Early morning, Feb. 4, I watched with weary eyes as the Day of Departure in Cairo’s Tahrir Square unfolded on my TV screen in sleepy Wisconsin. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators prayed in unison, with one loud, booming voice. They were demanding the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak and his regime.
Hours later, I was on a bus to Chicago to pick up a visa at the Egyptian consulate. In contrast to Tahrir, nothing seemed amiss there. A timid male receptionist with a trimmed mustache supervised a square desk with nothing on it but a stack of old visa forms, a phone, and the Quran. Hieroglyphics hung from walls, next to the obligatory picture of Mubarak.
I landed in Cairo two days later. The streets were empty because of an Army-imposed curfew. This blankness was in stark contrast to the bustling Cairene streets I remembered from my last trip in 2008. Tanks doubled as roadblocks every half mile or so.
The taxi driver and his “supervisor” told me how tourism was taking a hit, how Army-controlled gas stations were only open for a short time during the day, and even then the price of gas had gone up dramatically. They just wanted the country to return to normal, and Mubarak stood for normalcy. This was a common complaint from those who didn’t protest— like my cousin in Alexandria who was worried about the Muslim Brotherhood usurping the uprising—and from bloggers who had been to more rural areas. Not surprisingly, this was also the narrative on state-controlled TV. Accordingly, the driver, while sympathetic to change, thought Al Jazeera wasn’t telling the whole story.
The next morning, I made my way down to Tahrir Square with Cyril Almeida, the Pakistani journalist with whom I was staying. The taxi took us to the edge of the Qasr al-Nil bridge, from which we had to walk. People had queued to get into the square, some of them carrying bags full of food for the protesters. Everything about the line seemed political: young men yelled “Honor Egypt!” with arms full of flags for sale. They talked about what post-Mubarak Egypt would look like, expressing disbelief at reports on how much money the regime had allegedly embezzled. Even the line seemed political—people I spoke with later expressed wonder that Egyptian people could actually form queues. I spoke with a few boys behind us. One remarked that something like Mubarak can never happen again, that the next president should know exactly when to enter office and when to leave. Another said that while families had been coming to Tahrir, it wasn’t going to be all fun and games: the goal was still to overthrow the regime.
The Qasr al-Nil entrance was flanked by a fence on one side, a tank on the other, behind which stood a mess of makeshift barricades and barbed wire. The military décor seemed merely symbolic. Citizens were the ones playing security by checking IDs and giving pat-downs at the entrance. Inside, the mood was carnivalesque. Drummers and singers chanted revolutionary slogans and sang nationalist songs. Banners flew in English and Arabic, both proclaiming those now legendary words: “The people demand removal of the regime.” I met a blogger friend, whom I had previously only known online, on the sidewalk which separated two sides of the square. On one side, a group of women dressed vividly in a rainbow array of hijabs chanted and marched. On the other, a swarm of children did the same.
Nadia, my blogger friend, became my guide and led me through the different parts of the square. We ventured to the middle, once a grass-covered traffic circle and now a tent city. I use the word “tent” loosely, since shelters were constructed from poles, stakes, rope, and whatever could be draped over them. We ducked through the narrow makeshift alleyways and thoroughfares, saw women, men, and children of all backgrounds making food, sleeping, living in these highly unusual circumstances. I puzzled the most at the sleeping, since Tahrir held an excited revolutionary buzz, with people talking and chanting, and loudspeakers blaring speeches and music. I came to understand later that as long as the buzz is constant, one can ignore it.
We found one of the first tents established in the square, the so-called “Freedom Motel” started by blogger Tarek Shalaby. It had become a meeting spot for bloggers and net-savvy youth, most of them fluent in English. Tarek described some of the impromptu systems that had developed in the square, like the station for charging cell phones. One would have to leave an ID with the cell phone and take a checkout number in return. Another man said he had left his job in the U.S. to be with his family and friends during the revolution.
We then made our way to another entrance. Men stood on a burnt out police truck that had been turned onto its side. Those entering the square were greeted with songs and the waving of Egyptian flags. Nadia pointed to the top of the residential building from where Mubarak’s supporters had been throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks at their opponents below. I’d seen the same building on Al Jazeera some days earlier. Behind the truck, someone had taken stones thrown by Mubarak supporters and spelled out irhal (“leave”) on the street. Nearby, men camped next to tanks still manned by the Army to ensure these didn’t move on Tahrir’s residents.
Around 4 p.m., the square began to fill up. Families came together, along with students and businessmen. Nadia hadn’t seen crowds of this size since the protests began. There was a marked difference in the environment and mood between Tahrir and the rest of Cairo. A blogger, Mona Seif, had tweeted right after pro-Mubarak thugs attacked the square that Tahrir was the safest place in the city.
She was right. I felt no aggression toward me, no fear. When I spoke to people outside of Tahrir who opposed or were skeptical of the protests, they would speak with a shadow of contempt if not outright hostility.
Evening fell on the square with pockets of men gathering to pray. Others formed a wall around them for protection. On our way out, we saw a bride and groom, married in Tahrir that day. Here was the union of the private and the public, the sacred and the mundane.
Exiting the square, we walked toward the state TV building, now a fortress with no less than 40 tanks surrounding it and soldiers stationed behind mounted guns on the second story. The streets outside brought me back to the reality of Cairo. The sidewalks and streets were thick with garbage, traffic was backed up and barely moving, honking continued unabated. The fallout from the clashes was visible. The Army guarded the Ramses Hilton, whose sign had been defaced with anti-Mubarak slogans. A wall read “Mubarak=sadness.” Nadia and I parted ways as I returned to the hotel after my first full day in revolutionary Cairo.
Three days later, Mubarak stepped down.