x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Fact and fiction in the year that Egypt transformed itself

Change has proved harder than Egyptians imagined, but many say 2011 was the best year of their lives and are rolling their sleeves up for 2012.

The municipal authorities are planting trees on my street in downtown Cairo, which seems strange since a block away in Midan Al Tahrir, or Liberation Square, the pavement is being smashed to use as ammunition. Contradictions abound in post-uprising Cairo where the distance between reality and the official version of events remains as vast as ever.

But as 2011 ends, it's worth recalling its beginning, when Egyptians seemed to have no fight left in them. The Mubarak regime had ridden roughshod over their dignity for too long. The city's soundtrack of music, klaxons and laughter had grown muted, the imams' Friday sermons more ear-splittingly loud and food prices unconscionably high. Cairo was paralysed with a sullen inertia: something had to give.

When a largely peaceful, nationwide uprising, at first supported by the army, forced the president to resign, it was a rare moment of triumphant unity. The sacrifice, in terms of lost lives, seemed somehow justified. Flags flew and everything was painted the Egyptian colours of red, black and white. The "revolution" became a street party, then a cottage industry of souvenirs, books, movies, exhibitions and academic treatises. Everybody wanted a piece of it.

And then elation gave way to questions as to how to move forward. The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has ruled the country since the February revolution, proposed an amended constitution to allow multiparty parliamentary elections, to be followed by a new constitution and a president. A March referendum approved this transitional programme while placing more power in the SCAF's hands - more power than the ageing generals have proved able to wisely discharge.

Friday demonstrations became the norm along with media exaggerations of their numbers. With every march a "millioniyya", it seemed the public stood behind the protesters when in fact it was running scared. The army's commitment to the "revolution" rang hollow as sit-ins calling for an end to military trials and justice for the "martyrs" were viciously dispersed in February, April and July.

Hosni Mubarak's trial began in August, but with economic pressures mounting alongside violent crime, many citizens began to long ruefully for their old oppressor. October brought a massacre with army personnel carriers mowing down peaceful protesters, mostly Copts demanding an investigation into the burning of a church. "Thugs did it," said the SCAF generals, while they refused to mount an independent inquiry.

Tensions rose alongside the confusion about parliamentary election procedures. Dozens of new political groupings (including formerly banned religious parties) joined the fray.

With elections days away, another small, peaceful sit-in was attacked on November 19. Mr Mubarak's trial was placed on hold. Tahrir Square was packed again with the same angry chants formerly directed at Mr Mubarak now targeting the SCAF leader, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. Central security forces and military police confronted the protesters and, in the ensuing street fights, 40 died and thousands were injured.

Despite the violence, the SCAF insisted that elections proceed, and on November 28 Egyptians voted in droves for candidates they had virtually no time to assess. After the first round of polling, the state-owned Al Ahram headline lamely boasted: "Greatest election participation since the days of the pharaohs."

Religious parties won a predictable majority, more for representing familiar values than for some coherent programme of renewal. On December 16, yet another sit-in was torn apart. The ferocious assault on fleeing protesters enraged a segment of the population but the majority remained home, swayed by the whitewashed version of events presented on state TV that justified the SCAF's actions.

During December's long cold nights, Tahrir Square, once a theatre of all possibilities, became an arena where the nation's future was being written in blood. The boys and young men who waved flags in February were waving scarves soaked in the blood of men killed by snipers who the SCAF still claims do not exist.

The new concrete walls forming culs-de-sac near Tahrir embody Egypt's current impasse but also the blockheadedness of the authorities who built them. The protesters filing to the Square wearing construction helmets look like they are on their way to work, but they are wearing them as protection and are on their way to fight.

Yes, these are "black days", Cairenes will tell you, but in 2011 Egypt awakened to a new reality, where rights must be responsibly won and a democratic consensus carved from a many demands.

Like those scraggly seedlings on my street, the revolution is taking root as people find their voice and see their strengths and weaknesses revealed daily in irrefutable ways. Change has proved harder than Egyptians imagined, but many say 2011 was the best year of their lives and are rolling their sleeves up for 2012. Considering the inertia of recent years, that in itself is worth celebrating.


Maria Golia is author of Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt