Revolutions are often born in public squares, and the uprisings that have rewritten Middle Eastern history this year are no exception. “A different Middle East is emerging,” observed Ehud Yaari of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “one that may be temporarily called square-ocracy, or the transfer of power from governments to masses of demonstrators in the streets.” The main square in Tunis, where protesters gathered to oust dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, is now named for Mohammad Bouazizi, the desperate, government-harassed young street vendor whose self-immolation helped topple the regime. Pro-government thugs loyal to Libyan strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi opened fire in February on protesters assembled in Tripoli’s Green Square, threatening carnage to come. The government of Bahrain shot protesters who were gathering peacefully in its main urban landmark, Pearl Square, to demand greater political rights and representation. In no Arab capital, though, has an uprising been as closely identified with a place as in Cairo, whose Tahrir Square hosted the revolt that ended the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak.
Tahrir, or “Liberation,” Square was originally called Ismailiya Square, after Khedive Ismail, one of Egypt’s self-styled pharaohs, who built it 140 years ago. The square was part of an effort by Ismail, an admirer of Baron Haussmann’s grand boulevards, parks, and squares in Paris, to make Cairo the Paris of the Middle East. Another of Egypt’s autocrats, colonel-turned-president Gamal Abdel Nasser, renamed the square “Tahrir” in 1952 to commemorate Egypt’s “liberation” from the British—a tad belatedly, since Britain had left in the 1920s—and from the monarchy of King Farouk, from whom Nasser and a handful of officers had seized power in a military coup.
The square isn’t really a square at all. As Nezar AlSayyad, an Egyptian-born architect at the University of California at Berkeley, observes in his meticulous new book, Cairo: Histories of a City, Tahrir is actually a vast, ill-defined space bordered on one side by the Nile and on another by a few buildings that have come to symbolize modern Egypt, for better or for worse. Their focal point is the Mugamma (“central complex”)—a sprawling, 12-story Stalinist structure housing the many government offices that Egyptians must visit to seek permits or licenses when doing any business with the state. Such dealings are so complex, and the Egyptian bureaucracy so unresponsive, that even the most routine procedure often requires weeks to finish, absent baksheesh (a bribe). Egyptians like to joke that an ambulance is permanently parked at the base of the building to collect the bodies of citizens who have hurled themselves out of the fortress in despair.
Facing the Mugamma, on another side of the square, is the rose-colored Egyptian Museum, which houses some of the world’s oldest artifacts. During the protests, young Egyptians locked arms around the museum to protect it from vandals, a testament to their sense of national pride. Nearby is the headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, which, by contrast, protesters nearly succeeded in burning to the ground.
Tahrir was a natural destination for the protesters, partly because it’s almost impossible to seal. “There wasn’t a single large boulevard that the police could block off,” said AlSayyad. Some 23 streets, in fact, lead to different parts of the square—a boon to the protesters, who Tweeted about the entrances that the police hadn’t secured yet.
“I knew we had won when we held the square,” said Ibrahim el-Hodaiby, a 27-year-old self-described Muslim democrat who hurled stones at the police to defend the tent city that protesters had erected there. Hodaiby, the grandson and great-grandson of two of the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guides, celebrated until dawn on the night Mubarak was ousted. “Tahrir is the heart of this city, which is the heart of Egypt, which is the heart of the Arab world,” he said proudly. After decades of being barred from holding large protests in the square, he said, Egyptian citizens had finally “liberated” Tahrir.
The protesters’ victory was as improbable as the mass rallies that produced it. A well-connected Egyptian told me that shortly before citizens began protesting the killing of a young Egyptian blogger by the security police for failing to show his identification, the country’s widely despised interior minister, Habib el-Adly, had assured Mubarak that the police could easily handle the 15,000 to 20,000 people expected in Tahrir Square. Instead, seemingly half the city’s population visited Tahrir in the 19 days of largely nonviolent protests that forced Mubarak’s ouster. Not even the Muslim Brotherhood, believed to be Egypt’s largest opposition group, foresaw such an outpouring. “I was totally surprised,” said Abd al-Monem Abo al-Fotouh, a Brotherhood leader. “We thought that this younger generation was good only for sipping coffee in cafés and playing computer games. That’s why we waited so long to join the protests.”
But Alaa al-Asmawy had predicted that such a day might come. His 2006 novel The Yacoubian Building, which was translated into several languages and made into an equally popular film, described Egypt’s moral decay and the growing desperation of its citizens. The story depicted the lives of eight residents of a once-elegant, now-dilapidated building not far from Tahrir Square—a structure ravaged by age, mismanagement, corruption, and neglect, and thus a metaphor for Egypt itself. The Yacoubian Building captured an Egyptian paradox: the belief held by many Egyptians that their country was at the end of an era, despite impressive economic growth rates of roughly 6 percent a year for the past decade, glistening new shopping malls, chic bars and nightclubs, new “satellite cities” on Cairo’s outskirts, improved infrastructure, and an economic liberalization that spawned a booming, if crony-capitalist, private sector—much of it owned and managed by Mubarak’s son Gamal and his inner circle.
“We need change,” al-Asmawy told me in Cairo back in 2008. A Chicago-educated dentist who writes fiction in between filling cavities and writing columns for an opposition newspaper, he called Egypt a “sick” nation whose politicians treated its symptoms, rather than the underlying illness. “Dictatorship is our disease and democracy is the remedy,” he told more than 1 million cheering Egyptians in the square.
Soon after Mubarak left the capital for the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, I visited Amr Moussa, the veteran Egyptian politician and outgoing head of the Arab League, which occupies another Nasser-era building overlooking Tahrir Square. Moussa seemed younger than his 74 years; he is exploring a bid for the Egyptian presidency.
