Beyond Tahrir Square

[Editor's note:

On the same day that an attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, Islamic protesters descended on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, shouting slogans and pulling down an American flag. If the photographs emerging from Cairo today are any indication, the protesters look outwardly much like those that rallied in Tahrir Square last year, only their anger is directed not at Mubarak but at the United States and Innocence of Muslims, the anti-Islamic propaganda film that was produced here. In last summer’s issue of World Policy Journal, Jenna Krajeski chronicled Egypt’s nascent liberal-secular political movement and its difficulty of maintaining the spirit of Tahrir in the face of better organized and more popular Islamist parties. The peaceful occupation of Tahrir Square has become perhaps the enduring symbol of democracy’s fledgling future in the Middle East, but the protests at the U.S. Embassy yesterday may end up being more emblematic of where that future will lead.]

By Jenna Krajeski

CAIRO—On January 25, Akram Youssef, a mechanical engineer in his early 30s, was relaxing at his childhood home in Heliopolis, a residential neighborhood in east Cairo. It was National Police Day, and Youssef, like much of the country, was off from work. A coalition of youth activists had called for demonstrations that day, to protest the brutal tactics of Egypt’s police and state-security forces. Youssef had supported previous protests against Mubarak and his regime’s tactics. Still, he was skeptical of the day’s events. “You can’t schedule a revolution,” he thought.

In his university days, Youssef had been active in politics. “I would have liked to have been a politician,” he says, drinking tea and smoking a shisha pipe at a coffeehouse in downtown Cairo. But like many other young Egyptians, he became disillusioned and abandoned activism—scared off, in part, by the potential price of publicly opposing Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian rule: harassment, prison, torture. As Youssef puts it, for educated young men of the middle-class who wanted to succeed in Mubarak’s Egypt, there were really only three possible professions: “pharmacist, doctor, engineer.” He chose the third, limiting his engagement with social issues to working with underprivileged children.

As the day went on and protests began to gather around the city, Youssef was persuaded by some friends to head to the Supreme Court building on Ramses Street. To his disappointment, he recognized everyone he saw gathered outside the building. “It was the same people I saw at every protest,” he says. He was thinking of heading home when he received a call from his father, who had been involved in opposition politics as a young man. To Youssef’s surprise, his father wanted to head to Tahrir Square, where he had heard a crowd was gathering, and wanted Youssef to join him. Together, they walked through the square, still empty but for hundreds of black-clad riot policemen. They crossed the Qasr al-Nil Bridge and then the Galaa Bridge, arriving in the upscale neighborhood of Mohandeseen. There, they found a crowd.

“It was a very strange moment,” Youssef recalls. “The people were control­ling everything.” As the crowd began to march toward Tahrir, they were joined by people leaving their homes and stores, em­boldened by the growing numbers of pro­testers. “Now, there were all the activists I know, but also thousands of others,” he says. They encountered lines of riot police on the Galaa Bridge, which shook when the protesters all began jumping up and down, shouting, “This is a peaceful pro­test!” The crowd finally broke through the police lines, spilling into Tahrir Square.

There, they were met by tear gas, water cannons, and a barrage of rubber bullets. By dusk, Youssef was convinced. This time, it was different. Three days later, he was among the thousands of protestors who finally took full control of Tahrir, overcoming the state-security police and beginning a weeks-long occupation. “The space we all existed in was changed,” he says. “It was a revolution.”

The revolution engaged a broad spectrum of Egyptians, whose competing visions were momentarily drowned out by the unifying goal of ridding themselves of Mubarak. But at its core were young people, like Youssef, who dream of turning Egypt into a genuine secular democracy. Their strength—indeed, their very existence—came as a shock to much of Egypt, and to much of the outside world. Now, however, the fate of their ambitious project is in doubt. As international attention inevitably drifted elsewhere, the tide in Egypt has turned from revolutionary to counterrevolutionary. The military government that took over after Mubarak’s departure has cracked down on dissent and shown few sign of embracing democratic reforms that might threaten their power and privileges. The unity of Tahrir has given way to violence between Muslims and Coptic Christians. It’s an environment that favors the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood—long accustomed to organizing under repressive conditions—over the inexperienced and disorganized secular youth groups that were the driving force of the revolution.

Youssef and his fellow revolutionaries are now faced with a sobering prospect. Was it possible that they had enough power to topple Mubarak, but not enough to avoid being pushed aside in the new Egypt? Now that Tahrir Square has been cleared, is there a place for them in the country’s politics?

[To read the rest of this article, click here.]


Jenna Krajeski is an Istanbul-based writer and former editor at the English-language edition of Al-Masry Al-Youm, an Egyptian daily newspaper.

[Photo: Zeinad Mohamed/Zoltán Kelemen]

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