The Fading of Tahrir Square

How Egypt's Revolution Grew Exhausted

Muslim Brotherhood supporters at a sit-in protest against the military in Tahrir Square on June 23, 2012. (Suhaib Salem / Courtesy Reuters)

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.

The fault lines in Tahrir Square reflect the divisions that emerged during the presidential runoff. The non-Islamist revolutionary contingent noisily split into three camps -- boycotters, deliberate vote spoilers, and those who voted for Mursi only to prevent the Mubarak-era Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq from winning. Many of those boycotters and vote spoilers have felt no particular urge to become pawns in a Tahrir-based chess match between the Brotherhood and the SCAF. Many wish, in fact, for a way both sides could lose.

Some argue that reluctance to rally is a strategic error, a decision that lacks political maturity. "Some traditional Tahrirists feel that the square is now owned by the Brotherhood," says Wael Khalil, a socialist activist who backed Mursi in Tahrir and urged his compatriots to do the same. "It's silly for some revolutionaries to say, 'This is the [Brotherhood's] game to play.'" For Khalil, Mursi's victory proved that Tahrir -- and by proxy, street politics in general -- is still relevant. As the vote counting dragged on for days, the Brotherhood rallied its forces to stage an open-ended sit-in, which served as a warning to the PEC to refrain from rigging the contest. "Tahrir is still a symbol of the struggle," Khalil says. "It will remain as our assembly hall."

Khalil makes it clear that his support for Mursi is conditional on the new president's policies. For him and many others, the president will be operating with very little margin for error. If the Brotherhood does come to some sort of power-sharing accommodation with the military, as many expect, Tahrir Square could fill up again with protests calling for a plague on both houses.

It is difficult to understate just how special a place Tahrir Square was in the early months of 2011. From the moment protesters took hold of the massive public space on January 28, it became a sort of utopian mini-state. Despite the crowds and the large number of female protesters, the modern Egyptian scourge of sexual harassment was conspicuously absent. Protesters of widely divergent political views and social circumstances combined to create a civilized, functioning encampment. They organized divisions of labor, arranged their own security details, and diligently cleaned up after themselves.

Once former President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, however, everything changed. The assault on the CBS journalist Lara Logan was a disturbing harbinger of violence against women to come. A reoccupation in July 2011, demanding a firm timeline for transition and the end of military trials for civilians, concluded in a divisive fizzle. Tensions flared among the different revolutionary groups, and the country's ruling generals began to paint the Tahrir protesters as radicals bent on sabotaging Egypt's return to normalcy. In November and December, two separate clashes between security forces and Tahrir protesters forced the SCAF to accelerate its timeline for presidential elections and the transfer of power. The conflicts also damaged the square's spirit, upending the internal dynamics of the secular revolutionaries and sparking a debate about the wisdom and effectiveness of Tahrir mobilization. 

Gradually, Tahrir became a grimmer and less friendly place. A disturbing spike in sexual harassment and even gang assault of both Egyptian and foreign women has scared off many female participants, consequently robbing Tahrir of the gender diversity that was one of the revolution's trademarks. "From July 2011 onwards, Tahrir became more aggressive," says Heba Morayef, a Cairo-based Egypt researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Part of the problem is that there's also a reluctance to talk about this, because it related to the perceived delegitimization of Tahrir." Over the past 16 months, unknown assailants in Tahrir attacked two different women's marches, which, eerily, were protesting the rise of sexual harassment.

"There are many activists who identify as street activists and believe in the street, and for them Tahrir is still the rallying cry," Morayef says. "This group is more likely to view the Muslim Brotherhood as having sold out the revolution. The minute Mursi makes a decision they don't like, you'll see them taking to the street."

Despite all the traumas of the past year, Tahrir Square still has considerable emotional and political potential. In some ways, the square is destined to fill up again. Consider what happened last Sunday night outside the presidential palace in Heliopolis, about eight miles away. A vocal crowd of 1,500 held up pictures of revolutionary martyrs. At first, the chants were familiar: "Down, down with military rule!" And then a new one emerged, one aimed directly at the Brotherhood and its supreme leader, Mohammad Badie. "Down, down with the rule of the guide!" Clearly, the fury has not subsided. The question is when it might return to the center of town.

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