Moussa wasn’t naive. Democracy in countries like Egypt, he said, couldn’t emerge full-blown overnight, but Egypt was moving in the right direction. The rebellion, for instance, had no “religious coloring.” Protesters had hoisted placards demanding freedom and jobs, not Korans. The Brotherhood, which so many Coptic Christians and secular Egyptians fear may win control of a new Egyptian government, was “not in the driver’s seat,” he asserted. While they had helped the protesters organize and fight the police who attacked them, they hadn’t “claimed ownership of the revolution.” Another good sign: “When have revolutionaries ever cleaned up their own mess?” Moussa asked, pointing to the young Egyptians who were clearing trash and repainting signs in the square. Assembling the building blocks of democracy would take time, but the revolution had fostered a “new spirit,” he said. “Egyptians now want strong systems, not strongmen.”
Some businessmen, too, were bullish about Egypt’s prospects. Ahmed el-Alfi, who returned to Egypt from California in 2006, had launched a venture-capital fund just three weeks before the protests erupted. He predicted that investment capital would start flowing into Egypt. “I’m betting my own money on it,” he told me. There was something deep in the Egyptian soul that wanted stability, he added. Perhaps, I thought, it sprang from the need for a strong central government to organize an agrarian society around the annual flooding of the Nile.
But creating stable, modern, democratic systems in Egypt—functioning political parties, the rule of law, protection of the Coptic Christians and other minorities, respect for the individual and for the right to dissent—is a daunting proposition, to say the least. It will certainly take longer than the six months that the army has allocated for a transition to civilian rule. Some Egyptians said they feared that the military would transfer power to civilians before they were ready to govern. Others worried about just the opposite—that the army, which controls an estimated 10 percent to 20 percent of the economy directly and through front companies, might ultimately resist yielding power.
Another concern, of course, is the role that the Muslim Brotherhood will play. As we sat together at the Semiramis, a deserted luxury hotel adjacent to Tahrir Square, Tarek Heggy, a longtime pro-democracy activist, pointed out that roughly 20 percent of Egyptians support the Brotherhood. An Egyptian civil society couldn’t afford to ignore so many people, he said; the challenge would be to ensure that the Brotherhood played by democracy’s rules.
But the Brotherhood isn’t monolithic. It is deeply divided—between younger and older members, along ideological lines, and over strategy and tactics. If Mubarak’s repression forced the group to paper over its differences, freedom is likely to intensify them. “We will have not one Brotherhood but many,” predicted Hodaiby. He ought to know. Despite his credentials as a descendant of Brotherhood leaders, Hodaiby quietly quit the group long before the protests began. “I was fed up with their internal quarrels and intolerance,” he told me. “They’re almost as archaic as Mubarak’s regime.”
The depth and breadth of Egypt’s problems became all too clear in the weeks after Mubarak’s departure. In early March, a Muslim mob attacked Christians protesting the razing of a Coptic church just south of Cairo. Thirteen people were killed and 140 wounded. Mubarak’s police, still in hiding, weren’t around to restore order.
The military has resisted calls to cancel the three-decade-old emergency law that gives the government virtually unlimited power to arrest and detain citizens without judicial review. Foreign policy, too, is dangerously adrift. Even supposedly liberal politicians have suggested that Egypt’s 30-year-old peace treaty with Israel be amended or subjected to a popular referendum. That may be a popular move; the men who infamously beat and sexually molested Lara Logan, a non-Jewish CBS correspondent, in Tahrir on the night of Mubarak’s ouster also shouted “Jew, Jew,” and called her “Mubarak’s blond Israeli reporter.”
Egypt also faces economic and demographic challenges. Under Mubarak, the economy was controlled largely by the government and military, and the small private sector was stifled by heavy regulation and corruption. Despite its robust recent growth rates, the country registered in the lower 40 percent of all developing nations in the United Nations’ 2007 Human Poverty Index, with 40 percent of Egyptians living at or below the international poverty line and an illiteracy rate of 32 percent.
The challenges confronting Egypt were much on the mind of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the 88-year-old Egyptian diplomat who was the UN’s sixth secretary-general. As we drank tea in his study overlooking the Nile, he observed: “Egypt remains a country with too many people living on too narrow a strip of land along a Nile with too little water.” Indeed, 70 percent of Egyptians are under 35, and the nation has the world’s highest rate of youth unemployment. Egypt’s underfunded universities graduate nearly half a million students each year, many of them unemployable, thanks to the poor quality of Egypt’s educational system.
As I prepared to leave the country in February, Tahrir Square had been cleared, and its revolutionary euphoria was fading. Egypt’s revolt hadn’t become a full-fledged revolution; Mubarak was gone, but power remained in the security establishment’s hands. An ancient land with over 5,000 years of strong, centralized rule, Egypt seemed to have its own inexorable rhythms. What it had experienced was not “Revolution 2.0,” as the young Google executive who helped launch the revolt called it, but “Revolution 5,000.0,” said el-Alfi, the entrepreneur.
In March, Egypt held its first free vote—a referendum on constitutional amendments that a group handpicked by the military had proposed. The Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak’s party endorsed the package; Egypt’s young liberal reformers opposed it. Some 77 percent of the 41 percent of Egyptians eligible to vote endorsed the changes—a blow to the liberals.
The rebellion may have enabled young Egyptians to conquer their fear and demand their rights as citizens, but it hasn’t changed Egyptian history or culture. Will the protesters of Tahrir Square be able to devise solutions to the nation’s challenges? Or will Egypt slip back into its old despotism, making the square’s name the butt of yet another Egyptian joke?