The 18 Days of Tahrir

by Ahmad Shokr
published in MER258

On January 26 Tahrir Square was under occupation. Hundreds of riot police bearing shields and batons formed cordons along the perimeter to prevent anyone suspected of being a demonstrator from approaching. Traffic was light, an unusual scene for one of Cairo’s busiest intersections. On the sidewalks, queues of young, scruffily dressed thugs received instructions from police to attack any crowd that dared assemble. The large, boisterous protest that had filled the square the previous night -- January 25 -- had been violently dispersed by security forces, as the interior minister, Habib al-‘Adli, warned that no further demonstrations would be tolerated. His command was enforced harshly. Nary a whisper of dissent could be heard in the square, and the sparse clusters of defiance outside it were quickly chased into the side streets and alleyways of downtown, where many protesters were roughed up and detained. Tahrir Square, usually a palimpsest of Egyptian society, was the uncontested dominion of President Husni Mubarak’s police.

Asserting physical control of Cairo’s urban space is an old tactic of the state’s security apparatus. Tahrir Square, beginning sometime in 2005, has been particularly notable for its police presence, most palpably the armored vans stationed along the edges. The bustling city center, built in the nineteenth century under Khedive Ismail as a symbol of modernity, has long been a favorite site for popular gatherings. Egyptians have poured into Tahrir to celebrate soccer victories, to mourn the passing of national icons and to protest injustice. After the Free Officers’ coup in July 1952, Egyptians flooded the square to hail the birth of a new republic. In 1977, the bread riots that swept Egypt found their locus in the square, and in 2003, Tahrir was home to huge rallies against the Iraq war. But in the years that followed, protesters were rapidly encircled by impenetrable rows of riot police. Inside the plaza, open spaces have been fenced off into smaller and smaller plots, significantly impeding even pedestrian traffic. These restrictions were Mubarak’s antidote to bottom-up democracy on Cairo’s streets.

But everything changed on the evening of January 28, when all-day protests claimed the square as the epicenter of Egypt’s revolution. Riot police fought bitterly to protect the territory, deploying their full arsenal of crowd dispersal weapons, but they failed. That night, the streets of Cairo were littered with police vehicles that had been overturned and set ablaze by the raging multitudes. Anti-regime graffiti covered the walls of buildings -- not in acts of vandalism, but in release of the thrill of self-empowerment that erupts when fear is overcome. Cheers of triumph echoed throughout the night even as the suffocating smell of tear gas hung in the air. An army curfew was ignored.

When protesters arrived at Tahrir on January 28, they did not come with the intention of creating a radical utopia. Despite the square’s name, “liberation” in Arabic, Egyptians did not think of it as a place with emancipatory potential before the 2011 uprising. In many ways, Tahrir had come to represent the overall decline of public space -- people could barely congregate or mingle, let alone protest -- under Mubarak’s 30-year rule. The commune that Tahrir was to become was wholly improvised through the lived experience of sharing the area and protecting it from regime encroachment. As the revolution unfolded, Tahrir was elevated from a rally site to a model for an alternative society.

In the days that followed, the excitement of entering the plaza never subsided. Crossing the popular checkpoints, one was greeted, like a hero, by a chorale of young men chanting, “Welcome revolutionaries!” It was shocking enough to see no cars or police, and more so to merge into a roaring, colorful sea of Egyptians. “The People Demand the Removal of the Regime,” read one of the largest banners, hoisted above the grassy island in the center of the square. And indeed, the dwellers of Tahrir had proudly declared themselves to be a people. Everyone had a place: rebels young and old, professionals, factory workers, friends, families, performers, lovers, street vendors. Resources were the sole property of no one; a spirit of mutual aid prevailed. Canteens offered free food to anybody in need, makeshift clinics provided first aid to the wounded and volunteers stepped up to ensure communal comfort and security -- distributing woolen blankets on cold nights and organizing guards at the entrances. Evenings gave way to music and poetry, which people from all walks of life were free to enjoy. From homemade banners to cartoons mocking Mubarak to photo displays and live concerts, every inch of Tahrir offered something novel to see. The atmosphere evoked an endless carnival, whose visitors were enticed by every stall.

To anyone acquainted with Tahrir, the place was unrecognizable. Before January 28, regular visitors would enter a din of pollution and congestion, a zone outside the writ of proper urban planning. In the past decade, downtown Cairo began to attract the attention of state technocrats and private investors, who proposed to revive its imagined glory under the khedives through the restoration of old buildings and the redesign of major squares. Geared largely toward elite desires and consumption patterns, these efforts at gentrification threatened to drive out the poor and impose additional limits on access to the city. By moving into the square en masse, the people of Tahrir defied the exclusionary logic that had governed their urban space for years. What they created was an anti-city of sorts. The pervasive sense of impatience and never having enough time that characterizes everyday life in a metropolis suddenly vanished. Social codes that customarily define appropriate interactions between people collapsed. In Tahrir, there were no strangers; everywhere people talked to each other with a newfound ease.

One night, a man I had seen many times before approached me for a box of matches. In ordinary times, he would have been an alien face among millions, but during those 18 days there was no such thing as anonymity. Salih introduced himself and showed me a packet of candles, explaining that he wanted to create a piece of impromptu street art spelling out the word “Irhal” (Leave) -- the simplest, most unambiguous slogan of the revolution. I searched my pockets as he struggled to place the first few candles upright on the ground. Meanwhile, a few dozen people gathered to help without questioning the wisdom of something as impermanent as lighted candles on a windy evening. Some knelt down to light the candles, others directed our motions from above, while still others ferried over additional lighters and matches from nearby vendors as candles went out. An even larger crowd surrounded us, capturing the event on their cellular phones and video cameras. In a matter of moments, one man’s eccentric wish turned into an improvised collective endeavor, gracefully unfolding like a well-choreographed composition.

