Tahrir Square 2

February 22 2011

When you know the faces and that emphatic, staccato, vehement Egyptian way of speaking, Egypt doesn’t feel like just another place in turmoil (clashes between supporters of X and anti-government protesters).

A friend who was in Tahrir Square emailed me on January 18:

“Things are boiling even more these days in Cairo. There will be some demonstrations on Jan 25 that people say will be a revolution, may be a civil war.”


Revolutionary years, not only in Egypt:


Egypt felt a reverberation from France. Napoleon invaded in person and was defeated by Nelson in person in the Battle of the Nile (1798). Afterwards, the reforming Ottoman viceroy Muhammad Ali (ruled 1805-48) had French military and scientific manuals and other works translated into Arabic. Much of the French infusion was managed by Rifa’a el-Tahtawi.

I have a post here (a sketchy passage by Toynbee) about French law and culture in Egypt. I can remember meeting a old Francophone Egyptian in Cairo.


1848 did not, as far as I know, have an impact on Egypt (though it happened to mark the end of the reign of Muhammad Ali), but it is a parallel to 2011 (and 1989) in the way revolution spread from place to place. The January trigger then was Palermo – not two hundred miles away from Tunis.


1919 had been a series of nationalist uprisings against the British, who had been in Egypt since 1882. In 1914 the British-occupied Khediviate became a British-protected Sultanate. Turkish influence was ended. In 1922, after the 1919 agitations, it became an “independent” kingdom. Even then, some British troops remained until 1936, and in the Canal Zone until 1954. It is hard, from these facts, to see how 1919 can have felt like a revolution, but it did to the Egyptians. I sketched the story of Egypt from Muhammad Ali to Nasser here.

The same year saw the Spartacist uprising in Berlin, the foundation of the Fascist party in Italy, the short-lived Bavarian and Hungarian Socialist Republics, the Amritsar massacre in India, police and other strikes in Britain, and convulsions in Ireland, eastern Europe and Russia, Turkey, Korea and China.

After the uprisings, the square, which had been called Midan Ismaileyya, after Khedive Ismail, who had commissioned the new downtown district’s plan, became popularly known as Midan al-Tahrir (Liberation Square). It was not officially renamed until the revolution of 1952. Other demonstrations have taken place there, including the bread riots in 1977 and the demonstrations against the Iraq War in 2003.


1952 was the revolution led by Nasser that removed King Farouk (seventeen years before Idris was removed in Libya) and installed the present military establishment.

(The first president was not Nasser but Muhammad Naguib. Farouk was not the last king: he was briefly succeeded by Fuad II.)

Between Nasser (died 1970) and Mubarak was only Sadat. Sadat signed the peace treaty with Israel at Camp David and was assassinated.

Egyptian public morale collapsed in June 1967 (Six-Day War). It had been pumped up by Nasser and was high for good cultural reasons as well, and it was knocked back further in October 1973 (Yom Kippur War) and (though Egyptians are peaceful people) September 1978 (Camp David). Until January 25 2011 it had never quite recovered.


That’s what Americans fear, but no scowling demagogue got off a plane. Unless Yusuf al-Qaradawi is that.

Some educated Egyptians have a cultural fascination with Iran, the great or forbidden Other, and the only country in what Americans call “the region” which is similar to it in size of population. But Egypt has had no diplomatic relations with Iran since 1979. Electronic alliances are being formed.

The sclerotic era of Mubarak began in October 1981.


From an old post:

“[People Power in the Philippines] was a T-shirted revolution before Twitter, a colour-coded revolution before mobile phones and email, a velvet revolution practically before fax. There had been peaceful protests and non-cooperation in India, but they were surely more manipulated and orchestrated.

“Since 1986, the Philippine example has been at the back of our minds wherever there have been large-scale, mainly peaceful popular protests. Václav Havel has said that it was in the minds of European demonstrators in 1989. The days leading up to the deposition of Ceauşescu in Romania reminded one very strongly of the Philippines. Was it in the minds of the Chinese students in the same year? It was in our minds this year [2009] during the protests that began after the Iranian presidential elections.”

