Reporter's Notebook: Tahrir Square, one year later

'It is not the Mubarak ship, but it is still the same ship.'

First anniversary of Egypt’s uprising in Tahrir Square 390 (photo credit: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters))
First anniversary of Egypt’s uprising in Tahrir Square 390
(photo credit: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters))
Egyptians did not have to work on January 25, 2011 – it was a holiday, National Police Day.
Inspired by recent protests in Tunisia, thousands of Egyptians had for days been gathering in Tahrir Square in small groups, to protest terrible living conditions and demand that president Hosni Mubarak step down.
On that sunny Tuesday one year ago, something was different in the way the groups began to gather and surge toward the square.
In Israel, I watched as the protests grew and then turned violent, with protesters continuing to fight back. Something was changing in Egypt.
Fast forward a year to January 25, 2012. Again, it was a national holiday, but it has been rechristened: National Revolution Day. Like many times over the past year, Tahrir Square was filled with flags and signs, toddlers with black, red and white face paint and men clambering up lampposts and shouting from the top.
As I watched the festivities unfold in the square from Jerusalem, I could not help but remember the first time I found myself in Tahrir Square, on January 28, 2011. Swept up by the crowds in the Giza suburb near Cairo University, I joined a march towards the square – into a cloud of tear gas and into history. Over the ensuing week, I saw the square become a symbol of both liberty and death.
On Wednesday, I called Cairo journalist and activist Tarek Mounir, who I met last year in Tahrir Square, to ask what he thought of the one-year anniversary.
“It’s been a hell of a year,” Mounir said, pointing out that countries from Greece to Israel to England to the US had also seen widespread protests.
While the feeling on the street on Wednesday was celebratory, Mounir said many activists were worried about the future of Egypt, where Islamist parties control 75 percent of parliament and the highest authority is still Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
“It wasn’t a revolution – a revolution means to turn around things and to take over,” he said. “[In this revolution], the people who made it went against the top of the regime, and when the top of the regime was removed, they surrendered power to the rest of the regime, which is the rest of the military junta.
“It’s not the Mubarak regime, but it’s still the same ship, just without the captain of 30 years,” Mounir added.
The revolution may have removed Mubarak, but it hasn’t affected the daily life of Egypt’s poorest classes.
According to the World Bank, 43% of Egyptians live under the poverty line in urban areas. In rural areas, the gaps are even more staggering, said Mounir, and residents suffer from frequent electricity blackouts, nonexistent or subpar infrastructure, gas and food shortages and severe inflation. Egyptians took to the streets last year to demand a better future. So far, they haven’t received it.
“Those 18 days they were great, everyone talked about it and about us,” Mounir said.
“Now it’s back again to a Facebook and Twitter thing,” to a lot of talk and little action, he said.
“Now everyone is trying to formulate a coalition here, a coalition there... now we have 38,000 coalitions full of Egyptian activists,” Mounir added. “What influence do they have? I claim it’s nothing.”
Mounir’s cynicism was echoed by many activists and bloggers. But in Tahrir Square, the mood was of optimistic celebration, marking a year since one of the most remarkable revolutions of modern history.
This square has seen plenty of flags, chants, fighting and death in the past year.
On the surface, filled with demonstrators, Tahrir Square does not look any different from some of the calmer days of the 18-day revolution last year. But something has changed in Egypt. Perhaps in the future, with the benefit of more hindsight than a year can provide, we will be better able to understand how January 25 was the tipping point for a new face for the Middle East.