Tahrir: Not exactly deja vu all over again

As protesters continue to occupy Tahrir Square, and the military continues the crackdown with impunity, divisions erupt.

tahrir egyptian boy
The military’s continued violence against peaceful protesters has not stopped the Tahrir movement [GALLO/GETTY]

Cairo, Egypt – As Egypt prepares for elections, Tahrir Square is a similacrum of its old self.

The world’s largest experiment in the effects of long term exposure to toxic tear gas seems, for the moment, to be winding down, as Egyptians prepare to vote for the first post-Mubarak cabinet. The SCAF and its political allies and bedfellows clearly hope that, as the smoke clears, enough Egyptians outside of Tahrir and other centres of protest will ignore the often grotesque violence visited on pro-democracy protesters and vote in a government that will reinforce – or at least not challenge – the decades-old patrimonial system.

That is surely what is behind this cruel experiment, with the Brotherhood leadership deciding it’s better to be an observer rather than a test subject.

But in the square, the effects of constant tear gas exposure on test subjects can now be documented, and while it’s produced a lot of injuries, strange flus and sheer exhaustion, it has only hardened attitudes against the SCAF and increasingly towards any political group that is perceived as having sold out the protesters.

Voices stronger than batons and shocks

“They can break my bones, but they can’t break my voice, and it’s stronger now than before.”

So exclaimed Mona Eltahawy, when I unexpectedly ran into her in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel not far from Tahrir Square. The award-winning Egyptian-American journalist was seized, badly beaten and sexually assaulted by the military police just a few days ago.

The white casts on each arm acted like beacons, with a parade of well wishers – and even tourists – approaching to offer their support, and if they were friends, to sign her casts.

While talking to Mona, I scanned the room and saw Ramy Essam, the “singer of the revolution”, whose song Irhal became a global anthem for the audacity of everyday citizens to demand change. Introducing the two of them, it was sadly emblematic of the state of Egypt fewer than 48 hours before an election that once inspired so much hope that the first thing they did was compare the marks of torture – electric shocks on his back, made in the Egyptian museum in March, with the bone-breaking batons on her arms only two days before.

But what was clear for both was that in suffering those beatings, and now inhaling the gas meant to extinguish the spirit of the revolution in time for the election, was that the violence was, in a very real way, cathartic.

Eltahawy couldn’t help but agree with the many friends who told her “if this had to happen to someone, you were the one who could handle it best”.

As she prepared to return to her home in New York, she couldn’t handle all the inteview requests coming her way from almost every major news outlet. But she was literally licking her lips at the chance to rain verbal bullets on SCAF and on the Obama administration that has so uncritically supported it – despite the thousands of arrests, killings and torture it has visited upon Egyptians. She wanted to speak out against a system that in a kind of postmodern medievalism imagines that the spectacle of torture, of “making an example” out of those who dare to speak, would display enough of the awesome power that for decades cowed millions of Egyptians into meekly accepting dictatorial rule to keep the system intact after Tuesday.

Lifting up her arms, Eltahawy exclaimed: “This is the stability the Obama administration wants?” It was a rhetorical question.

As leading activists from several human rights organisations joined us, we all agreed that, as with the US strategy in Iraq after the invasion in 2003, the goal was to generate enough chaos that people could not see – or have no time or ability to contest – the attempted manipulation of the still embryonic political system’s DNA, so that it remains congenitally weak and obedient to the forces behind whatever democratic facade the elections produce.

Time to leave again

“It’s sad that they think they can defeat us this way, but it’s stupid,” Ramy Essam said, as we walked over to the Meidan, joking about the inevitable smell of tear gas that would soon be upon us (in fact, there was no gas that evening, only the smell of roasting nuts and popcorn).

As he shook his head at the toll of the violence his fellow Egyptians had once again to endure the sound of Irhal! Irhal! [“Leave! Leave!”] greeted us at the entrance to the square.

Ramy Essam and Mona Eltahawy have become icons of the Egyptian revolution [Al Jazeera]

A wan smile appeared on Essam’s face. “Sounds familiar” we said at the same time, he in the form of a question, me in the form of a statement; both of us equally sad and unsurprised that ten months after we stood in the same spot cheering Mubarak’s departure, we were back in an eerily similar Tahrir. We knew on February 12 that it would likely come to this. There were just too many unfinished pieces of business from that time.

