August 9, 2011
Tahrir Square: A revolution in progress
We could feel the energy as soon as we stepped out into the open air from the Cairo Metro subway. A low roar of human voices mixed with music and occasional shouting floated over the throngs gathered in the 100-degree dusty summer heat. Since July 8, protesters had returned to Tahrir Square, calling on the military council to respond more quickly and fully to the original demands of the revolution.
Tahrir Square has had many roles over the past months. It served as a battlefield, a martyrs’ memorial and an icon of freedom from a brutal dictatorial regime. Most of all, it is a symbol of the persistence of Egyptians to resist the corruption and totalitarian forces that have dominated Egypt for as long as anyone can remember.
The square was shut down last week by a combination of forces: the Ramadan fast and daily family celebrations that drew many members home, the unexpected numbers in an Islamist rally that frightened the ruling military council, and the pressure of local vendors and business people frustrated by the continuing disruption and loss of revenue. While at least temporarily, the square has once again opened to traffic and business as usual as emblematic center of the Egyptian megacity of over 20 million people. But its revolutionary symbolism has expanded far beyond its physical area.
From the first moment of our encounter with Tahrir Square, we were struck by the blending of demonstration and celebration, a potpourri of protest and festival of freedom. Posters, banners and Egyptian flags were everywhere. Recorded and live performances of songs about the uprising mingled with recitations of poetry composed for the revolution in classical Arabic meter. Half a dozen stages were set up around the nine-acre square in the middle of downtown Cairo, like multiple Hyde Park speakers’ corners. Regular people with microphones in hand argued their ideas in public, perhaps for the first time ever, about how to remake Egypt.
In one walk-through we saw a long-haired man looking like a 1960s Berkeley activist sharing his ideas about how to resolve the overwhelming problems that are so endemic to the Arab world. On the stage across from him stood an Islamist in long galabia, kufi (skull-cap) and Islamic-style beard arguing for state control over all business. A woman holding a hand-written poster called for purging the Department of Antiquities of corrupt state-appointed officials, while on the stage behind her was an official who had been fired from that very Department of Antiquities arguing that he left of his own accord in the interests of “the revolution.” Thousands strolled about, pausing to read the posters and hand-written manifestos or listen to a speaker for a while before moving on to another or stopping to read a leaflet. Many were actively engaged in one-on-one and small group discussions, while roving artists painted the red, white and black stripes of the Egyptian flag on their faces.
Our friend Zeinab, a young religious Muslim in hijab (head-covering), has become active in the Socialist Workers Party. We drank tea with her comrades at their tent encampment and argued about Israel’s place in the Middle East. Next door was a new communist party, and next to them a revived liberal party that had been shut down for years by the Mubarak government. Various factions of the Muslim Brothers were also present. Many new movements and political organizations have formed, but no strong leader or party has yet emerged. Almost none of our friends know yet whom they will vote for or what party they will support in the upcoming elections.
“Your friend Zeinab has become a leftist,” a friend teased, moving us into a discussion about many Egyptians’ problematic assumptions that “leftist” and “liberal” are synonymous with “secular” and “anti-religious,” a trend the Islamists have tried to exploit. Our discussion was interrupted when the call to prayer blared forth and Zeinab excused herself to go pray in the mosque across the street.
The crowds reflected the diversity of Cairo: secular and religious, women and men, old and young, many wearing baseball caps or T-shirts with slogans, some women in hijab, others with their hair uncovered, and even a few women fully covered in black burqas with tiny eye slits that only allow uncertain navigation in the crowds.
We spent many hours in the square in multiple visits both day and night. It was deeply inspiring to see people so engaged in meaningful political discourse after so many years when indiscreet public statements could land you in jail or worse. And while there is plenty of disagreement about how best to move the country forward in the long term, Tahrir Square rings with a shared, insistent call for justice. They are hungry to hold responsible the corrupt officials whose greed they consider responsible for the extreme poverty and lack of economic opportunity so endemic to Egypt.
Tahrir Square has returned, for the time being, to its prerevolutionary function, but the revolution continues. It is a work in progress. In fact, it has only begun. We can see a three-way dance at this moment between Islamists, liberal activists and the military, but no single one is particularly unified. Each is made up of significant factions. The Islamists include hard-core jihadis, more liberal Muslim Brothers, and many who simply sympathize with Islam and are not willing to have religion removed entirely from government. The liberals include staunch secularists, Muslim and Christian democrats, and a variety of political factions ranging from anarchists to laissez-faire capitalists. And the military is made up of groups of senior officers trained in the Soviet Union, others trained in the United States, and midlevel officers with a variety of interests and ambitions. What we in this country tend to miss is that most Egyptians resonate in one way or another with each block. It seems clear to us is that no single one will become dominant in the first round. The test will be the jockeying that comes next.
Changing Egypt is like turning a very large ship on to a radically new course. You turn the wheel hard, but you need to wait until the ship slowly responds and moves against the heavy inertia that has kept it on a different tack for so many years. The good news is that Islamic radicalism is not popular these days. Only three nations claim to be “Islamic” at the moment — Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — and all are terrific role models for what most Egyptians truly don’t want.
We have been asked by many friends and acquaintances what the impact of the revolution will be on Israel. Serendipitously, we viewed the program “Mabat Sheni” (“A Second Look”) on Israeli television just before we flew to Cairo. It featured an excellent glimpse into revolutionary Egypt and included interviews of a wide range of Egyptians about, among other things, Israel. Only one person said anything particularly negative. The reporter ended the program with an observation that corresponded entirely with our own experience. Egyptians are not fixated on Israel. They are fixated on their future, on the possibility of freedom, honest government and an economy that is not devastated by corruption.
Israel has been the foil for corrupt Egyptian government for decades. While the Mubarak government has adhered scrupulously to its international agreements with Israel, it has at the same time brainwashed the Egyptian people that Israel is to blame for virtually all of its own failures. We used to hear this joke about Egyptian newspapers. Question: What does the daily news consist of in Egypt? Answer: 1) A large front page photograph of Mubarak greeting some visiting foreign dignitary; 2) the latest heinous act committed by Israel; 3) the weather.
If we were to make a prediction, we would suggest that as the jockeying gets hot around election time and afterward, some factions will attempt to gain popularity by defaming Israel. And weak governments after elections will probably try to do the same. But the Egyptians have been there. They are fed up with lame excuses and they want to hold their leaders and themselves accountable. We have the hope that the revolution will eventually be a blessing for Israel.
The process of democratization will be long and complicated. Egyptians are hungry for change but also hungry for food, and the economic disruptions caused by all the changes have made many people impatient, especially the millions of poor and those out of work. Raised expectations and new assertiveness have encouraged workers to demand better wages and conditions.
The revolution has opened the gates of dissent, not only on the political and economic levels but also socially, and that has created new challenges. A colleague at the university told us that students are demanding that uninspiring professors be fired. “It’s understandable,” he said. “We will have to learn what democracy means, how to live with freedom but also with the limits that make it possible,” All this is new, and the developing leaderships are still learning how to make their newfound capability effective and constructive.
Expectations are high, and the potential for frustration is considerable. So we will continue to see ups and downs as the Egyptian people figure out how to move forward. But we have little doubt that they will. One thing is certain: Egypt will never be the same.
Reuven Firestone is professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. His most recent book is “An Introduction to Islam for Jews.” Ruth Sohn is director of the Aronoff Rabbinic Mentoring Program and rabbi of the Lainer Beit Midrash at Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion. Married to Firestone, she is currently completing her new book, “Crossing Cairo,” about their family’s experience as Jews living on sabbatical in 21st century Egypt.