But Tahrir was not all fun and festivity. The space was also infused with serious politics: Fierce battles were waged against government thugs trying to break in, fiery speeches were delivered denouncing the regime and animated discussions about Egypt’s political future resounded in the night air. During the day, marches and mourning processions circled the square, commemorating those killed during the uprising and vowing to fight on. The center of Tahrir became a tent city where people of every political stripe and social class gathered to exchange views about everything from religion to television to politics to soccer. “This is the kind of society I want to live in. Tahrir brings out the best in every Egyptian,” was a commonly heard refrain.

Over the course of 18 days, the plaza had turned into a veritable polis, where people were bound together by more than a common political demand. Together, the people of Tahrir forged a society, marked by interdependence and collective decision-making -- at times even hierarchies. They were preoccupied with everything necessary for the smooth functioning of a social order, from basic necessities -- food, shelter, security -- to questions of political strategy. Even the most mundane acts -- sweeping the streets, preparing food, pitching tents -- became moments of inspiration that proved the people’s ability to sustain themselves, despite the regime’s attempts at sabotage. Daily struggles to hold the space and feed its inhabitants, without the disciplined mechanisms of an organized state, were exercises in democratic process. It was through these everyday practices that Tahrir became a truly radical space.

On February 2, ruling-party officials sent ruffians to attack the people of Tahrir, culminating in what has become known as the Battle of the Camel, an allusion to a seventh-century clash between forces allied with the prophet Muhammad’s cousin and those allied with his widow. The charge on camelback was intended to stir up chaos in the square and turn popular opinion against the revolution. For the people in the square, however, it was an experiment in self-defense, the outcome of which was hardly predetermined.

Pro-regime thugs descended upon the square around noon, and for two straight days the assault did not stop. Taken by surprise, the people of Tahrir fought back with whatever they could find. Within hours, the scraps of Tahrir’s built environment were fashioned into instruments of fortification. Steel barriers erected years before to cut up the square were taken down and used as barricades. Burned-out police vehicles were flattened and positioned to block the main entrances. Groups of men crowded along the sidewalks, breaking the stone tiles into rocks to repulse the attackers. The street clinics mushroomed. Tahrir turned into a mass cooperative where everyone was involved in some from of labor to protect the square. In the end, the people of Tahrir won.

The experience was transformational. “The moment we were able to keep Tahrir was the happiest moment of my life,” said one young filmmaker who took part in the battle. “The Mubarak regime had always forced us to be losers. For the first in my life, I feel like I belong to the winning side. Now I cannot leave this place.” The battle gave the denizens of the square a sense of ownership of the space and a boldness mixed with resolve: It became imperative to hold on to Tahrir until their key demands were met.

In this spontaneous effort lay the secret to Tahrir’s success: The more tactics people tried to keep the square, the more their hope was cemented that their struggle to build a better political order would prevail. The square represented more than the unity of a people seeking to overthrow a tyrant. It exemplified the finest in popular politics: a space where people worked things out, issue by issue and bit by bit, not where pre-conceived dreams came to realization.

Liberation was a word with several meanings in the square. People arrived demanding free elections, regime change, an end to police brutality, improvements in their economic lot or all of the above. As the days passed, the discourse was slowly taken over by expressions of patriotism. The people’s art in every corner of the square became less and less visible in a staggering mass of Egyptians flags. The consensus against Mubarak developed into a jubilee of national pride. Following Mubarak’s resignation on February 11, Tahrir erupted in merriment. “Hold your head high,” chanted hundreds of thousands. “You are an Egyptian!” Smaller groups demanding “civilian, not military rule” were drowned out.

The next morning, Egyptians once again flooded Tahrir Square. Moved by a new sense of solidarity, they packed up the tents, dismantled the barricades, swept the streets and repainted the pavement. Some, in the rush to return to normalcy, began scrubbing away graffiti. The impressive clean-up effort embodied the spirit that sustained Tahrir over the 18 days of revolt. But in the haste to move on, many memories inscribed on the walls were erased, and with them testimony to the kaleidoscope of possibilities created in the square. And so a thousand energies were harnessed in the service of one: national consensus.

Since Mubarak’s resignation, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has tried to clamp down on protest inside the square and out. Labor actions are denounced by the military as “factional” and damaging to the economy. Young women who rallied on International Women’s Day were violently attacked by organized thugs. Figures from the old regime are looking to reinvent themselves in an effort to restore their political influence. The post-Tahrir developments are a sharp reminder that what happened in the square over 18 days does not efface the totality of Egyptian history -- sectarianism, class divides, sexual harassment, opportunism and other ills persist and must be confronted within the new political order.

Tahrir did not deliver a complete revolution, but it did awaken an exhilarating sense of possibility that had been absent for far too long. Its impact has been felt in Cairo’s political and intellectual scene, where conversations are no longer colored by hopeless cynicism about the future. The urgency of Tahrir has passed, but its place in history has yet to be determined. The square remains a contested symbol, not yet in the full possession of this metanarrative or that. The people of Tahrir may soon be cast as protagonists in larger dramas of democratization, national renaissance and class struggle, rather than as human beings who strove to forge their own future. As the memory of Tahrir Square enters the canon, and the official story is written, the lived experiences that offer some of those 18 days’ most inspiring moments must not be lost.

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