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Published: April 26th 2011
From the moment I took the job in Khartoum, I knew I would be making a trip up to Cairo. I had to go, not simply because it would be so close but because I had lived there in what now seems the distant, distant past (my junior year of college) and had not been back since attending a graduate school conference in 1999. More than a decade! So it was a given that at some point in my stay in Sudan I would head northwards to my old home; I just didn’t know when.
However, the events that began to unfold on January 25 – coincidentally my birthday (or maybe not so coincidentally?) – would nudge me to plan a visit sooner rather than later. I was riveted by the scenes unfolding on al-Jazeera of the growing protests in Tahrir Square, an area I crossed nearly every day I lived in Cairo. Despite the potential for serious unrest – and for a serious military crackdown – all I could think was: I need to be there.
Although Mubarak is now out of the picture – at least in terms of serving as president – and the protests now
draw a fraction of the crowd that packed into Tahrir at the height of the revolution, I was curious to see what I could of revolutionary Egypt.
A little surprisingly, as I wandered my old stomping grounds, it felt like nothing momentous had happened. There was no immediate sign of the revolution, or of the fact that Egypt is now under military rule. Shops and restaurants were open and bustling. Traffic was still as insane as I remembered.* People seemed relaxed, just going about life as normal.
It was only gradually that I started to notice the occasional bit of revolutionary graffiti, such as the word “Optimism” spray-painted on a wall in Islamic Cairo.
And then Danni and I went down to the epicenter: Tahrir Square. There was much more graffiti here – “Enjoy the Revolution!”, “Victory!”, “25th of January!”, etc. - and a few more police than usual. But the biggest sign was the charred government building rising above the Egyptian Museum. This was the only evidence of how serious things had been – a building burned for its association with the Mubarak regime.
Yet despite casting a gloomy shadow across the museum and the
bustle of Tahrir, everyone went about their business as if nothing unusual had happened. I was a little surprised to see just how many tourists were flowing into the museum. They may not be back to their pre-revolution numbers, but there were quite a few German, French, and Italian speakers milling about – as well as a few English speakers, such as us. Revolution, shmevolution.
On Friday, after the midday prayer, Danni and I returned to Tahrir to see what was going on with the post-revolution protests. The numbers weren’t huge at first, just occupying a small corner of the “square” (really a circle) near the old campus of the American University of Cairo. But the atmosphere was an interesting mix of earnest political protest and festiveness. While fiery speakers screamed through bullhorns, vendors hawked revolutionary merchandise – bumper stickers, hats, T-shirts, flags. More than once someone offered to paint the Egyptian flag on my arm or cheek (for a small fee, of course). And the crowd grew as the day progressed, causing an even greater traffic snarl than normal around Tahrir (though why anyone would think to drive through the area on a Friday afternoon is beyond me,
protest or not).
No fighter jets buzzing overhead, no camels charging through the crowd, no riot police. Nothing al-Jazeera worthy – which will probably make my family happy – but I am glad I got to see this small slice of history in the making. Whither Egypt? Nobody really knows.
When we decided to take a short break from the protests, we headed up Talaat Harb St. to Café Riche for a coffee or tea. However, despite appearances that indicated otherwise, the ten-year old son (I think!) of the proprietor told us: “We are closed for the revolution.”
*Except when the 2am curfew hit - then the streets cleared and the honking ceased. Bliss!
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