It has been twelve days since Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president of the republic, and the country—although still celebrating—has never been more divided. Many feel that the revolution has succeeded and it is time for everyone to get back to work. Many more feel that his ousting is but a small first step on a long and tortuous road. On February 18, as millions of people came out again to the streets of downtown Cairo and central Tahrir Square for Friday prayers, and as much smaller numbers marched again on Tuesday, the fragmentation of the protest movement was clear, and a new question loomed: what exactly do we want now as a nation, and are we willing to continue fighting for it?
I headed to Tahrir around 11 AM on Friday. The controversial Sunni cleric Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi had flown in from Doha the night before to lead the midday sermon and prayer—his first in Egypt in 50 years—and like hundreds of thousands of others, I was keen to hear him speak. When my taxi reached Kasr El Nil Bridge—one of the main approaches to Tahrir that just ten days ago had been a battleground between police and protesters—a huge crowd was forming and the driver refused to go further. “This rubbish,” he said. “Finish, get on with your lives. Kids!”
The army tanks that had barricaded the bridge last week were gone, and waves of people were making their way across it, many wearing t-shirts that read “January 25th, the day we changed Egypt” or “I love Egypt,” some with rolled prayer rugs wedged under their arms, and almost all with card-sized Egyptian flags hanging around their necks. Many people who had taken part in the revolt wanted it to be a day of pressure on the military—the first of as many Fridays as it would take to ensure that the country’s new power brokers meet the demands of the people, a list that included dissolving the cabinet of current prime minister Ahmed Shafik, releasing protesters still detained, and offering a timetable for ending the emergency law. A former air force commander and minister of civil aviation, Shafik had been appointed by Mubarak during the initial stage of the revolt, and his continuation under the new military regime was particularly despised. “Its non-negotiable,” the activist Salma El Tarzi told me, observing that “Mubarak is gone, but everything else is still the same.”
Some called Friday a day of celebration, or an occasion simply to show that the revolution continued. Even more said Friday should be dedicated to the 503 lives lost during the eighteen days of revolt. Still others had different aims altogether: to help revive Egypt’s ailing tourist industry—hard hit by the uprising; or even to show sympathy for Mubarak—to give thanks, say sorry, and wish him the dignified goodbye they felt he deserved. By Thursday afternoon, I had found six different events to attend Friday, all of them downtown, all of them—even if originating elsewhere—ending in Tahrir. Most of them started at 1:30 PM, just after prayer. “Can we focus?” one friend posted on Facebook. “This is a joke.”
The area around Tahrir itself had changed too. Over the bridge and at the entrance to the square, the barbed wire and metal barricades that were set up during the uprising had disappeared. The lines of soldiers with guns were nowhere to be seen. In the square, the army had taken down the protesters’ tents and cleared the charred cars left overturned on the streets last week. The layers of checkpoints that we had navigated daily during the revolt had been reduced to just two entry points—the men on one side, the women on the other—marked by a few tanks and a handful of soldiers and civilian volunteers. At the women’s entrance, we got just one body tap-down and one bag check. No request for IDs. Three of the four women volunteers manning the entrance were young and veiled—Muslim Brother girls (the well-organized Brothers had long taken a lead in staffing the checkpoints). But the other one, to my surprise, was a female soldier, with a rose stuck behind her ear.
Tahrir and all roads leading to it were now filled with hundreds of thousands of people who had arranged themselves in orderly lines for the prayer. A man beside me sat on a newspaper with a picture of Mubarak and the word “Departed”; another, on a text-heavy page headlined “Corruption” and framed by small headshots of former ministers. Muslim group prayers are always strictly divided by gender, but to our astonishment, men and women were sitting together throughout the square. One man in our area tried to enforce a separation, calling on women to make way for the men. After a few minutes, he gave up. A woman next to me with uncovered red curls whispered, “What a change.”
