Tuesday in Tahrir: Field Notes, with Novelists


Podcasting colleague Mark Fonseca Rendeiro high over tents in Tahrir Square. Tuesday, November 27, 2012

CAIRO — On the way into the tumult in Tahrir Square today, we’re in conversation with the novelist Mona Prince of So You May See and My Name is Revolution. And on the way out late Tuesday night, we are listening to a beloved writer in this crowd, Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, author of many novels, four in English translation, including Nobody Sleeps in Alexandria. From my own “archives of the feet” (Simon Schama’s phrase) Egypt’s Tahrir Revolution of January 2011 appears to be roaring back to full life — spirits higher, some say, even if numbers may be lower than two winters ago. And the chants are full-throated echoes of the slogans that drove Hosni Mubarak out of power: “The Egyptian people say: leave!” and “We want bread, and freedom.”

I found myself at one point in a mass of lawyers stretching out a 25-yard red-white-and-black Egyptian flag, shouting over and over: “Gamal Abdel Nasser said: You can’t trust the Muslim Brotherhood.” Lawyers and judges I met today are up in arms because President Mohamed Morsi’s decrees last week put him formally above the law. So they chant: “The Brotherhood is not legal.” Other rhythmic rants that caught on: “It’s a joke! How much can we take?” And dead seriously: “People demand to remove the regime!”

Hardest to absorb and pass on are the extreme emotions around what could look like a festive football crowd. Ecstasy and the deepest sadness and remembered pain are all in the mix. A 40-year-old man named Hassan told me he himself had carried 70 dead or dying people out of Tahrir Square in February 2011. “It was horrible,” he said. “Horrible! But we succeeded. The people succeeded. Mubarak was a thief,” and then he spelled out the word “thief” in ballpoint on his newspaper to be sure I understood. He added: “Freedom is fundamental for the Egyptian people.”

I saw one flash fight on the edge of Tahrir this afternoon, eight feet from me. Suddenly a tall suited man with a handsome Nubian look was swinging hard slaps at the face and head of a smaller man with a formal beard. An undercover cop beating a civilian, was my first thought. No, my friend Hassan explained, it was an outraged civilian taking warning shots at a man with the “black chin” of the Muslim Brotherhood, as if to say — maybe saying: “how dare you take a picture of me? You people don’t belong here — and here you are spying on me!” Braver men than I jumped quickly between the combatants, who melted as quickly into the crowd. And wave after wave of practiced, peaceable protesters poured into the ocean of Tahrir Square.

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  • orangescissor

    As MLK says, the arc of history bends towards justice. But they need to get behind a leader that represents the people.

  • Potter

    Two interesting chats.

    One question is being answered- maybe the most important one: why now? I am thinking that Mubarak, a weakening old man was ready to hand over power to his son– business as usual. Even the more compliant and more complacent might have been waiting for this moment. Definitely the world youth culture and social media has it’s effect as Meguid says. He talks of the openness to (Western) ideas of freedom, liberty. Also I never thought of the geographical aspect (and thus history) as well, being on the Mediterranean, a part of that culture for thousands of years–(with some disdain he speaks of the desert cultures in contrast). So a soup of reasons satisfy me. (Tipping point?)

    Victor Hugo comes to mind yes- the barricades in Les Miserables, fast forward to Tahrir Sq. last year– the piling up of furniture, the camaraderie, the shared spirit, the headiness.

    I am so confused about their view of us though. They want us, they don’t want us. I do not for one moment, unless you give me proof, think that Hillary Clinton gave Morsi the go-ahead to seize more power. Perhaps he felt that he had the US in his pocket since he seemed so important to a ceasefire.

    Oh the art of being a secretary of state–a diplomat — so difficult. I can’t think of anyone who could have done better in that job than Hillary — to my surprise — these last few years.

    I don’t believe we are going to sell these spirited revolutionaries out (as if we could!) to the Muslim Brotherhood. I think its more that we are trying to respect the leadership that Egypt has chosen at the moment. It does sound like it is transitionary. I hope that the youth, the engine of this, somehow comes to trust us a little bit better or at least give us some benefit of the doubt as opposed to this negative and I think harmful speculation in the absence of any real evidence. I hear such wonderful idealism. So maybe I should say we need to earn their trust too.

    Obama is not going to speak in Cairo again and stick his neck out — not the Obama I have seen the last four years. And I would not fault him on that either. You want him – you don’t want him.

    What I want is to see him get involved in an Israeli- Palestinian deal. My hope.