught a plane that put me in Cairo in the evening on Thursday the 27th. From the airport I called my sister, Laila, and asked: “Where’s the revolution? Should I go to Tahrir?” She said I should call her daughter, Mona, and Mona said there was nothing in Tahrir but I might, possibly, see some crowds if I went to Midan el-Sa‘ah in Nasr City or if I drove through Abbaseyya. But there were no crowds. I saw two charred and overturned Central Security Forces trucks but the city was, if anything, quieter than was normal for a Thursday evening. The revolution was up and running in Suez and Alexandria; in Cairo it was gathering its breath, getting ready for Friday.
Friday, January 28th, midday
Embaba, on the western bank of the Nile, is ﬁve minutes and one bridge from my home on Gezira Island. For a long time all I knew of it was the name of its main bus stop, the “Kit-Kat,” and attached to the name a black-and-white image of British “johnnies” staggering out of shady doorways, drunk, into the street, hushed families watching them from darkened rooms, their faces lined with the light from street lamps falling through drawn blinds. The Kit-Kat, I seemed to know, was one of the many sleazy nightclubs that had sprung up in Cairo to cater to the Allied forces stationed there in the West’s second great war. Now, if you say “el-Kit-Kat,” everyone thinks of Daoud Abd el-Sayyed’s 1991 ﬁlm with the opening shot of Mahmoud Abd el-Aziz weaving through the Embaba streets on his bicycle. A long, continuous shot—and some time during the course of it you realize the cyclist is blind.
He says he’d carry on going to school if there were any use, but he’s not learning anything and the teachers are only there for the cash from the private lessons. The only thing that might be useful now for his life is the revolution.
Embaba has a small airport from which you can go gliding. When my ﬁrst marriage was breaking up we ﬂew from there, in a glider, my just-become-ex husband and I. He was at the controls. I can’t think why we did that. For clarity, maybe? We—I—didn’t ﬁnd it. Even the amazing, spread-out ﬁelds below, the river, broad and still and—from here—docile, were dimmed by my unease.
And Embaba is known for three hospitals. One is a specialist rehabilitation center where they taught the ﬁve-year-old son of Um Nagla, our help, to speak. My father snatched him back from the jaws of a “fraudulent charlatan,” he said, who was about to send him off for electric shock treatment—and sent him to Embaba. He’s now ﬁfteen and speaking plenty. He says he’d carry on going to school if there were any use, but he’s not learning anything and the teachers are only there for the cash from the private lessons. The only thing that might be useful now for his life is the revolution. He berates his mother for being prepared to believe that Hosni Mubarak is “sorry” and will give back our stolen money. “Ali,” she tells me, “Ali says of Mubarak and all his men: ‘Before they open their mouths they’re liars; they breathe lies.’” “And this,” she adds, “is Ali-who-couldn’t-speak.”
The second is the Embaba Fevers Hospital, which used to rival the best in the world. The third is the new Emergency Hospital where building was stopped when its riverfront position caught Mrs. Mubarak’s eye and the government decided to turn it into a luxury residential block. The latest scandal of this kind is the Madinaty Project, where eight thousand acres were sold at so much lower than market price that the courts estimated the loss to the Egyptian Treasury at billions of dollars. Today as our protest passes the hospital project the crowd starts up the chants against corruption: “A bowl of lentils for ten pounds / a Madin’ti share for ﬁfty p.”
There it was, no lead up, no half measures: the young man on the shoulders of his friends, a loose knot of some ﬁfteen young people. “The people—demand—the fall of this regime!” We start to walk.
We’ve been walking the streets of Embaba for two hours. My friend, Mamdouh Hamza, brought me here and left me in a small coffee shop by the local mosque. MH is a celebrated civil engineer who’s been in charge of some of Egypt’s major construction projects. I’d known he’d been lending his support for a while to some of the revolutionary shabab, the young people. “Something will begin here,” he said, and went off to distribute banners. It was the usual, pleasant, the-world-is-on-pause feel of Friday prayer time and I watched the women chatting in front of shops, the winter sunshine falling on them through the colorful clothes displayed above their heads, the men sitting at cafés, others spilling out of the mosque, praying on green mats in the road. In my coffee shop a young man is sitting in the corner; something about his stillness, his quality of concentration, stays with me.
Prayers ﬁnish but the imam solicits blessings. And blessings. And more blessings. Men start folding their mats, putting on their shoes. Suddenly the young man from the coffee shop is above the crowd, on top of it. People shift and stir, there’s a buzz like in the theater at the moment the curtain starts to rise, everyone looks, people come out of shops. The young man’s arm is in the air, his hand is reaching to the sky, and there comes the loud, carrying voice: “Al-sha‘b yureed isqat al-nizam!” There it was, no lead up, no half measures: the young man on the shoulders of his friends, a loose knot of some ﬁfteen young people. “The people—demand—the fall of this regime!” We start to walk.
Later, we will learn that similar marches started after prayers in every district of Cairo and many other cities. We will know this young man as one of the three hundred young people who organized these ﬁrst marches. Up there, his still concentration has transformed into energy, his back is straight, his arm movements are precise. Again and again the call goes out, and the crowd responds: “Your security, your police / killed our brothers in Suez.” We walk and the numbers grow. Every balcony is full of people; some just watch impassively, some men look uncomfortable. “Come down from the heights / Come down and get your rights.” Most women are smiling, waving, dandling babies to the tune of the chants. “Eish! Horreyya! Adala egtema‘eyya!” Bread. Freedom. Social justice. Old women call: “God be with you! God give you victory.” For more than two hours the protest walks through the narrow residential lanes, cheering, encouraging, instigating: “Prices up and no one cares / Next you’ll sell your beds and chairs.” We pass the ofﬁces of the Land Registry. In 2008 I’d visited to get some papers relating to my mother’s estate. I failed to get them. At the next window a man remonstrated that this was the ﬁfth time he’d been and that he no longer understood what he was required to do to get the stamp he needed on to his papers. Then he lost it: “Yel‘an abu Hosni Mubarak!” he bellowed, “God curse him curse him curse him!” He slammed his ﬁles rhythmically on the counter top as he cursed out the man at the head of the system that, here and now, in this local speciﬁc manifestation of petty bureaucracy and corruption, was frustrating him to insanity.
“Eish! Horreyya! Karama insaneyya!” Bread. Freedom. Human dignity. Kids run alongside the march: “The people—demand—the fall of this regime—” In the eighties and nineties, at the time of the big expansion of the Islamist currents, Embaba came in for some particularly harsh treatment. The Dakhleyya (Ministry of the Interior) stopped policing Embaba itself but set up border stations at its exits; every male going in or out was subjected to stop and search. Anyone not carrying his ID was detained, and detained meant beaten—sometimes tortured. Several times during today’s march, sweeping up people from the neighborhood, the cry rises: “To the police station!” and each time the march’s leaders deﬂect it.
Later I will ﬁnd out that my sister, Laila, MH, and various other friends were all on this march. But it had grown so big we didn’t see each other. By the time we wind on to a ﬂyover to head for downtown we are easily five thousand people or more.
As we descend from the ﬂyover I recognize that we’re on Ahmed Orabi Street. This is where my beloved Khalu, my mother’s brother, ever present though gone now these eighteen years, used to live. His wife still lives here. I glance up at her plant-ﬁlled balcony and I can’t resist. I slip away from the march and up the ﬁve ﬂoors to her ﬂat where I ﬁnd cousins and friends—all have slipped away from the march for a few minutes’ rest and to ﬁnd out the news. We’d woken up that morning to ﬁnd the Internet down, and by 11:00 a.m. not a single mobile was working. Landlines were all we had, and, even there, the international lines had been taken down. We knew then that this was a regime ﬁghting for its life. We sat around in Tante Nahed’s home and used her landline to phone around and check up on friends and family. Most homes had arranged to have one person stay in by the landline and act as liaison. My brother when I called him said his daughters wanted to join the action, and would I take them? This would be their ﬁrst protest. Tante Nahed gave us tea and juice. The last time I’d sat in her living room was two years ago and I had been looking through the results of a survey she’d just published, “The Problems and Discontents of the Egyptian Citizen.” Unemployment consistently scored highest on the list of people’s personal problems, second was housing and third was education.
