These pieces under the tagline “Ringside at Tahrir” were first published in The Telegraph in February 2011.
Feb 5, Cairo: Towards the end of it, as a darkening chill fell over Cairo and mob clashes crackled on the eastern fringes of Tahrir Square, the lament of the elderly man pulling home from the proceedings, told the day.
“If people dying won’t make Mubarak leave, people dancing won’t.”
Youm-el-Raheel, or President Hosni Mubarak’s “departure day”, was petering off in trails drifting away from a thundering six-hour “Go, Mubarak, Go!” vigil.
But the besieged dictator is still in saddle and Egypt’s turmoil still lies coiled around Cairo’s heart, refusing to go anywhere. If this is the successor to Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, it sure is living up to its given name; jasmine comes tortuously slow to colour and scent.
Like many past evenings, nightfall brought on frustrated sparring between anti- and pro-Mubarak vigilantes, who had their own nomenclature to put to this Friday: Allegiance Day. They jostled and brick-batted in the lanes running off Cairo’s central vista, and soldiers, out in much greater numbers, fired in the air to quell the chaos.
Purveyed by a restrained army — tanks posted sphinx-like at vantage points all across the city — the stand- off lived to return another day.
“How’s anybody to know what’s to happen?” asked Yasmine Elbehienne, human rights lawyer-turned-activist, a little cynical about where the protests were going, “We keep hoping he will go, but what will make him go?”
Everyday more brickwork is peeled off the Tahrir Square pavements, everyday more rock and mortar get arranged around the protesters. They are snapping corrugated sheets off their hutments and dragging them to make shelters and barricades.
They are ripping timber off the shopfronts and constructing trench lines. “Mubarak has to go!” rose the cry repeatedly today, “He goes, we stay.”
Yasmine had spent her eighth consecutive day at the Tahrir Square, and Friday, she said, was “bigger and better” than any other.
It was as festive an uprising as it would ever get, she’s right to sense and celebrate that. Men, women and children clapping and dancing. Troupes singing the national anthem and older revolutionary songs of Egypt’s coming of age.
Groups feasting on picnic-packs fetched from home, young boys and girls smoking and screaming about excitedly, the elderly egging them on. “It was quite amazing, wasn’t it?” Yasmine giggled.
Yet she couldn’t help sounding a little deluded by her and probably the collective expectation on the square. “But what did it come to? What are we to do to get this man out? We thought we will announce Departure Day and he will depart, ha! And yet all these people protesting and Mubarak does not even listen.”
Mubarak’s newly appointed proxies — Vice-President Omar Suleiman and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq — have been pleading he’s heard: “The President is aware things have gone wrong, he is taking steps, he has said he will not contest again, nor will his son. Now people should give him time to correct things, they should go home, they’ve been heard. I am telling the parents to call their children back home.”
But Suleiman’s exhorts are a thing of mocking in the churn of Tahrir Square. “We are kids, he thinks,” guffaws Rehmat, a young professional. “He thinks our parents will ask us home and we will, like little boys. He thinks this is play. He does not want to accept or see our parents are here too.”
Saad Edin Ebrahim, a US-based Egyptian being quoted on the social media, says: “This is what dictatorships have always done in Egypt, told the people to go home, leave us to do the job. And this is the job they’ve done, brought the people to the end of the bleeding tether. This chaos must end, Mubarak has to go.”
Elsewhere in the city, though, columns of pro-Mubarak demonstrators took to the streets. They too waved Egyptian flags. They too wanted the chaos to end. And the best way, they shouted, was to “defeat the traitors of Tahrir Square”.
One of them, carrying a Mubarak poster at the other end of the October 6 bridge on the Nile from Tahrir Square, said: “These are not Egyptians protesting against Mubarak, he is like a father figure, he fought for the country. They have been inspired by foreign powers, they are one million, Egypt is 85 million people, don’t forget that. This is a conspiracy to weaken our nation.”
It was the Mubarak government that inspired the “conspiracy” line a few days ago, insisting any Egyptian who has issues should come for talks with the government and sort them out. The Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition voice, has refused that offer. They want Mubarak gone, they want a fresh start. But the Brotherhood doesn’t have an announced gameplan either.
Neither does that other X factor recently arrived from Vienna and thrown into the thick of the confounding eddy: former IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei. Some believe ElBaradei can form the back of a “credible transition”, others that he has too little familiarity in his home country and littler notion of how Egypt is run. He is reported to have said he is drafting a new constitution; nobody knows on whose behalf or what authority.
Mubarak himself has said he is “fed up” after 62 years in public life, but that’s merely a rhetorical trick to assert he won’t go; if he leaves now, he’s argued, there will be chaos. The street is willing; Mubarak can’t cause more chaos than he already has, Egypt is better off without him. But the aftermath worries some genuinely.
But who’s to give it? Who or what is to replace Mubarak? Where do Egypt’s powerful armed forces stand on the issue of regime change? So far, the army has refused to act against the protests, giving the demonstrators a sense it stands with them.
But it has not shown any signs it is out of Mubarak’s control either. It stands bang in the centre of this twisted stalemate. The only thing moving in Cairo, really, are the waters of the Nile.