Part of Foreign Affairs Report: Morsi and Beyond

The Fading of Tahrir Square

How Egypt's Revolution Grew Exhausted

There are times when Cairo's Tahrir Square still evokes a revolutionary spirit, when crowds pack every corner and their unified shouts shake the surrounding buildings. Exactly such a moment came two Sundays ago, when Farouk Sultan, the chief of the Presidential Election Commission (PEC), announced that Muhammad Mursi had won the Egyptian presidency. Tahrir swelled as full as it had been since the final days of the revolution 16 months ago, and it throbbed with celebratory fever. 

But on most other days, Tahrir Square is something else. The piles of trash are unavoidable, women are few, and there are almost as many Spongebob Squarepants T-shirts for sale as there are Egyptian flags. And politically, Tahrir has become a bureaucratic battleground. Political foot soldiers have filled the square over the last few weeks, carrying out the multilevel power struggle now under way between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

Following Sultan's announcement, workers dismantled the massive stage and by Monday traffic was flowing normally (by Cairo standards, at least) through Tahrir Square. Mursi's formal ascension to the presidency is bringing a temporary shift in Brotherhood tactics, away from ground zero of the revolution and into the courthouses for judicial proceedings and back rooms for private negotiations. As a consequence, the emotional and strategic meaning of Tahrir Square has partially faded from its recent glory. For anyone who participated in the revolution, the vast public expanse will forever inspire memories of hope and triumph. But many of those revolutionaries have spent the last year slowly falling out of love with the place and what it has become. 

The spirited and progressive mix that flooded the square throughout the revolution -- secularists, Islamists, women, all peacefully together -- is a token of a fondly remembered past. The crowds during the most recent two-week occupation were mostly Islamist and male, basically a combination of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, along with a few prominent secular revolutionary groups such as the April 6 Movement. Thanks to a combination of exhaustion with street politics, disillusionment with the progress of the revolution, and antipathy toward the Brotherhood, many of the original revolutionaries are fed up and no longer show their support on the street.

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