By Roger Owen
Last Friday’s battle for Cairo’s Midan Tahrir will go down as one of the most important events in Egypt’s modern political history. Not only was it a day when the demonstrators fought the city’s riot police to a standstill after Friday prayers, but it also took place in what Nasser and the other leaders of the 1952 military coup had renamed Liberation Square as a symbol of their revolution against the old order. Since then it has been the stage for an open-air theatre involving many dramas consisting of a trial of strength between the regime and its people.
Once the site of Britain’s major military barracks, the square was originally intended to be the focus of an annual festival of the revolution based on similar occasions in Paris, Moscow and elsewhere. But when the procession of cars carrying the senior members of the new military regime was mobbed by an over-excited crowd in July 1953, the officers decided to limit the occasion to a speech to the assembled populace from the balcony of the Abdin Palace half a mile away, a symbolic retreat that was indicative of their general attitude towards the people they now ruled, a species of wary contempt.
Deprived of its primary function, the square was transformed into a symbolic focus for the concrete aspirations of the Nasser regime, becoming the site of the Arab League headquarters, the Cairo Hilton (the capital’s first modern world class hotel) and, later, the headquarters of the ruling party, burned down in last Friday’s ‘day of rage.’ There too was the hated Mugamma building which, though built just before the 1952 revolution, rapidly became an icon of the continued system of red tape and bureaucratic inefficiency which the regime used to control the daily lives of its people, as well as, very often, to isolate them from contact with the outside world.
Meanwhile, popular access to the square was usually kept under tight supervision with tanks appearing quickly if there was any sign of a possible disturbance, for example an attempt to attack Nasser’s favored Hilton in an excess of anti-American rage. Carefully orchestrated pro-regime processions were occasionally allowed in, like the one in support of the Arab unity talks taking place under Egyptian auspices in early 1963. Otherwise, the only sign of large crowds was during the huge funeral processions which set out from the square in the direction of the old city, millions attending those of luminaries of the old regime like Mustapha Nahas, the leader of the old Wafd Party and, later, that of the ‘voice of Egypt,’ Um Kulthum.
Politics returned with a vengeance in 1972 when student demonstrators from the Egyptian University on the other side of the Nile set up their camp in the small circle round one of the square’s empty plinths to protest President Sadat’s apparent lack of action against the continued Israeli military occupation of the Sinai peninsula. Sadat first tried to reason with them in person, and then sent in his police, putting many of them in prison. For perhaps the first time, the freedom suggested by the name of the square was being put to some serious anti-regime use.
Then came Tahrir’s more marginal part in the so-called food riots of 1977, quickly put down by means of a military-backed curfew, but producing a new form of police control in the shape of a green-uniformed force which patrolled the new set of hastily-constructed high walkways in the difficult days of Sadat’s moves to make peace with Israel. And in 1986 it was again well-protected from the few days of rioting by the underpaid armed security police, which was concentrated mainly on attacking night clubs and other signs of foreign influence along the Pyramids Road.
Now, after several decades, the square is back as the main focus of a huge struggle between the regime and the people, with access to it as fiercely contested as that to any strategic fortress or Winter Palace. But there is more to it than that. What also seems to have happened is that it has become the site for a major shift in Egyptian popular feeling, from a politics of protest to one of demonstration in the large sense of that word. By this I mean a form of acting and talking and being by which the people in the crowds have begun to demonstrate both their hatred at being infantilized by a patronizing and belittling leadership and their heady sense of being suddenly free from fear and confident enough to take their country and their own lives into their own hands.
No doubt this is true of many revolutionary moments, many of them going by felicitous but often ephemeral names, Tunisia’s largely non-violent ‘Jasmine’ one being only the most recent. But if I was searching for a name myself I would want to find something much more dramatic, something which would give the sense of a proud but beaten people who, having patiently endured many decades of blows to their spirit and their persons, have suddenly decided to fight back in a great national demonstration of recovered dignity. ‘Tahrir’ (freedom) would seem to give just that sense.
Historians of Egypt may also note that such events have happened many times before, as in 1881/2, in 1919, and in 1951/2 when there were great explosions of public feeling, against the Ottoman overlords, the British occupiers, and then the King and his corrupt regime. The bread riots of 1977 can also be put into this category, a further sign that, every thirty to forty years or so a patient people has risen to assert itself not just against misrule but also to demonstrate its own sense of self-worth. And that it has done this, not in pursuit of some abstract notion of the right to do this or the right to do that, as President Obama would have it, but of something a great deal more fundamental: the wish to be treated as independent individual human beings.
This article was published in Arabic in Al-Hayat in February 2011.