Robert Fisk: Back to Tahrir Square
December 2, 2011
When they massed to call for the fall of Mubarak, Egypt's protesters were filled with hope. Now they are disillusioned with the army they trusted – but just as angry as ever
You can get almost anything you want in Tahrir Square these days. Corn-on-the-cob, tea, coffee, suitcases, a cheap holiday in Sharm el-Sheikh, feta cheese, firecrackers, garbage, eggs, empty tear-gas cartridges and lots and lots of arguments and heaps of banners extolling the courage of martyrs and the evils of policemen. There are still a few thousand there every day – today, the revolutionaries are calling for another million – but the many more millions who queued to vote on Monday and Tuesday have put Tahrir Square's integrity in doubt. Who represents Egypt now?
The young and secular revolutionaries in Tahrir or the growing list of successful Islamist candidates – Muslim Brotherhood and, surprisingly, an increasing number of Salafists – with their millions of votes? Certainly not Field-Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Egypt's military ruler. He glowers down critically from many a Tahrir poster. He really must get rid of his silly American baseball-style military cap and wear a proper soldier's beret like the rest of his men. And every morning, I hope he gets out of bed and says three times: "I was not elected. I was not elected. I was not elected." For that's the point, isn't it? Tahrir wasn't elected. Nor was Tantawi.
You can canvass a thousand views on Tahrir. There will be a big uprising here, I'm told at a medical tent, there will be a titanic struggle between a newly elected parliament and the Military Council, unless, of course, the Brotherhood have done a secret deal with the army (I suspect, I suspect) so that Tantawi can rule as a closet Mubarak, the Great Father Figure who will escape all civilian control by allowing the Islamists to flounder away in government in return for lèse-majesty privileges, an Algeria-like "pouvoir" above the "pouvoir", In Tahrir, it's easy to be cynical. The revolutionaries – the young, the secular, the brothers and sisters of the January-February martyrs – want an end to the Military Council, the rejuvenated brutality of the state security police, the lawlessness of the Interior Ministry.
They've even collected another clutch of martyrs: 42 in all, blasted away by snipers and cops last month with an unusual, more suffocating tear-gas, and birdshot into the eyes of demonstrators. Forty-nine young people lost eyes and the Tahrir men and women have already renamed the boulevard which leads to the Interior Ministry "Eyes of Freedom Street".
It used to be Mohamed Mahmoud Street. And here's an interesting thing. Mahmoud was one of the nastiest of Egyptian interior ministers eight decades ago, a Wafd party acolyte who served King Farouq, earlier imprisoned by the British in Malta along with that fine lawyer Saad Zaghloul. Zaghloul is the father of all Egyptian revolutions – against the British – and a hero for today's revolutionaries. His colleague Mahmoud was a pre-Mubarak Mubarak. He even became prime minister in 1928, ruling without a parliament for 18 months, a "law and order" man. Sounds, as they say, familiar?
But the old Tahrir of January and February is now more a memory than an inspiration. It's recognisably the same place; the great old apartment blocks and the wicked concrete Soviet-era Mugamma Building – a grey despair-all-ye-who-enter-here tombstone of bureaucracy that the Egyptian revolution shut down – and the rose-pink Egyptian museum and the hulk of the old Hilton and Farouq's ancient foreign ministry.
But the flowering of young courage, the defeat of the cops and their drug-addled "baltagai" thugs in February, the everyone-suddenly-burst-out-singing joy of Mubarak's overthrow, has ended up in the pit of all revolutions. Hopes betrayed, parties hijacked, cops back on the streets. I remember a woman telling me back then that, "All we want is the departure of Mubarak", and I said surely she means the system as well, but somehow Tahrir – back then – aimed only at Mubarak and the army were their heroes and all would be well in the best of all possible worlds.
The people won. The dictator fell. Long live free Egypt. And then it turned out that Mubarak had not turned his rule over to the president of the constitutional court – which the 1971 Egyptian constitution says he should have done – but to his old chum Tantawi and the 19 other generals of whom he, Mubarak, had once been an air force comrade. And Tantawi kept appointing or approving more Mubarak chums, not least the very latest Prime Minister, Kamal el-Ganzouri who had been a Mubarak prime minister; a government of the unelected, some of them very elderly indeed, would now "guide" Egypt's revolution, the old ruling the young.
It seems incredible, now, that the Military Council should have arrested so many thousands of demonstrators since the revolution, that so many should have been tortured by cops, that the army would institute virginity tests for arrested women. And yes, what are Egyptian soldiers doing, carrying out virginity tests on young Egyptian women? Is this really the same army of the brave which crossed the Suez Canal in 1973 and won back Egypt's military glory?
Off the record – of course – an army officer would explain that the tests were to prevent the women claiming later that they had been raped by soldiers. Then, he sniggered, they discovered that the women weren't virgins anyway. Ye Gods! And not far away from Tahrir was the outrageous sectarian battle which saw an army armoured vehicle driving down Christian Copts, the driver having apparently – I somehow enjoyed this weird explanation – suffered a "nervous" collapse. But no, it's not the army the people are against. The soldiers are their brothers and uncles and sons. It's the Military Council.
They've even managed to find a few thousand Egyptians to demonstrate for them, a familiar we-love-the-regime fest which we saw in Cairo under Mubarak and in Tunis under Ben Ali and in Tripoli under Gaddafi and in Damascus under Assad and in Sanaa under Saleh and in Bahrain under the King. It's as if Blair could trump up a pro-faith demo when two million marched against the Iraq war in London. But not all the Tahrir spirit has evaporated.
Wissam Mohamed, a 26-year old translator completing a masters in political science, a scarf over her hair, bright brown eyes, says she's still a revolutionary and believes that the Military Council will not hand over power without further demonstrations by "the people". She mourns the fact that so many of the dead and wounded last month were young and from such poor families. She senses that Mubarak – the farmer Mr Smith of Orwell's 1984 – has not really gone. "Mr Smith never left," she says. "His men are still here. They might well put him back in the palace."
*Photo courtesy of REUTERS