My brother, Ala, and his wife, Sohair, and their daughters, Salma and Mariam, pick me up. As we drive we pass protests heading to Tahrir. Ala and Sohair have brought bottles of water and hand them out. Months later, my brother—an IT man and Egyptologist—will, with friends, put together an initiative to dismantle the security establishment, another to overhaul pre-university education, another to set up a national employment bureau … Today, this is his and his wife’s ﬁrst action for the revolution.
Salma and Mariam and I decide we’ll walk across October 6th Bridge and up the Corniche into Tahrir, so my brother drops us off in Agouza, at the foot of the steps leading up to the bridge. We run up the steps and ﬁnd ourselves facing a cordon of Central Security soldiers blocking our way. The bridge crosses Gezira Island and passes over the Gezira Club. My nieces, twins, had both been champion gymnasts in their childhood and teens and the Gezira was their club. Now twenty-two, they could easily still pass for seventeen. I take their elbows and stride up to the line of soldiers: “Excuse us, my daughters are late for their training—” pointing below us at the club grounds. The line opens courteously.
I love these young men. I love them, and I don’t want them to be part of Central Security. In fact, we’ve got a case in court proposing that using conscripts for Security is unconstitutional. Conscription may be necessary to protect us against invasion or aggression, but to use conscripts to protect the government of the day against the people cannot be right.
Eye to eye with one of them—young, brown, open-faced, Egyptian, I pause, just for a second. “What can we do?” he shouts into the smoke. “If we could take off this uniform we’d join you!”
We get to the middle of the bridge before we realize that there are no cars, that the air is dim and fumy, and that the few people around us are not moving forward. There’s something of Dante about the spectacle. Isolated ﬁgures drift. Smoke drifts. Everything is slowed down and dim. A young man comes up and gives us tissues, then sprinkles vinegar over them. “Hold them over your nose,” he says, “a tip from our Tunisian friends.” In Palestine they use onions. We can’t yet smell the gas. I see a friend, Lena, and her husband, and we drift together, embrace and stand silently watching a man wearing a large, brown paper bag over his head rotate slowly on the narrow trafﬁc island at the center of the bridge. He’s turning in slow motion and as he faces us we see the slits for the eyes and the large, red question mark starting on the forehead and running down the nose with the dot at the mouth. Later I realize this is the ﬁrst piece of revolutionary street theater we see. Now, it just adds to the weird, dreamlike feel of the scene. A heavy thudding thumps rhythmically through the smog. Lena says it’s guns. Across the water we can see that the real action is on Qasr el-Nil Bridge. We’ve started to feel the gas but Salma and Mariam and I decide to follow our plan and run the hundred meters or so to the bridge’s exit by the Ramses Hilton, get down, and run along the river to Qasr el-Nil.
Tear gas! This was a gas that made you feel the skin peeling off your face. Later, when we saw the canisters, we found it had passed its expiration date. You’d think that would make it less painful, but apparently it makes it worse. We run and I can’t even open my eyes to see what’s going on. When I do force them open for a second I see that Mariam, the more delicate of the twins, has stopped in the middle of the bridge, her eyes streaming and shut tight, one of her shoes lost, her arms held out helplessly. She’s saying something, but so softly I can’t hear. Salma and I run back for her. “I can’t,” she’s whispering, “I can’t.” We ﬁnd her shoe, grab an arm each, and run. We run down the slope of the bridge and straight into another cordon of Central Security soldiers. They’re meant to block the way. We are three women, disheveled, eyes streaming. We run right up to them and they make way. “Go!” they urge us. “Quick!” Eye to eye with one of them—young, brown, open-faced, Egyptian, I pause, just for a second. “What can we do?” he shouts into the smoke. “If we could take off this uniform we’d join you!”
