These pieces under the tagline “Ringside at Tahrir” were first published in The Telegraph in February 2011.
Feb 7, Cairo: This must be the only revolution where entrenched adversaries have gone to talks in grandiose halls on the sidelines of an intermittently bloody siege.
A surreal, and eventually sterile, subplot to the Tahrir Square stalemate unfolded this afternoon when Vice-President Omar Suleiman lured the incipient revolution to a gilt-edged round table presided by a looming portrait of the very man it’s gunning for: Hosni Mubarak.
Had the setting not been so bizarre, the tryst could have approached being historic. For, this was the first time that the still-proscribed Muslim Brotherhood had been invited as the state’s honoured guests, among other top Opposition ranks, and they arrived.
But the tryst proved a trivial pursuit.
Suleiman said there was no question of Mubarak stepping down; his guests said there was no point talking in that case, and left.
The Brotherhood issued an immediate disclaimer, should its presence on the Establishment’s ground under Mubarak’s benign smile be misunderstood as a sign of weakness or, worse, opportunistic collusion.
“These were not talks or negotiations,” spokesperson Moneim Abdul Fatouh claimed in a statement. “We had gone to explore the limits of their horizon and we found only deceit, they want to mislead the people and the uprising. We don’t trust them to do anything.”
The Mubarak regime, meantime, used footage of the short interaction to go into a propaganda overdrive: Look how easily these matters can be sorted across the table, end the demonstrations, we are willing to engage. Why not form a committee? Why not widen consultations? Why not put all demands on the table and we’ll see what can be done?
Simultaneously on the widely watched state television, it ran stories on the economic impact of the disruption — shuttered businesses, soaring prices, food scarcity: is this the gift the unrest wants to give to Egyptians?
It also opened banks for a few hours for the first time in a week and eased more traffic onto the roads, if only to suggest the government had overcome the hump and normality was slowly resuming. “You can’t say it’s not working,” admitted Barak Urfi, a Tahrir activist. “It’s clever and perverted but it is good propaganda. For the poor who are really hit by this, it’s an appeal that makes sense, they’d rather have bread than freedom, I suppose.”
Strangely, and increasingly, the Opposition has been willing to do business with a regime it says it does not trust and wants thrown out of the saddle. Revolutions don’t talk to incumbent regimes, they demolish them or get demolished in turn. And if this one is unsure of where to head next, Mubarak has probably found out.
Mubarak’s establishment is nothing if not a wily beast, it hasn’t sustained in power for three decades for nothing. Each day it appears to concede this or that — crumbs from its table, no more — and lures its challengers into thinking it is giving way. But each day it ensnares them into inconsequential engagement.
Everything is on the table other than Mubarak’s head, though it is Mubarak’s head they want most, and they won’t get it negotiating with his chosen minions. Each day Mubarak survives at the helm becomes a trophy to his canny resilience.
Tahrir Square hasn’t exhausted its energies yet, but as each new day becomes a repeat of the previous one — valiant but vain — critical questions are beginning to get asked. Where do we go from here? What’s the next stage? Who’s to take us there?
“This is too spontaneous to be ordered,” conceded a youth leader who would not be named. “It is both our strength and our weakness, we need a leadership, but we don’t want a leader that will set the rules for us. We are an amorphous force, we do not know what we want to be contained in.”
The disconnect between the street and the political process that must push its momentum ahead became apparent in the way this afternoon’s demonstrations proceeded utterly indifferent to intimations of talks between Suleiman and the Opposition.
When news arrived, some began to ask who had authorised them to talk. “We are new to this, raw,” said Salah Salahi, a protester. “We do not know how democracy works, who talks, when, but we will get there.”
Speculation lifting off the merry confusion of the square this evening even had it that the youths had resolved to form their own committee, a mix of young and eminent persons, if negotiations were to be the way ahead. But of one pre-condition they were still firm: only after Mubarak goes.
Today had been designated Martyr’s Day — nobody knows by who, such decrees arrive ineffably from the virtual world, on text and Twitter -— and the square swelled past noon to pay homage to the estimated 300 who have been killed across Egypt since January 25.
There was a Sunday Mass led by a Coptic priest, and then the afternoon namaaz, and the gathering paid obeisance in unison — a signal to the suspecting world, perhaps, that this isn’t an Islamic outburst, this is an Egyptian revolt to address Egyptian, as opposed to any other, aspirations.
The Quran was held aloft along with the Bible and Cross, the combined might of heavenly symbols invoked in the battle against one earthly being that wouldn’t give.
Today’s was perhaps the most peaceful and festive of vigils at Tahrir Square. People sang and danced and spat on the now very rugged dummy of Mubarak’s that hangs in the centre. But 13 days on, that’s as close they’ve reached to doing their willing with the dictator.