As the cleric began to speak, his voice bellowing from loudspeakers atop the square’s mosque, the crowd fell silent. He spoke of Tahrir Square as the square of martyrs, slammed the regime of the former president, and praised Muslims and Copts for the unity they had maintained in revolt, making note of how Copts had shielded Muslims during Friday prayers in the second week of the uprising, when thugs and violence had gripped the city. Touching briefly on themes he has been strident about in the past, he urged the government to open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza and asked his listeners to pray for the reconquest of Jerusalem by Muslims. He also spoke of change in the Arab world, saying it could not be reversed. Perhaps most significantly, he urged the army’s leaders to complete the liberation of Egypt from Mubarak’s regime and hand back the nation to the civilians as a pluralist democracy. Addressing the youth who had led the revolt, he said, “Be proud of what you have achieved. Protect your revolution, do not let anyone claim it.” This, he said, was the New Egypt.
Since Mubarak’s resignation, activist groups, political parties, cultural centers, unions, and even businessmen and citizens who had never taken part in politics had been holding political meetings. At each gathering, people were presenting lists of names for interim government leaders and representatives to speak to the military on their behalf. Many Facebook campaigns had also been launched: calling for Amr Moussa, the popular former head of the Arab League, or even the much-hated Omar Suleiman, to run for president; to investigate the antiquities chief Zahi Hawass or the assets of the Mubarak clan; to build legal cases against the former Minister of Culture, the former Speaker of Parliament, or Mubarak’s son, Gamal. Some had been talking about removing the ‘religion’ field on national IDs and other changes. Debate was heated, and conversations had become increasingly tense.
As Qaradawi took up some of these concerns in his sermon, many in the crowd broke into thunderous applause. But they were quickly hushed by the large number of pious Muslims who had come to hear the imam. One man with a beard and a dark zibeeba mark on his forehead (a sign of devotion), hissed at the young men around him, telling them they should know better. Still, when the Sheikh finished and the prayer was over and the prayers for the martyrs had also been led, the crowd erupted. There were shouts of “Allahu Akbar” and “The people want the money of the President,” along with the week’s most popular chant, “Hold your head up high, you are an Egyptian.” One little girl in braided pigtails and sitting on her father’s shoulders, attracted a large following when she led a series of chants punctuated with, “girls, this revolution is yours too.”
For the most part, people seemed to be celebrating—waving flags, calling out national slogans, and bursting into discordant renditions of the national anthem. Someone was singing a patriotic Dalida song. Amid the rejoicing, though, were clusters of people with more pointed concerns: “Military trials for all the thieves,” one group shouted; “Down with Shafik and the rest of the criminals,” another yelled out. Two young men with beards were talking about the arrest of the businessman and Mubarak insider Ahmad Ezz and the former Minister of Interior, saying “God is the greatest”; a group of young activists were discussing the situation in Bahrain, Libya, and Algeria, and talking about holding a solidarity protest. Around the square there were skeptical banners pronouncing “The Army is still supporting the fermented regime,” “Mission not yet accomplished,” “Don’t let the old regime cloaked in the robe of revolution trick you.”
Around 3:30 PM, we managed to make our way out of Tahrir, past the blackened headquarters of Mubarak’s NDP, and towards Talaat Harb Square. I had arranged to meet the activist Esraa Abdel Fattah there. On the way, we passed thousands of marching people, the ones who had called for Friday as a day to promote tourism. They hoisted banners: “Land of Peace,” “Welcome to Egypt,” “Visit the New Egypt,” and in a long white banner sponsored by a downtown hotel, “Egypt is Safe.”
I found Esraa outside the once ritzy Italian tearoom Groppi. She was pacing and seemed tense. “People have to understand,” she said. “The revolution has not succeeded and is not yet over.” Esraa, known as the Facebook Girl, had spent 18 days in jail for using social media to organize a nation-wide protest on April 6, 2008, in solidarity with striking labourers in the industrial city of Mahalla. She was also one of the main planners of the January 25 protest that started the revolution nearly a month ago, and had worked closely with Google’s Wael Ghonim and others. Now, she needed a plan B. “The plan for today was to distribute flyers and speak to people about coming steps. I could barely get into Tahrir though. If every Friday turns into a party, the military will never take us seriously.”
