x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

In the shadow of tanks, protests still burn in Tahrir Square

Egyptians still celebrate the victory of their revolution, but their country is still under the thumb of the military.

A hand reached up and gripped the wire-mesh window of a truck that was obviously a prisoner transport. It looked like a long, western-style ice cream truck, spray-painted blue. When a middle aged man's face pulled itself up to the head-high window, not more than 20 centimetres square, he just looked sort of wan, no profound message there.

On my first visit to the "new" Egypt since the revolution, this image was not exactly the best introduction. But to be realistic, nobody with any sense would have blinked at seeing a shoddy jail truck rumbling by in Cairo two months ago. Now I have to wonder, why was that guy in there?

Another of those blue people-carriers had been set on fire and a front wheel was sitting on its rim. It blocked off one of the access points to the state broadcasting station along the river. That TV station was the best guarded building I saw with the front door manned by about 20 soldiers, unnecessarily equipped with bayonets on the end of their rifles, and a line of 12 tanks tucked into a nearby alleyway.

Securing the TV stations used to be the thing to do in a revolution, but very soon somebody is going to have to figure out how to park a tank on Facebook if the old rules are going to hold true.

Protesters, or rather civilians, dominate Tahrir Square and most of the adjoining streets. People are on holiday after 30 years, bringing the family down to take some photos and buy a patriotic souvenir. Last Friday, the new prime minister Essam Sharaf spoke to Tahrir, after one day in office promising to rejoin the protesters if political reform falters. I got jostled in the crowd along with everybody else. "Mabrouk," I said. A couple of people said "Welcome to Egypt" in return.

In my few years in the Middle East, my limited Arabic has never troubled me so much. Almost everybody I met on the street in Tahrir who could speak English fluently was either a journalist or a businessman. Of the latter category, a surprising number of them had a cousin who lived quite close to my hometown, shared my interest in politics and invited me to tea - in their shops selling perfume, shoes or papyrus. Several of them had sisters who were getting married the next day and wished me to bestow my blessing by a small purchase.

The shopkeepers' hustle is a fair enough play in any tourist town. With a bunch of cheap journos milling about, and possibly a few intrepid real tourists, it won't be long before downtown's mercantile community is stifled by their country's awakening.

But there is nothing you can take away from these people who have torn their freedom from a cruel old autocrat. Perhaps they were led by the young, but they have been joined by the old and the very, very young. Perhaps Prime Minister Sharaf will not deliver on his promise of change. Perhaps civilians will still face those tanks that are held in reserve.

On the streets you can feel the exhilaration, but also the knife's edge that protesters are walking. The foreign tourists who are waiting for the storm to pass have been replaced with Egyptians who have never been so passionate about politics. Their expectations are enormous.

The celebrations on Friday night were raucous good fun, young men chanting and pounding drums. Although the crowds thinned, many challenged the midnight curfew, walking with impunity under the barrels of the parked tanks. A week earlier, the military had enforced the curfew (and later apologised). There is no doubt that the young people in the square believe they are in control, but there are so many flashpoints that could ruin the honeymoon with the army.

Despite the force on the ground, and the continued clashes over secret police files, the army has emerged almost unscathed, the protector of the revolution in many people's eyes. Sure, on Egypt's new "Black Wednesday" on February 2, the army let pro-Mubarak thugs, astride camels and horses, attack protesters. But you only need to cast an eye towards the Libyan border to see the value of a neutral military. Whether the generals will remain apolitical and surrender power to a civilian government is another question.

Most people think they will. "The army is our saviours," one woman told me. "We go to hell," a man said with a grin, not speaking against the army, but saying that the country was in a mess.

He had just finished explaining to me a poster with photos of the editors of Egyptian newspapers, most of them still at their jobs, who had unflinchingly supported Mubarak. That poster is everywhere in the square and universally reviled. No journalist - and quite possibly no general - wants that kind of shame.

 

jwalden-schertz@thenational.ae