Stuck. Stranded. For a moment as I was running down the slip road with my eyes closed holding on to my nieces I had the—typical—thought that we might nip into the Ramses Hilton and wash our faces, maybe even get some tea. Down on the embankment, with the soldiers facing us and behind them the Corniche road littered with stones and charred cars and the Hilton dark and shuttered, it was clear that a ﬁve-star interlude was out of the question. We run down the embankment steps and jump into a boat: to Giza, please. Drop us next to Galaa Bridge. We’ll go home.
But: as we get farther from the shore our coughing and choking subsides. We can draw breath, even though the breath burns. And we can open our eyes. And when our eyes meet we change direction and head, again, to Tahrir.
They are doing it. They’re going to change the world. We follow them and pledge what’s left of our lives to their effort.
On the trafﬁc island at the Qasr el-Nil entrance to Tahrir you turned 360 degrees and everywhere there were people. I could not tell how many thousands I could see. Close up, people were handing out tissues soaked in vinegar for your nose, Pepsi to bathe your eyes, water to drink. I stumbled, and a hand under my elbow steadied me. The way ahead of us was invisible behind the smoke. From time to time there would be a burst of ﬂame. The great hotels—the Semiramis Intercontinental, Shepheard, the Ramses Hilton—had all darkened their lower ﬂoors and locked their doors. On the upper-ﬂoor balconies stick ﬁgures were watching us. At the other end of the Midan, from the roof of the American University, the snipers were watching us, too. Silently. Everywhere there was a continuous thud of guns and from time to time a loud, intermittent rattling sound. We stood. That was our job, the people at the back. We stood and we chanted our declaration of peace, “Selmeyya! Selmeyya!”, while our comrades at the front, unarmed, fought with the security forces. From time to time a great cry would go up and we would surge forward: our friends had won us another couple of meters and we followed them and held our ground. We sang the national anthem. Eight months ago some young protestors from the April 6th Group had been arrested in Alexandria for singing the national anthem; it was “instigatory” the prosecution said. We sang it. On January 28th, standing at that momentous crossroads, the Nile behind us, the Arab League building to our left, the old Ministry of Foreign Affairs to our right, seeing nothing up ahead except the gas and smoke and ﬁre that stood between us and our capital, we stood our ground and sang and chanted and placed our lives, with all trust and conﬁdence, in one another’s hands.
Some of us died.
Many of us had not yet truly realized what we were engaged in; what the country was engaged in. We knew that Suez had been under siege for three days and people there had been killed. We knew Alexandria was up, and news was coming in from other cities. But we were still calling what we were doing “protesting”—and we had been protesting for ten years. I think that every time I’ve arrived in Cairo—and that’s three or four times a year—I’ve joined my sister and various friends on protests: marches to support the Palestinian Intifada, marches against the war on Iraq, protests against our rigged elections, our co-opted judiciary, against the plots to perpetuate the regime by slithering Gamal Mubarak into power, against corruption and against police brutality. The government was vicious in dealing with all of them. It knew that a demonstration for Palestine or Iraq would sooner or later turn its attention to the Egyptian regime, and that a demonstration against the regime would count its role in Palestine and Iraq among its sins.
Looking back now we see the progression, from small groups collecting medicines for the Intifada, to the civil movement, Kifaya, hitting the streets, to the massive workers’ strikes in Mahalla, to the point where every sector in civil society—judges, lawyers, farmers, teachers, pensioners, journalists, tax collectors—was ﬁghting with the government. And I see it, too, in my family. Like so many politically engaged Egyptian families it’s now in its third generation of activists—and this third generation, in their twenties, are more clever and cool and effective than we ever were. 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’s left of our lives to their effort.
© 2012 by Ahdaf Soueif