You cannot erase Tahrir Square from our memory
The sight of paper bags and juice cans on asphalt in downtown Cairo was not nearly as odd as seeing civilians trying to pick them up. One of my earliest memories in the first days of the revolution, was of a five teenagers holding garbage bags amid the pulsating and fledgling demonstrations in Tahrir, doing just that. Perhaps the demonstration organizers of the demos did this, I thought.
“No, I don’t know any organizers,” one of the young men told me.
“So, why are you doing this?”
“Everyone has to play their part,” he walked away.
A week later a make-shift sign jut out near the south side of Tahrir Square, “The Cleaning Committee” with volunteers dolling out donated cleaning supplies to tens of women and men, “playing their part.”
Everyone wanted to do something. Everyone felt empowered. That’s scary stuff for an Egyptian regime that seemed to feed off the helplessness and apathy, and seemed to reinforce it by an extremely inefficient bureaucracy and control-obsessed security apparatus. Once, not so long before those days, a friend was threatened with arrest for organizing an unlicensed street clean-up with her students.
Five-years later, with the hopes of profound short-term political change all but disappeared, the major remnants of the revolution lie in the attitude it instilled in a generation of eager Egyptians. This attitude holds ideals that resist blind subservience, encourages pro-action and supersedes red-tape. It is completely incompatible with the institutional framework running the country for over 60 years. Once in full motion, they presented a conundrum whose solution was, for the first time in 30-years, not in the hands of the police force.
So, while in control, the security apparatus has been attempting to do its best to avoid this riddle again. Their fear runs deep, deep enough for them to resort to searching over 5,000 houses at random in downtown Cairo, close down its vibrant cultural centres, threaten any protesters with live ammunition, harass independent journalists and thinkers, and detain a whole bunch of people. Downtown Cairo has become a ghost town.
This is a regime that knows it will lose. It cannot afford an empowered citizenry and aims to muzzle any symbols of empowerment, even if these symbols have lost their ability to mobilize. So, El-Sisi will pardon some political prisoners, but not the ones who yelled loudest, and who continued to shout from behind bars. Tahrir square, the geographical symbol, has been completely fortified, and security presence abound, even though no real calls for demonstrations came about, as if the day and the place are fetishized more by its opponents.
These symbols are perhaps too painful a reminder for them, while they definitely contain incredibly powerful memories for others.
The fact that the main demands of 25 January remain quite far from being achieved create a kind of dissonance between nostalgia and reality. Thinking about all the days between 25 January 2011 and 11 February 2011 stirs many emotions in anyone who lived all or even some of those days in the streets of downtown Cairo. Everything about its memory is a story, that will undoubtedly be told and retold and its moments yearned for (perhaps exaggeratedly). Even the smell of teargas contains a certain sweetness in hindsight… actually, no, tear gas is nasty.
But, nostalgia for its own sake is a dangerous thing. Memory on its own can be maligned, doubted, co-opted or even erased. A contentious collective memory could face a battle when it comes time to consecrate it in “history.” Now, at the five-year mark, history books will start including entries for those first 18-days. Opponents of the 25 January revolution have attempted to co-opt its memory from day one.
They failed. So they made-up another “revolution” on 30 June 2013 that they could call their own- a day that had in fact started out as just another wave of the 25 January revolution, and included many of its original components. They then took to maligning as many counter-revolutionaries were increasingly regurgitating the same nonsense that it was all just a conspiracy to bring down the country, as if these individuals were living in a parallel dimension where the various social, economic, and political ills were not accumulating in Egypt as they were in our universe.
Now, they are trying to erase the memory, using the brute force of security forces, draconian measures, and through a slew of talk-show hosts cum propaganda. Counter-revolutionary media personalities such as the incredibly shriek talk-show host, Ahmed Mousa, have been pleading with everyone to stay home on the day, while Mousa yelled his desire to see Egyptians go out and celebrate “Police Day,” on 25 January. Its memory had been overshadowed and almost erased by the revolution which initially happened on Police Day, to protest police brutality.
Many who took from those first 18 days a sense of belief, optimism and hope are now palpably demoralized. Jail cells continue to count more and more of them among their ranks, the others are experiencing the depressing reality of seeing their hopes being shackled along with their friends, and an enduring political regime that prefers the untenable policy of shouting orders rather than listen to the masses it governs. However, the fear on the other side should be a potent reminder of how close they came or still are. And while a repeat “18-days” is unlikely in the near future, the spirit of spontaneous “empowered” garbage clean-ups has continued and could be hold the key to a long-term, subtler victory.
Mohamed ElMeshad is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, focusing on the political economy of the media. He extensively worked in Egypt, Bahrain, West Africa, the UK and US. Recently, he contributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists' book, Attacks on the Press (2015).
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.