Everyone I have spoken to over the past few days is concerned about the current situation. Many are anxious about strikes and growing civil disorder. Or that the banks—closed much of last week—may close again soon. There is general unease about the army and its growing power. We have become accustomed to tanks rolling through our streets; most of the soldiers are young, and in many ways just like us. But while the military leadership has arrested former business leaders and ministers, and corruption cases are now being reviewed, it is also becoming much more assertive about curfews, and activists have been alarmed by reports that people detained during the revolt were tortured. The reluctance of the military to release some of those arrested is unsettling too. Some people I know have been questioned in the past few days, and soldiers have been seen filming protesters with camcorders.
On Sunday, I attended one of the many “way forward” meetings now being held all over Cairo, this one at the decrepit Hisham Mubarak Law Centre downtown, which had been raided by state security forces during the revolt. About thirty people turned up–seasoned activists, opposition party members, and newly politicised youth. As the meeting went on, everyone seemed to have a different idea or plan for how to give the group a leading voice among the constellation of such groups now forming. Concerns about another Internet blackout or an electricity cut came up repeatedly, as did the need for legal measures to protect activists and to put forward cases of corruption to the military. On nearly all of these points, the meeting was divided, but there was agreement on one point: The people needed to return to Tahrir. “Our strength is there,” an activist said.
On Tuesday, the four-week anniversary of the original January 25 protest, organizers had planned to return to the square to demand a new government free from Ahmed Shafik and all of Mubarak’s men. The protest was announced on Facebook, and by late Monday, 30,000 people had responded with a “yes, attending.” Online, people were discussing what the banners should say and which supplies would be needed. “Should I bring a tent?” one friend asked. As more news about protesters in Libya being attacked by Qaddafi’s military came in, the scope of the event grew. Already there had been three protests in solidarity with the other countries of North Africa and the Gulf, and several convoys of medical supplies organized by activists and citizens’ groups have departed Cairo for the Libyan border. “Even from Yemen activists have reached out to me,” Esraa said. “Just as the Tunisians supported us, we have to do the same.”
Around 10 AM Tuesday morning, I heard that small groups of protesters beginning to form. A handful of activists were gathering by the Libyan embassy, and some more in front of the Arab League were waving signs describing Qaddafi as “the Hitler of the Arab world.” I also received an email from a youth group asking me to translate a statement they had written in Arabic to the international community about the massacres in Libya. “Qaddafi should be tried in the International Criminal Court,” the email said. “Please can you help us. It’s urgent.”
I expected to find Tahrir filled with protesters, but by the time I got there around 1 PM, there were only a few dozen people surrounded by four times as many soldiers and even more military police. There were also men loitering, their eyes darting around. “Informants are back,” the artist and activist Hala El Koussy said when she saw me. They followed us as we walked around the square, one peering over my shoulder at my notebook, another taking pictures with his phone. Hala was furious, and began to shout, “nothing has changed, there are still state security informants and thugs in our midst—aren’t you ashamed of yourselves!”
As more people began to enter the square and onto the central grass patch where the tents had been pitched in previous weeks, the soldiers moved in, forming a human barricade. They tried to stop the trickle of people from joining the protesters, and they hassled those attempting to make their way in with what appeared to be supplies—cartons of water, food, and boxes and bags that looked like they may have contained tents.
By around 3 PM, about three thousand people had gathered—a tiny fraction of the several million who had been there four days earlier for Friday prayers, and far fewer than the numbers who had signed up on the Facebook page that had mysteriously disappeared that morning. Those who had shown up were calling for the cabinet to be dissolved, and holding up signs asking for the emergency law to be lifted, Mubarak to leave the country, and his former ministers to be put on trial. Small groups had also begun to form around the military officers and lieutenants who were in the square. One of the officers was screaming at the protesters to go home:
You are forcing people to become criminals this way. You are disrupting business, crippling the economy, and if people begin to go out and steal, it will be your fault. Give us a chance, let us do our job. We are working on the corruption cases, and believe me, with my own hands I sealed the presidential palace—there is no longer anyone there. All the ministers are either in jail or at home. You said the army and the people are one, well now work with us just as we worked with you.
