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Seven years ago in Tahrir Square

February 14, 2011

I went to Egypt in 2004—a visit sandwiched between Tunisia and Morocco—and it feels necessary to reopen an archive of memories and revisit Tahrir Square, a flashpoint of space that has been implacably transformed, and in its hypervisibility (by way of satellite images, al-Jazeera, mobile phone videos) ushered the hard-won transformation of multiple cities, regions and ultimately the country.

Three days after the overthrow of Mubarak, Tahrir Square is said to be ‘liberated.’ I am trying to place that event in the highly subjective, long-zoom focal length of the spatial experience of Tahrir Square seven years ago when no one—absolutely no one you talked to, heard about, read or trusted—could predict that Mubarak’s downfall was in such brief historical reach. In lieu of an academic history, this is a brief visceral, urban and personal one.

(I decided not to post a photo here because my memory bank of Cairo, the Nile, the Badawi Red Sea strip and environs is less imagistic than acoustic, and mostly because no pre-2011 image of Tahrir can visually withstand its prior history.)

In no particular order:

1. The Square appeared to be a concentric force that reflected one’s perception of the rest of Cairo: a grim place of deferred dreams and sullen traffic.

2. One of our friends had taken the metro Line 2 (Shobra El Kheima—El Mounib) that passes through Tahrir. She recounted being pushed and forced out of the women-only train and into a mixed train, after which a couple of men collectively masturbated and ejaculated on her. The experience of sexual assault and harassment seemed to be on the minds of nearly all women, be they Egyptian or foreign, and it left a bitter feeling on the entire trip. I was assaulted once—not in Tahrir Square itself, but nearby—by someone who turned out to be an elderly woman. (Whether or not she was trying to cop a feel or pull open by clothing looking for a different type of spoils is beyond me—after the subway ejaculation story I didn’t really think much of it at the time.)

Zooming back out to Egypt now, one hears from Egyptian women saying they did not ‘hear of a single incident of sexual harassment since the protests started on January 25.’ Azza Kamel, an activist and writer who camped out all 18 day in Tahrir Square is quoted by The National:

“The revolution changed us,” said Ms Kamel, 50, who left the square only for a few hours each day to collect blankets and food for her fellow protesters.
“Men were not touching women; in fact, they were saying sorry every time they bumped into a woman.”

This may not sound like a lot, but in Egypt, where a study in 2008 for the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights showed that more than four out of five women had been sexually assaulted at some time, it was nothing short of revolutionary.

In the days leading up to January 25, an email was sent out to women taking part in the protests advising them to wear two layers of clothes, nothing with a zip and to double-wrap their hijabs. This was not paranoid fear-mongering, but a practical precaution based on decades of experience. The police, who faded away as the protests took on momentum, are notorious for groping, stripping and raping women as tools of intimidation. Such endemic harassment understandably drove women into their homes and out of the political limelight. Until now that is.

“I really believe the revolution has changed us. People are acting differently towards each other,” Ms Kamel said. She pointed to the culture of fear that has pervaded Egypt for four decades as partly to blame for endemic harassment of women. “An oppressed people look for someone else to bully and oppress. Now, this is the first time in 40 years people have tasted freedom. Men are no longer touching women.”

3. Our closest Egyptian friend and companion in Cairo and Tahrir was Mohammad. Well under the ‘unfit’ age of 30 he was unable to get an adequate job or leave the country before completing mandatory service in the army for some years, a prospect he dreaded so much that his voice and hands shook every time he talked about it. Even with a decent education and his parents’ moderate but middle-class income, any movement forward that he would accept as progress was completely out-of-reach.

4. Bakhsheesh. An economic system of macro political corruption at the top and micro humiliation and lack of self-determination at the bottom. Everywhere. If Mubarak can be knocked off his Louis IV furniture, then this post-colonial wretchedness can be overcome too.

5. Kushari: delicious and mostly meatless (largely because of the high cost of meat, among other reasons) but described to us by several foreigners as ‘too working class’ a dish. They favored ‘middle-class’ Western fast food chains like KFC and Hardees to eating alongside ordinary workers.

6. Off the Tahrir path, I tried (and succeeded, but only after three hours of hassle) to enter the American University. Even with a family member studying there long-term, the hours lolled and waned in overheated administrative offices. This was just to get permission to take a stroll around the campus. The regulation of private space was so tight and so internally secured that there were literally files kept on any, God forbid, ‘trespassing’ aliens.

7. The most remarkable memory I have of Tahrir Square endures because of the realization, then and now, of how Mubarak exploited that central stretch of public space as a show of his own force. That afternoon, as countless times before, it was announced that the President was going to take a limousine across the city and would pass through Tahrir. This interpolation alone brought entire movement of the square—shopkeepers, students, taxi drivers, grocers, businessmen and beggars—to a standstill. In fact, Mubarak would deliberately halt all life on the pavement as he took a personal helicopter across the city. Who had thought it possible that someone with such a diseased iron grip over the country—an almost masochistic domination of space—would be forced out in 18 days? (Almost exactly the length of time I spent in Egypt.)

Cairenes and visitors were bound to physically cross Tahrir Square in order to get just about anywhere. Maybe it was incumbent that this law of geography had to transmogrify into an incumbent citizen takeover for the revolution of 25 January – 11 February 2011 to succeed in its first demand.

One Comment leave one →
  1. njwhittington permalink
    February 14, 2011 16:40

    Hey MM,
    Thanks for these recollections of our visit. Hard to believe it’s been 7 years, eh? But, yes, even harder to believe that this has actually come to pass, & so suddenly. My own memories of the palpable frustration & fear, of the ubiquitous police, of the overbearingness, if not to say overdeterminedness, of it all, are now recharged with this realization of said potential force. Tunisia was (& remains) impactful, but this is explosive, in the best way possible, causing one to look even more & more deeply into one’s own idea & effort (or lack thereof). May it continue…

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