Five Years On, Egypt’s Uprising Flagged at Tahrir
This blog is cross posted from The Huffington Post:
Clinging listlessly to the top of the pole in the middle of Tahrir Square the Egyptian flag projects absolute power, a signal of the old order restored after the mass anti-government uprising of 2011. Exactly five years after the first major protests it shows who’s back in control now.
Basem Fahty, one of the young organizers of those original January protests, says “it’s a symbol of victory dominating the square – the flag says crisis over and the state won, the old state.” It was put up in early 2015; “it’s unifying and makes people feel nationalistic,” said the city’s governor.
Fahty is now 32 years old, a political veteran by Egyptian standards. Five years ago he headed one of the feeder marches on January 25 that converged on the square in the afternoon.
A few days ago we sat on a bench in Tahrir as he pointed out where he entered the square at about 4pm that Tuesday afternoon. “I wasn’t a fighter but had been on demonstrations so was pushed to the front – I was pretty scared, leading several thousand people here but really didn’t know what to do if it came to a clash with the police,” he said. “It was a bit lucky but when the police lined up across the street to stop us we just ran towards them and, thank God, they got out of the way.”
“By the time I arrived I’d say there were already about 40,000 people here. Those of us who had planned the protest, the other activists, went round asking each other ‘Now what?’ but there really wasn’t any plan.”
His job had been to sort out logistics for the planned protest, but he had massively underestimated the size of the crowd that would show up. “I knew my way around the area pretty well; in all there are 13 entrances to the square – main arteries and small alleys. I was trying to organize getting blankets and water into the protestors past the police.”
The police attacked with tear gas and rubber bullets soon after midnight, he said, which triggered the first chants of people calling for the downfall of the regime.
“People realized that first day when they arrived here in the square that they could suddenly just move around freely, without being stopped and questioned, that freedom, just milling about, it meant everything,” says Fahty.
The following heady 18 days witnessed constant monster protests, replicated across the country, which finally led to the downfall of the Mubarak dictatorship on February 11.
Tahrir became focus of peaceful and violent demonstrations in the following years as Egypt’s politics repeatedly convulsed, and it was at the center of a military coup in June 2013 which left current President Sisi in charge.
Many of the organizers of the 2011 demonstrations have since been targeted. Fahty’s activism led to his arrest and a suspended jail sentence. In recent weeks dozens of activists have been rounded up by authorities jittery that Monday’s anniversary will trigger fresh protests against the new regime.
The square itself looks calm, an image the authorities are keen to encourage. You have to look hard to find the scars on Tahrir. The most obvious security presence is now half a dozen traffic cops in yellow hi-viz vests waving halfheartedly at motorists to obey the lights.
The square’s KFC, shut down during the 2011 protests, is back to a bustling hub of gossiping teens. Outside people lounge around on benches in the winter sun sipping tea.
“We lost,” said Fahty. “This back to normal sense of the square is their ultimate victory – in Bahrain the regime bulldozed Pearl Square, the site of their 2011 protests, and the military occupies it. It’s a sign their crisis is still on somehow, but the message is that our crisis is over and Tahrir just looks like a big traffic circle,” he said, nodding up towards the limp flag at the top of the 20 meter pole.
“I sort of avoid the square now because of how it is – it’s a reminder of how the old state won.”