A number of people seemed deflated by his words and started to leave, but others were furious, and kept storming the small groups of military and urging everyone to stay and chant. “They are trying to break us up,” one man yelled. “Nothing they can say is enough. Only action is enough.” Some nodded in agreement and headed back to the edge of the square, where protesters had pushed through the barricade of soldiers and onto the streets. Amid the chants, there were discussions about the cabinet reshuffling that the military leadership had announced on Sunday night, which many felt to have been a sham; and about the refusal of the army to lift the emergency law and the still opaque timetable for when a new constitution would be revealed and elections would take place. “Lies and more lies,” one woman was shouting. Some disgruntled employees of the Justice Ministry suggested the Justice Minister was busy burning files. “Every ministry is ridden with corruption. I’ve seen papers forged with my own eyes, I’ve seen things ripped up. The government of Ahmed Shafik has got to be dissolved completely. We want to start from scratch,” one said.
A few farmers had come in from villages to join the protests, and alongside the core of activists from the weeks before, a number of low-level civil servants had come to demand their rights. There were also, throughout the afternoon, both informants and thugs—mainly standing by, sometimes remarking that the crowds were “spoiled youth.” One of them was chased away by a group of young activists. My artist friend Hala decided to confront anyone who looked like an informant, and went around advising the young women in attendance on how to confront them too. “Just ask for their IDs—that will tell you who they really work for.”
Late Tuesday, the protesters were still out in Tahrir, closely watched by the military, and plans were already being made for another protest Friday after prayer. A member of the liberal opposition Al-Ghad party, whose leader Ayman Nour spent four years in jail after running against Mubarak in the 2005 election, told me that the plan is to set up camp in Tahrir Thursday night, and then selectively to let the people into the square the following day. “We want a serious protest, not a family day out,” he said. Given Tuesday’s turnout, no one is sure what Friday will yield. Many feel it is time to move on—pointing at Libya as an example of how much worse things could be—while others worry that nothing has changed. “The only difference,” Hala told me this afternoon, “is that Mubarak is on holiday in Sharm El Sheikh, living in a State house! The prime minister talks to him daily. He’s basically still governing us but from afar. All the changes they’ve made are cosmetic, nothing is real.”
The splintering of the movement feels familiar, and Tuesday’s protest was reminiscent of ones that had taken place in earlier years, before the Tunisian uprising, in which several hundred activists would chant, wave banners, and then, some hours later, disperse. Many of the core activists who are still coming out belong to an upper-middle class elite whose livelihood is not day-to-day, and whose language skills and social media savvy have made them the international face of the revolution. But the larger story at this point lies with the labor movements and unions—the broader public whose participation was so vital to the uprising, and whose long struggle for economic justice continues.
The Muslim Brothers—who are well organized are currently preparing to relaunch themselves as a new political party, “Freedom and Justice”—could also help revive the movement and the push for far-reaching change. But many activists insist that they can do it without them, pointing out that the Brothers only emerged in force at Tahrir five days into the uprising, when a critical mass had already formed. Although the Brotherhood has a wide following, a majority of Egyptians are averse to the idea of an Islamist party gaining a position of power.
Early Wednesday morning, I drove through downtown Cairo and Tahrir Square. Shopkeepers were opening their metal shutters and arranging window displays, the streets were filling with people and cars headed for work, and the police were back out. In the square itself, apart from the soldiers and military police, there were few indications that things were any different than they had been before January 25. There are a few remaining banners hanging from balconies and lamp posts, and a prayer for the martyrs has been painted on a subway air duct over the square. The Egyptian flag is also everywhere—painted onto sidewalk tiles and tree trunks. But the area, filled with morning traffic, seemed to have lost its revolutionary character.
Life, for most people in the city, has resumed normality, but that also means a return to the same struggles and grievances that have existed for much of the past three decades. There are now reports of small strikes outside the Ministry of Agriculture, and protesting police outside the Ministry of the Interior have just ended in clashes and a small-scale fire. In the absence of a leader with broad popular support—and figures such as Wael Ghonim and Amr Moussa who had been prominent during the revolt now seem to be standing back—it is people like this who must be brought together in protest. No one knows yet whether that will happen.