Before January 25 Egypt had lost its standing in the Arab world, which had been so high in the ’50s and ’60s. Qatar, as Robin Yassin-Kassab has said, counted for more.

Egyptians must be charmed now to think that at least a few young people all over the oppressed world, not only in the Middle East, are looking up to them.


The obvious, though very far from exact, precedent. The chain of revolutions got going in the second half. In Russia, two years later, a system collapsed with little pressure from below.

Egypt had transferred its loyalty from the USSR to the US before this, under Sadat.


Removal of Mubarak. Now the people are dealing with the military in uniform, face to face.


Nobody who witnessed this revolution at a distance will forget the moving words of Wael Abbas, Ahdaf Soueif, Khalid Abdalla, Wael Ghonim and many others, and nameless people.

Blair on February 2: Hosni Mubarak was “immensely courageous and a force for good”.

As always, there are those in the Middle East, the homeland of conspiracy theory, who are hinting at forces – America, Israel, other – controlling these events. Many others, especially the rich, are saying: “We are not ready for democracy, the West should stop lecturing us” and “Let the West dream”. They are right. But the revolution happened in spite of Obama’s ditherings and, thanks to them, Egyptians feel that Tahrir Square was their own achievement.

I had thought that the relevance of Facebook and Twitter to real politics had been exaggerated. I was wrong, but I was in no doubt from January 25 that it was over for Mubarak.

“The World Bank says escalating food prices have pushed 44 million more people into poverty since last June.”

The median age in Egypt is 24. More than a quarter of males under 30 with degrees are unemployed.

Egypt had been “growing” at 6% a year. It’s said that revolutions usually happen in countries which are growing economically. Energy which had been pent up is released and destroys the system which produced the growth. Russia in 1917? That kind of growth, in any case, can make things temporarily worse, and perhaps permanently less secure, for the masses.

Real revolutions aren’t gang warfare waged at state level. They are a return to truth. Will the energy produce a later wave of expansionist Islamism or be wholly dissipated in manoeuvring, compromises and renewed corruption?

Tahrir Square became a university in which different classes and types in Egyptian society met. That moment will not return.

Egyptians, such as Waseem Wagdi, not reporters, were the best exponents of their condition.

However it ends, Tahrir Square has changed the Middle East politically, geopolitically and psychologically. [Postscript 2013 11 28: Is that true?] The revolution was not Islamist or socialist or especially anti-American or even anti-Zionist. There was no utopianism, no desire for an absolute break with the past, except in one respect. No exaggeration. Not even a leader. No “nativist romanticism, sectarian distraction or religious obscurantism” (Robin Yassin-Kassab). These facts may, perhaps, offer some grounds for hope.

Egypt has minorities, but not deep sectarian divisions. Robin Yassin-Kassab: “The answer to sectarian hatred is democracy. The answer to Arab hatred of Israel is for Israel to change itself from a violent ethnocracy to a multicultural democracy.”

On the Muslim Brotherhood: “First, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is noted for its aversion to violence. Ayman Zawahri and the al-Qa’ida types broke away from the Brothers for precisely this reason. Second, the Brotherhood by its own admission has not led the revolution, no more than Muhammad al-Barade’i or any other leader. Third, the Brotherhood is part of the revolution like almost every other segment of Egyptian society, because it is part of society, a venerable institution and a mass movement. If the revolution has an ideology, it’s one of representation and dignity, of democracy in other words. The Brotherhood, like Barade’i, has called for an interim national government with no NDP presence, followed by elections. If the Brothers win elections, they will not be in a position to establish a new dictatorship. Fourth, the most retrograde elements of Islamism, those that lead to nihilistic terrorism and sectarian hatred, are nourished by the social stagnation of dictatorship. Finally, it is not for British or American chatterers to decide whether the Egyptians are ready for freedom. The Egyptians are demanding freedom, and are making the chatterers irrelevant.”

Few people outside Egypt even know the name of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader. It is Mohammed Badie.

