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Taming Tahrir (Part One)

Tahrir has witnessed five milestones that have eventually resulted in a mixed reality which paves the way for the sidestepping of the January revolution.

Marwa Fikry Abdel Samei
13 August 2013
Tahrir 30th June 2013

Crowds gather in Tahrir Square in support of 'Second Revolution'. Credit: Demotix/Shawkan. All rights reserved.

On January 25, 2011, Egyptians captured world attention by rallying in Tahrir Square armed only with their determination to win their freedom and dignity. Tahrir became a symbol of liberation and emerged as an example of civil dissent to be emulated by protestors around the world. This public space represented not only the embodiment of the January 25 revolution but also its spirit. At that time, no one could have ever imagined that the place witnessing the birth of Egypt’s democratic transition would be the same place where the nascent democratic experience would be sabotaged. It is enough to revisit Tahrir today to see what future awaits Egypt’s transition.

Since it came into existence in the nineteenth century, Tahrir was always a site of dissent. The square witnessed serious demonstrations resulting in police killing scores of Egyptians in February 11, 1946 under the British Occupation. The centrality of the place, however, reached its peak and first enjoyed a worldwide fame with the January 25 revolution. With the first spark of the January revolution, Tahrir became a contested space between the regime (represented in its security forces) and the demonstrators. Protestors were pressuring their way to Tahrir while the security forces were forcefully pushing them back. It is not an exaggeration to say that the symbolic front line of the revolution was about occupying Tahrir. It is within this context that we can understand the “battle of the camel,” where supporters of the regime took upon themselves the responsibility for evacuating Tahrir after the failure, and later the withdrawal, of the security forces.  It was that stark a conflict over who owns this public space. Therefore, there is an organic relationship between the January 25 revolution and Tahrir, which means that circumventing the first, has to start with the latter. Tahrir has witnessed five milestones that have eventually resulted in a mixed reality for the place which paves the way for the sidestepping of the January revolution.

The first milestone emerged gradually a little after Mubarak’s ouster when Tahrir became the bastion of “street children” and wandering vendors. Incidents of thuggery and sexual harassment escalated. Many Egyptians believe that this was a plot calculated to taint the idealized image of Tahrir. During the January 25 revolution, Tahrir was represented as the “virtuous city” where the values of altruism, solidarity, fraternity, dignity, tolerance and coexistence prevailed. It was simply a miniature reflecting the Egypt of which we were all dreaming. This mental image was gradually changing and, thus, the goal of exposing the myth of such a “utopian” place was achieved. However, the place remained the public space of the January 25 revolution, its embodiment, and the direction of the revolutionaries. This character was about to change with the June rebellion.

The second turning point took place on June 30, 2013 when hundreds of thousands (or millions) of Egyptians gathered at Tahrir to ask for the deposition of Egypt’s first ever democratically elected president after exactly one year of being in office. The significance of this moment lies in the fact that for the first time the revolutionaries, the remnants of Mubarak’s regime and Mubarak's brutal police apparatus stood side by side in Tahrir, celebrating in joy the military’s ouster of the elected President. This odd partnership turned a blind eye to the fact that some of those who were celebrating the June rebellion were the same forces who had attacked the revolutionaries during the January 25 revolution. While they failed to conquer the square on the back of their camels on February 2, 2011, they did manage to occupy it with the full consent of the revolutionaries in 2013. It was tragic to see police officers, who have repressed Egyptians for decades and who let them down in every confrontation with the thugs after the revolution, being carried shoulder-to-shoulder at the same spot where they had previously shot down martyrs on January 28, 2011. The same revolutionaries who kept chanting for 18 months “Down with the SCAF”, now perceived the army as the saviour whose intervention in politics was not only expected but also eminently desirable. This hybrid gathering made the identity of Tahrir malleable and, consequently, opened up a welcome to the counter-revolutionary forces. Mubarak’s deep state finally found a purchase on Tahrir. It knew very well that winning Tahrir was actually winning the fight. Tahrir was no longer the sacred place of the January 25 revolution.

The third milestone changed the spirit of Tahrir. For many of the revolutionaries, Tahrir was the battleground on which to fight for the future of Egypt. Therefore, they were always ready to defend it even if this was going to cost them their lives. Rather than the anxiety and fear that defined the 18 days of the January revolution, the six hours of the June rebellion were more relaxed, a joyful event, a celebration rather than an act of dissent. In January, the protestors had mixed feelings about why the military jets were flying overhead. In June, the Army did not leave the protestors any room for doubt that it was on their side: the helicopters were throwing Egyptian flags to them. The police forces that were denied access to al-Tahrir for over two years, were welcomed back for the first time after the revolution. Not only did they protect the rebels, giving them juice and water, but they also played an active part in the demonstrations.

Moreover, while Tahrir used to be a place for sacrifice, it became, after the coup, a place for getting rewarded. On the 10th of Ramadan, the anniversary of crossing the Suez Canal, the army organized a celebration at Tahrir  - something unusual in itself as the event is usually celebrated on October 6 - where music, fireworks and air shows were performed. The police musical band performed on the main stage in Tahrir and the military jets were now throwing "reward coupons" to the protestors in Tahrir at the same time as others were dropping warning leaflets on the pro-Morsi demonstrators in other squares.

Fourthly, the place was always the site of resistance and opposition to the authority, regardless of who was in power: Mubarak, the SCAF, or the Muslim Brotherhood. This political identity is changing. The June 30 youth activists continued to call Egyptians to rally at Tahrir to preserve the gains they had won and to support the army’s actions and decisions. It is becoming evident that the space that used to be a symbolic site for resisting the authorities has now for the first time become its ally. General Sisi’s call on Egyptians to rally in Tahrir, and other places as well, on July 26 to give him a mandate to fight “likely” violence and terrorism attempted to seal this new bargain. The public space, that used to embrace all Egyptians without differentiation in the January 25 revolution in their quest for freedom and dignity is now being used to distinguish between the good and the bad citizen: those who are with the army’s roadmap (lining up with the authorities) and those who are against it (challenging authority), respectively. The power of the place and its collective identity lay in its political dissent and independence from any authority. Losing these traits means that Tahrir has stopped being this vibrant arena for public discourse and revolutionary change, the bearer of the January 25 revolution.

The fifth milestone is transforming Tahrir into a site for fun and entertainment rather than the symbolic heart of a new social and political order. Celebrating the special bond between the army and the people is substituting for the talk about democracy, freedom, and reform. Since the beginning of Ramadan, every night a famous singer performs on the stage in Tahrir. This was most evident with the July 26 rallies where famous singers performed to amuse the protestors. Most of these singers praised the army and its general commander, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Reducing the revolutionary spirit of Tahrir to amusement rallies shows how it is intended that this public space should not only be de-revolutionized but also de-politicized. The fun is increasingly replacing the political in Tahrir.

Taming Tahrir and subjecting it to the will of the authorities appears to be part of a grand strategy aiming at popular depoliticization and the kettling of the spirit of the January revolution. This begs one question: Are revolutionaries defined by their spaces, or are spaces defined by their revolutionaries?

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