In memory of the ‘Watcher of Tahrir’

Pierre Sioufi may be gone, but his legacy will continue to inspire courage in Egypt and beyond.

Pierre's true genius was understanding  that everyone has a contribution to make to a moment of great historic change and opportunity,
 writes LeVine [Mark LeVine]
Pierre's true genius was understanding that everyone has a contribution to make to a moment of great historic change and opportunity, writes LeVine [Mark LeVine]

It’s a sadly fitting juxtaposition: just as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is putting the finishing touches on his re-coronation with this month’s presidential elections, one of the icons of the January 25 revolution has left us.

I write “us” because even if you’re not Egyptian and didn’t participate in or witness the Egyptian uprising or larger Arab Spring first hand, your life was likely touched by Pierre Sioufi’s actions.

A one time actor and self-described slacker and “salon revolutionary,” Pierre got his 15 minutes of (unintended) fame and then some when his spacious 10th floor apartment overlooking Tahrir Square became the not-so-secret nerve centre and safe house – or rather, apartment – of the Tahrir Occupation during the 18 days of the uprising. 

It’s hard to estimate the importance of Pierre’s apartment, and Pierre himself, to the events that transpired 100 meters below. To be sure, only a sliver of the hundreds of thousands who crowded into the square ever entered his apartment, but those who did comprised a crucial cross-section of the forces that made it a success: the young “Facebook activists” who organised the protests that became the uprising, seasoned organisers and activists, opposition figures like Laila Marzouk (Khaled Said’s mother), filmmakers like Jehane Noujaim (director of The Square), and Ramy Essam, the “singer of the Revolution,” all moved through the apartment day and night. They were joined by dozens of key local and international journalists who made the apartment a base for their coverage of the events in Tahrir.

Al Jazeera’s live camera was located on the roof above the apartment (Pierre owned the building, so that was also thanks to him), making it the de facto “Tahrir Bureau” even though the actual office was a few hundred meters away behind the Egyptian Museum. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen was so taken with what he experienced there that he wrote one of his most famous columns about Pierre, calling him the “Guru of the Revolution”. A video shot by the Times’ Ed Ou on February 9, titled “Cairo’s Facebook Flat”, shows the buzz of manic activity on one of the most fateful of the 18 days.

I’m not sure how important Facebook actually was, but far more miraculous was the fact that in a country notorious for unreliable internet, Pierre’s WiFi router became the heart that pumped out innumerable gigabytes of emails, photos, documents and videos from activists and journalists to the world, much of it sent from at least a dozen laptops, owners more or less unknown, which for the duration of uprising had become, like his apartment, property of the Revolution.

Whenever an outsider asked Pierre what he thought was going on, he demurred at offering insights into the dynamics of the uprising or its broader meaning (his incessant and incisive Facebook postings during the uprising belied his modesty). Instead, he would point to one of the dozens of young activists running through the apartment, laptop in one hand, phone in another, and declare that all he’d done is provide a space when asked. He didn’t even know who was replenishing the toilet paper, never mind keeping the apartment habitable and filled with a never-ending supply of koshari.

But the kids knew better, and at every hour of the day and night, they would seek his advice on strategies, on how to report on the day’s events to the outside world, how to respond to government propaganda or attacks. While he seemingly counted himself among the “couch” revolutionaries – those who didn’t go out and risk everything physically to confront security forces and thugs, in reality by offering his home, located in the no-man’s land at the edge of Tahrir and the rest of – government-controlled – Cairo, to the Revolution, he placed himself and his property at great risk. As did many of the older intellectuals and activists who also came by to talk, view the protests from above, and only offer their thoughts when asked by the true leaders of the “Republic of Tahrir” – the kids.

And that was perhaps Pierre’s true genius. He understood that everyone has a contribution to make to a moment of great historic change and opportunity. You don’t have to be out there fighting the military police or thugs on camelback to make a difference. You don’t need to be writing speeches or pontificating for the cameras. Sometimes the most important contribution can be just giving people a space to rest and reclaim their humanity for a few hours before returning to the fray. Indeed, Pierre was “woke” avant la lettre, understanding that to be a good “ally” to those in the midst of intense struggle against oppression you need to know how to listen, offer advice when requested, and stay out of the way until specifically asked to help (although, with his desk at the grand foyer entrance of the apartment, and with the world’s best view of Tahrir, he was in fact at the centre of it all).

It was this same spirit that would spark the global Occupy movement only weeks later.

I will never forget sitting next to Khaled Said’s mother, Laila Marzouk, in the large and sparsely furnished television room adjoining the terrace overlooking Tahrir on February 11, 2011. As the sun set, dozens of people nervously milled around the apartment. The chanting outside was growing louder by the minute; Hosni Mubarak had refused to leave, and so had the crowd. Something had to give.

People were praying, or on the phone with loved ones, giving them instructions and saying their good-byes in case the military decided to attack, which the fighter jets and helicopters above made a likely possibility. I came up from the square to send out what I feared might be my last dispatch of the revolution to Doha and, as usual, Pierre was at his desk, writing an update to his Facebook page. I sat down against the wall leading to the living room to be close to his router, and watched him closely as I typed up my notes.

Marzouk, as always clutching a pillow bearing the face of her martyred son Khaled, had entered the apartment as she’d done several times before, clearly drained from the events of the last 17 days. Pierre came over to her, gave her a drink and made sure she was comfortable, with an unobstructed view of the TV, which showed Al Jazeera’s feed of the swelling crowds below. He seemed as unperturbable as ever; his calm soothed her and most everyone else’s frazzled nerves. It was as if he knew what was about to happen.

Then, suddenly, the TV started playing the kind of pomp-and-circumstance music that can only mean a president or king is no more. An indescribable roar erupted from below, and Pierre exploded with joy with the rest of the apartment at the news that the Pharaoh was gone. Marzouk got up and started to walk around in a daze before sitting down again and starting to weep, surrounded by well-wishers who joined her tears of joy and sorrow with their own. Pierre’s bookshelves were filled with the luminaries of the French canon – Proust, Flaubert, and Balzac, but I couldn’t help thinking of the one-time denizen of Paris, James Baldwin, who once said “History is not the past; it is the present. We carry our history with us. We ARE our history.” Thanks in good measure to Pierre’s hospitality and generosity of spirit and heart, everyone in that apartment will be carrying the history we’d witnessed for the rest of our lives.

The next evening I stopped by the apartment to help with the clean up (Cairenes had spent most of their first day of freedom cleaning the streets of the city). But with Mubarak gone, Pierre too had left the building, to Sinai or some oasis for a well-earned break. In the months and years after the uprising, we’d run into each other at protests or a local cafe. Yet already by March of 2011 the “watcher of the Square,” as Der Spiegel called him, had become “fearful” that the Revolution was losing its purpose and momentum. He could tell from the smaller and then Islamist-dominated crowds in Tahrir that Egypt was likely moving in the wrong direction.

By the time huge crowds returned to Tahrir to push out Mohamed Morsi and then celebrate the coup and el-Sisi’s rise to power, it was clear that the first Republic of Tahrir was no more. But as far as I could tell, Pierre never gave up hope that Tahrir would again rise, and that he would share whatever was needed with the new generation of revolutionaries when they came to his door. I’m not sure where they will go now, but one can hope his legacy will inspire similar courage among his neighbours when that day finally arrives.

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

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