Many Egyptians who before January 25 did not speak in political terms nevertheless showed a pre-revolutionary mood in the way they spoke about their personal lives. But nobody predicted the certainty which they found in themselves in Tahrir Square.

A comment on this blog on February 1: “Day after day people lost the value of their own lives and now they are willing to give these lives away […].”

Robin Yassin-Kassab: “Arabs never really achieved independence, for a variety of reasons. Corrupt elites in authoritarian Arab states have plundered the people’s wealth, obeyed the dictates of hostile superpowers against the people’s will, and entirely failed to build reasonable education or social welfare institutions. Civil society has been stifled. Now it seems that the Arab people are entering the power equation, and true independence may be at hand.”

The best foreign reporting, aside from some blogs, was from CNN. Reporting, not analysis. The Egyptians will remember it. It was less naive than some about the role of the army. Al Jazeera was good, too. I am not an expert on Egypt, but many of the Western chatterers seemed to know nothing about it at all.


Egypt had been bursting for some kind of freshness in its politics for many years. Mubarak should have left in 2005. Cairo, too, in its planning. There is hardly a park or tree anywhere. There are little more than rough pavements by the Nile, next to noisy roads, along which people can stroll. Its physical charm has been squeezed out of it. This has happened in some degree in every old city on earth. In the nineteenth century and early twentieth, to judge from any account of the banks of the Nile, Cairo was a seductive place. But Egypt wasn’t a republic then.

Most of Tahrir Square has been a building site for as long as I can remember it and was not accessible by the demonstrators. You didn’t see it on the news. What you saw was a roundabout.

It isn’t clear what the work is intended to lead to. Paved area? Garden? The only thing that is clear is that the project has stalled because of corruption. Somebody, deserving or otherwise, has not been paid. Tahrir Square is a minor scandal of Mubarak’s Egypt.

Nearly all shots of the square show the giant Mogamma office building, a gift of the Soviet Union completed just before the 1952 revolution.


“[We] who were strong in love.

11 Responses to “Tahrir Square 2”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    When Mubarak made his first speech against the revolution, on January 29, the BBC said: “He must have been desperate to have made it on television after midnight.” Anyone who knows Egypt knows that Egyptians do everything at all hours of the day and night on special occasions. It wasn’t strange at all.

    Mubarak: three speeches, one semi-interview (with Christiane Amanpour).

    Is El Baradei a bit of a lightweight, or is that unfair?

    I can even tell Egyptian, as distinct from other Arabic, English from the way they write.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Before People Power in the Philippines, you had bloodless revolutions in Portugal and Greece in 1974, a peaceful transition in Spain in 1975, and, from 1980, Solidarity in Poland. And the start of the anti-Apartheid movement.

    Cf successful establishments of democracy in Latin America and Korea.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    The story of the lawlessness during the period when the security forces were withdrawn and the army was not yet deployed has not been fully told.

  4. davidderrick Says:

    Qunfuz/Robin: “the most retrograde elements of Islamism, those that lead to nihilistic terrorism and sectarian hatred, are nourished by the social stagnation of dictatorship.”

    Dictatorship deep-freezes sectarian hatred, but cannot ease it: Yugoslavia.

    We have watched nihilistic terrorist impulses develop in the UK and US.

  5. davidderrick Says:

    Fouad Ajami got a bad name in the Bush era as a supporter of the Iraq War. His daily presence on CNN at the moment shows him in a better light, but he is still an interventionist.

  6. davidderrick Says:

    Christopher Hitchens, What I Don’t See at the Revolution, Vanity Fair, April 2011:


  7. davidderrick Says:

    Although I’ve stood up for some of CNN’s reporting recently, it has been the result of watching some concentrated, ad-free podcasts. Its “live” coverage of the fall of Tripoli today has seemed as thin as ever.

    It’s a matter of dilution. What is certainly true is that there is more feistiness and esprit de corps in the CNN – and Sky – reporting teams than in the BBC’s. The quality of BBC reporting from Tripoli is turning into a minor scandal.

  8. […] in Egypt November 21 2011 This post from February 22 gave some superficial historical […]

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