Beyond Tahrir Square

An eye-witness account of swiftly changing attitudes in Egypt


After more than ten days of upheaval, downtown Cairo was quiet again. Walking across Tahrir Square on my daily commute this past month, I soon got used to turbulent crowds and the sound of gunfire. Tear gas was like fresh air. Then, all of a sudden, Tahrir fell silent on 28 November. People were queuing in front of poll stations and eager to play a part in the first round of parliamentary elections since the fall of Mubarak.

The first phase of the elections saw an unprecedented 50% voter turnout on 29 November, according to the Supreme Electoral Commission. Yet the number declined sharply to about 20% during the runoffs, reminding many Egyptians of Mubarak’s days when nobody showed up at poll stations.

The so-called ‘Islamists’– the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al-Nour of the Salafists – took the lead, while the liberal Egyptian Bloc was an adversary. At the moment many Egyptians friends of mine are still talking about the preliminary results of the election, although a few protesters in Tahrir want to boycott all parliamentary elections under illegitimate military rule.

They are right to some extent. Parliamentary elections are not enough to solve Egypt’s problems, let alone contain the disappointment and discontent of the masses in the long run. But some of them argue that by participating in the elections, the Egyptian masses had approved the dictatorship of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and thus betrayed the January revolution. Many Tahrir activists call for a second revolution which aims to overthrow military rule.

But one cannot step twice into the same river. Whereas in the January revolution people from all walks of life were one in demanding the fall of the Mubarak regime, the idea of a second revolution lacks popular support. It seems difficult now for Tahrir protesters to win the hearts and minds of the Egyptian masses. Even in mid-November, when hardcore activists clashed with army troops and police officers, it was doubtful whether the vast majority of Egyptians were willing to keep up with the changing situation in Tahrir.

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Alyaa, who recently got her BA degree at Ain Shams University in Cairo, explained why a second revolution is not an exciting prospect for many Egyptians: “There won’t be another revolution as impressive as the one in January. …  At the start of the year all Egyptians had a common goal to oust Mubarak from power. Now people have divergent interests and divisions between different political groups go deeper. In post-Mubarak Egypt everyone endeavours to benefit him or herself at the expense of others.”

An Egyptian-born Palestinian, Alyaa followed political developments in Egypt closely but chose to stand to one side of events. “I’m tired of endless protests in Tahrir which hardly improve people’s standard of living,” she said. “The activists said from time to time they were determined to bridge the gap between rich and poor in Egypt. Some of them were frequently invited onto radio and television talk shows and made lots of money by being activists. On the contrary, most Egyptians – the silent population – remained poor. … I don’t care about these activists. I just want things to go back the way they were.”

“But there were significant improvements in terms of people’s political rights,” I mentioned. 

“Absolutely,” Alyaa said. “Before the January revolution, Egyptians were often bullied by police. We could not discuss politics in public because the regime deployed plainclothes officers in the street and on campus. However, everything has two sides. Now the police are gone and there is plenty of freedom of expression, but people are worried about the deterioration of the security situation. Crime in Cairo has become a serious concern and I dare not walk alone when it gets dark.

Alyaa’s schoolmate Shaimaa, another Ain Shams graduate, interrupted: “Egypt used to be the safest place in the world. I’m not exaggerating when I say that in the past everywhere in the country felt like home. Now it’s quite common to see young people kidnapped and women harassed all over Egypt.”

Shaimaa joined tens of thousands of Tahrir demonstrators in January, and spent several days with them demanding Mubarak’s resignation. “Mubarak had to go,” she told me before the first round of elections in November, “but I won’t support protesters who ask SCAF to step down before electing delegates of the People’s Assembly. Although many protesters call for a peaceful transfer of power from the military council to a civilian government, their hidden agenda is to ignite chaos and postpone the upcoming elections.”

She explained that many demonstrators on the square are members of small, newly-founded political parties, which are less popular and influential than Al Wafd, Al Nour and the Freedom and Justice Party: ‘The election on 28 November will put these small parties at a disadvantage. That’s why I’m not surprised at all to see them occupying Tahrir again.”

Shaimaa’s argument revealed part of the mystery of a million-man march on Tahrir days before the parliamentary elections. However, when I was sitting among the Egyptians in Tahrir during those tumultuous days I saw a different scene. While fighting intensified between protesters and military police on Mohamed Mahmoud Street – which connects Tahrir Square with the Interior Ministry and where more than 30 activists were killed – Tahrir itself was more like a marketplace, where huge crowds gather together at a spectacular sunset.

Families and friends were chatting over a cup of coffee or tea at small stands near the street. Teenage vendors pushed their ways through the crowd selling candy, tissue paper and gas masks. Boyfriends and girlfriends poured into the square, posing for the perfect picture. Generally speaking, people were no more than curious about what was happening. Most of them travelled to Tahrir not to support the protesters but to enjoy the lively atmosphere after a day’s work.

“The square has become a cultural icon,” Alyaa commented. “To many Egyptian youths, taking pictures in Tahrir and showing them to friends is something to be proud of.”

Some of my other Egyptian friends who backed activists in Tahrir are eager to see an overthrow of the military council. But instead of feeling empowered and enthusiastic, as the protesters did in January, they feel powerlessness. Abdullah, 20-year-old student, condemns the illegitimate rule of the SCAF and the newly appointed PM Kamal al-Ganzuri, but he prefers not to take part in the sit-in protest. ‘They are generals and I’m an ecologist. I envy the activists demonstrating in Tahrir. But to me, doing fieldwork is more exciting and rewarding.”

After clashes broke out between military forces and Tahrir demonstrators, I had an interesting discussion with Islam, an Egyptian in his thirties, about who would be the winner in the end. ‘The army for sure,” he told me without hesitation. “They have military power where the masses have nothing. The Chinese military crackdown on protesters in 1989 is a case in point. I don't think Egyptians can make a difference.”

The march in late November not only split Egypt’s public opinion on revolution but contributed to a deeper divide between Egypt and Tahrir Square. Ahmad, a journalist in the state-run Middle East News Agency, said he was not happy to see Tahrir protesters declaring themselves representatives of the Egyptian people: “Even in February, when more than one million people filled the square, we needed to bear in mind that the protesters only made up 1 in 85 of the Egyptian population.”

Shaimaa also complained that the media focuses too much attention on Tahrir demonstrators: “The vast majority of Egyptians remained silent all the time, and what they stand for may differ considerably from the demonstrators.”

A week after our conversation, thousands of Egyptians broke their silence. On 25 November, protesters who called themselves the “silent majority” rallied in Abbaseya Square, chanting for the SCAF and calling for stability and security in the country. Tahrir protesters were respectable, they said, but Egypt should not be a trial-and-error field for activists. According to local media, Abbaseya’s attempt to downplay Tahrir was in vain. Outside Tahrir, most of my friends are indifferent.

Wang Dingnan is a Chinese student of international relations in Cairo