Already that evening, as Ramy took the stage to play a final encore of Irhal for throngs of celebrating Egyptians, the mood had soured. The solidarity between religious and secular, left and mainstream forces that had defined life in Tahrir for 18 days broke down fewer than 24 hours after Mubarak left, and a group of Salafi youth surrounded the stage, forcibly separated men and women, and then grabbed the microphone and spent well over half an hour haranguing the audience with religious sermonising despite increasingly angry pleas to get off the stage and let Essam perform.

The beautiful vibe that made the square a petite utopia had dissipated, and in its place was suddenly tension, violence, suspicion and self-interest.

And it was a variation of these sentiments that permeated the square Saturday well into the night. The untold thousands of protesters who still mingled in the square at 2:00am were far greater than the numbers that inhabited the square at a similar time of night in February. But the mood was closer to the night of February 12 than February 10, understandably so. Rumours fly each time a siren is heard or shouting erupts.

Scuffles break out across the square with regularity. Tahriris, as the occupiers of the Meidan could be called, like to say that they are there as Egyptians, having left their political affiliation or social views outside Tahrir. But that’s not fully the case.

Standing with a friend near the tent of the April 6 movement, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s main political party entered the square surrounded by dozens of guards and supporters, chanting and speaking through a megaphone.

As the group pushed its way through the crowd towards the April 6 area, a group of the movement’s supporters immediately moved towards them, staking out their territory and making it quite clear that they shouldn’t think about coming any closer.

The group moved on, making a sharp left towards the more welcoming section of Tahrir in front of the Omar Makram mosque where the political figure spoke for almost half an hour. The crowd wasn’t very large, especially compared with the numbers in the square, but it would no doubt make for a good YouTube campaign clip, demonstrating the party’s supposed “sympathy” with the protesters – despite its decision not to support the protests.

Better than Gaza

I met up with a friend, one of the founders of the Gaza Youth Breaks Out movement, who had been in Tahrir almost continuously since the outbreak of fighting last Saturday. He is literally in exile in Cairo, as Hamas let it be known in no uncertain terms that, should he return home again any time soon they’d pick him up. For him and a significant number of other Gaza youth activists who have migrated to Cairo – and now Tahrir – in recent weeks, there is literally nowhere else to be but in Tahrir at this moment.

“There is nothing to do in Gaza now. At least here we can join the struggle,” he explained as we wandered through the various tent neighbourhoods of the square.

The feeling of familiarity was hard to escape, but I wasn’t sure whether it was similarity to the Tahrir of ten months ago or the various Occupy encampments almost half a world away today that I was feeling. Either way, in the maze of tents and small open spaces a melange of Egyptian society, mostly youth but including the very young and old as well, sat around, made Arabic coffee and tea, engaged in heated arguments and swapped jokes, and strummed guitars and beat drums.

For my friend and his fellow Gazan activists, Tahrir with its tension and tear gas is a far better feeling than he could experience back home. Despite spending the past week at the front lines of Muhammad Mahmoud street fighting the Security Police with neither gas mask nor bandana, Abu Yazan was clearly invigorated by the whole experience.

“At first I was reluctant to join the fight, since this isn’t my struggle really. But my Egyptian friends kept encouraging me and finally I threw one rock, and then another, and they kept encouraging me and so I just kept fighting with them. This is nothing compared to Israelis anyway; they don’t bother with tear gas in Gaza, they just shoot missiles.”

But my friend was worried about the likely electoral victory of the Brotherhood. “I keep telling people I meet, ‘I’m from Gaza, and trust me, you don’t want the Islamists in power’.” It’s a message that, not surprisingly, is finding increasing support in Tahrir – given the Brotherhood’s self-serving dalliances with SCAF to ensure its electoral victory. But it’s also resonant in regions such as Sinai, where residents more routinely come into contact with people from Gaza and are already well aware of the what a religiously dominated political system could mean.

