The final approach to Qasr el-Nil bridge on Zamalek island runs past a series of shaded gardens surrounding the national opera house, a rare patchwork of green amid Cairo’s fume-choked Tarmac quilt. Mahmoud Hamdy remembered walking down this same road exactly a year ago to the day, heart pounding and eyes burning, as thousands of anti-regime protesters burst through police lines and struck a fatal blow to one dictator’s three-decade aura of invincibility.
“I felt so confident that afternoon, almost dizzy,” said the 24-year-old. “But when we reached the bridge there were lines of security troops blocking our way. They were there again on 28 January, making their last stand against the people.
“It was so difficult to pass, but we knew that everything rested on us doing so, everything rested upon us reaching Tahrir.”
Twelve months later Hamdy once again found Qasr el-Nil impassable as he tried to make his way towards the capital’s main square, the name of which has now become globally synonymous with occupation, resistance and revolt.
This time though it wasn’t Hosni Mubarak‘s hated security forces blocking the way but hundreds of thousands of like-minded fellow citizens, all intent on converging on the same plot of land. They waved flags, held aloft placards, sang and danced and raised their fists in memory of the martyrs, filling first Tahrir, then all the traffic arteries leading into it, and then all the capillaries that branched off from them, until central Cairo – its buildings, its cars and, on Wednesday, its overwhelming volume of people – coagulated into one big revolutionary clot. “These are the Egyptians,” nodded Hamdy approvingly. “This is how we speak our mind.”
In the 365 days since Egypt‘s revolution erupted with a breathtaking shudder on to the world stage, the gap between its hopes and its achievements has yawned wide for Hamdy. Like so many others, he watched friends die, first in the struggle to bring down Mubarak and then again in the multiple uprisings that have taken place since, targeting the regime-friendly generals who replaced him.
“Those in uniform who shot Egyptians dead in front of me still walk the streets freely,” said the Cairo tour guide. “Those that, like Mubarak, ordered such shootings – they remain in power instead of being behind bars. Listen to chants around us: ‘Bread, freedom, human dignity’. Where are those things? Can we see or touch them? No, and that’s why we’re here today.”
Egypt’s military council, which has promised to surrender power to a democratically-elected president by the summer, envisaged this most emotive of anniversaries as a celebration, laying on air shows, firework displays and even a specially-commissioned operetta to mark the occasion. But as Hamdy’s laundry list of unmet demands showed, few who took to the streets believe their army’s promises, and even fewer were in any mood for a party.
“We were afraid that, because of the state media’s lies, this 25 January would be taken away from us and turned into something else, something that just congratulated Scaf [the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] and treated the revolution like a long-finished event,” said Abdel Latif Ahmed, a 32-year-old poet, as he joined a rally in the Giza neighbourhood of Mohandiseen, one of the scores of feeder marches that would eventually filter into Tahrir from every corner of the city.
“But this just shows you that the revolution never went away – it is here, it is alive, and it is stronger than ever.”
Amid the creative accessorising of insurrectionary protest – a giant puppet of Scaf’s head Field Marshal Tantawi was carried by four youths, each sporting masks depicting the faces of those killed over the past year while battling for change – most participants were struck predominantly by the turnout.
“This is the biggest march I’ve ever been on,” said Amira Ahmed, a 29-year-old business editor at an Egyptian newspaper. “Despite the efforts of the authorities, all this energy is directly targeted against military rule. When we left the square after Mubarak was toppled, people always said ‘well, we can come back if things go wrong’. They did go wrong, and today is about reclaiming our streets and returning to Tahrir.”
Tantawi is known in Egypt by his Arabic title of “mushir” and demonstrators devoted many of their slogans directly at a man they see as little more than a new figurehead for Mubarak’s largely intact regime. The rhyme ‘Ya mushir, ya mushir, the people are returning to Tahrir’, reverberated through backstreets and underpasses as the marches swelled; in the face of such energy, the generals largely opted to stay out of sight, though they did fire up their primary method of public communication these days – Facebook – to repeat their commitment to democratic transition and chide Egyptians for thinking ill of the top brass. “The time will come when we will talk, while we are at our units protecting the land, skies and seas of Egypt,” read a Scaf statement on the social networking site. “Then we will reveal several truths that will make this nation proud of its armed forces.”
Some had expected trouble in Tahrir itself, not necessarily between protesters and security forces but rather between those explicitly opposed to Scaf and others, like the formal ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, who have done well out of the junta’s erratic path to institutional change and are hence careful to avoid confrontation with the army.
In the end though, peaceful coexistence largely prevailed. “Parliament [which is now dominated by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party’] is one source of democracy and this, the street, is another,” said Adel Tawfiq, a young architect and member of the Muslim Brotherhood. “I know the revolution isn’t over, and I think we need both to ensure it succeeds. These two things aren’t in opposition to each other, in fact they go hand in hand.”
And it is that ascendancy of sovereignty from below – accepted even by those who have most invested in the government – that is perhaps this revolution’s greatest triumph so far, one year on from the day it all began. “We’re witnessing a new definition of politics,” claimed Khaled Fahmy, chair of the history faculty at the American University in Cairo who joined the rallies today. “Those fighting for change here, their imagination, their discourse, their imagery, their tactics and organisation – it’s all unprecedented.
“On January 25 2011 these people found a successful formula of mobilisation,” he added. “The challenge now is for them to find a successful formula which will allow them to organise and thrive in the politics of Egypt today, and I’m betting on them succeeding because they have not lost their enthusiasm, they have not lost their faith in non-violence despite the enormous violence used against them, they have not stopped organising, and they have not lost their sense of humour. It’s a confident humour that looks to the future because they know that time is on their side. Compared to that, Scaf has lost. The generals look like desperate people clinging on to the vestiges of power in the most unimaginative, banal and crude manner possible. And so the revolution continues.”
Jack Shenker, The Guardian