No stages, but looking for a place to play

But even as many people are wiser, there is something far more unsettled about Tahrir on the eve of elections compared with the eve of Mubarak’s departure back in February. In a nod to the horrible toll the military – and it’s clear that while the Security Police have done the dirty work, the military is behind the violence – has inflicted upon protesters, there are no stages in Tahrir, in order to prevent political groups from using it for rallies or concerts.

Tahrir is filled with people selling things – from revolutionary t-shirts to sunglasses and cotton candy. There seems to be less thoughtful political purpose now, and more of a sense that the main point of being in Tahrir is literally being there. To let the army, the country, and the world know that the force behind the revolution will not allow the revolution to be hijacked, co-opted or tamped down.

But while in February the surrounding areas of Cairo were in fact largely shut down for most of the 18 days of protest, now life goes on even a block from Tahrir as normal. Whether people have learned to adapt to semi-permanent revolution – which would be a good thing, friends say – or have just moved on with their lives – which the SCAF clearly hopes – is still impossible to tell.

At around 1:00am Ramy Essam decided it was finally time to perform again for the first time in this iteratation of Tahrir. So we went from the collection of tents inhabitated by people from his town of Mansoura, a kind of Mansoura Village in Tahrir, into the main tent area looking for a place to play.

People were chatting amiably and discussing the likely events of the next day. As Essam was tuning up, a young boy suddenly ran past us, and then a group of people, shouting in anger.

I thought it was another attack, but it turned out that someone had caught a couple in a tent apparently engaged in the kind of revolutionary act that is certainly not sanctioned by whoever passes for authority in Tahrir. “This ain’t Woodstock,” a friend joked, but it was no laughing matter, as about a dozen men dragged the man out of the tent screaming and pushed past us, pulling him into the distance.

Far more dangerous was the position in which the woman found herself, as a crowd of men rushed into the tent and began grabbing and attacking her – so ferocious was the attack that the tent literally collapsed on the men, outlining their constantly shifting forms as they continued to attack her.

Thankfully, the volunteer security forces, with their orange reflector vests, pushed their way in and managed to grab the woman, get her out of the tent and – we hoped – out of Tahrir before anything else happened.

The intensity of the moment was as remarkable, as was the blase attitude of the hundred or so people who stood watching, and quickly returned to their conversations once it was over. And yet only a few feet away in the Meidan, the fight didn’t even register with other protesters, who are used to scuffles breaking out without warning.

Ramy, disgusted, put away his guitar and walked back to the Mansoura “village”, on whose tents were painted signs like “F*** SCAF” and “Martyrs Made to Order”. But worried about the fate of the couple, he soon disappeared to see what happened. He, more than most people, knows what it feels like to lie helpless as blows are rained down on you.

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As Tahrir hummed long into the middle of the night, I couldn’t help thinking of what Mona Eltahawy wrote only the day before her abduction in what is perhaps the best single article about the plight of Aliaa Mahdy, the young artist who (in)famously published nude photos of herself online as an act of resistance against the continued patriarchy of most every political and social force in Egypt, revolution or no revolution:

“When a woman is the sum total of her headscarf and hymen – that is, what’s on her head and what is between her legs – then nakedness and sex become weapons of political resistance.”

It seems that message hasn’t gotten through to many of the protesters in Tahrir, a place where young men and women certainly enjoy more freedom than they do on a normal street in Cairo, but where crossing the invisible lines of propriety can be as hazardous to your health as a day spent in the midst of whatever kind of tear gas the army has imported from Pennsylvania.

And that is perhaps the problem that haunts the protests in Tahrir.

The revolutionaries behind the overthrow of Mubarak and the continued challenge to the system are some of the most progressive activists anywhere, and the protesters battling the SCAF and its thugs are as brave as any in the world. But no matter who wins the war between the nitham – “the system” – and the people, Egypt has a hard and dark road ahead before it can create a truly democratic system that breaks the chains of violence, repression, corruption and patriarchy that have held it down for more than half a century.

“There is no Plan B to the revolution” reads one slogan in Tahrir. Where Plan A takes Egypt is still anyone’s guess.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. He is the author of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House, 2008), Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Book, 2009) and co-editor, with Gershon Shafir, of Struggle and Survival in Palestine/Israel (University of California Press, forthcoming).

Follow Mark LeVine on Twitter @culturejamming

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.