Very chuffed today to have a piece from Cairo’s Tahrir Square on the BBC World Service radio programme From Our Own Correspondent – click on this link to hear it.
The piece as aired was edited slightly and cut down to fit the running time. Here’s the original, as submitted.
My favourite Cairo graffito of the moment, spotted this week on an underpass in the leafy residential quarter of Zamalek, is ‘Il-Tahrir fee Midan il-Tahrir’, or “Liberation in Liberation Square”. But it’s when you go walking in the square that it becomes increasingly clear different people have different ideas of what liberation might mean.
Tahrir is less of a square than a ramble of grassy islets flanking a roundabout that is normally marooned in a sea of honking traffic. Now, though, traffic is barred. In its place, gaggles of men (and it is mostly men) gather at points around the square to debate the revolution, in a high-octane, high-stakes version of Speakers’ Corner in London.
“I was here!” shouts one muscle-bound character in a plaid shirt, leaning forward and beating his chest in a declaration of revolutionary authenticity. “I was here on January 25th [which was the day the anti-Mubarak protests began]. But these people here now” – he points over to the ragtaggle groups of protesters on the Tahrir roundabout, bedecked in banners – “they’re all just druggies.”
The little crowd which has gathered around him shifts and mutters. And then, in an expert piece of rhetoric which throws a spotlight onto every enemy lurking in the minds of his audience, the speaker delivers his coup-de-grace.
“These junkies,” he says, “They’re all on Twitter and Facebook, dealing drugs. Al Jazeera says that THAT” – and he gestures at the roundabout again – “is our revolution. No! Those people are the counter-revolution! The army must take charge!”
Beside me, protester and social media activist Amr El Beleidy laughs. Psychological warfare, he calls it, before telling me how 100 Egyptian pounds – roughly ten pounds sterling – can buy the services of a rabble-rouser for a day to poison hearts and minds on Tahrir Square.
Well over six foot, with a clump of fair curly hair and a grin wider than his ears, Amr cuts an unlikely figure, strolling amiably across the square as if on a country ramble. With an engineering degree from University College London, and a masters from Imperial College, Amr straddles two worlds. I met him first on Twitter, months before shaking his hand in real life.
Even now, as we walk, he is snapping photos on his phone for later upload. But, in the uncertainty of post-revolutionary Cairo, informants and counter-revolutionary spooks have free rein. A mustachioed character steps in front of us, holding up a phone as if videoing our faces. I duck away, and Amr challenges him.
“What are you doing?”
The man scowls, and mutters, “I’m doing what you’re doing. Taking pictures.”
I later discovered that Amr posted an image of the man’s face onto Twitter, to warn other protesters.
Yet, as so often happens in Egypt, Tahrir also overturns prejudices. When a shabby-looking man with a limp blocked our path and held up a newspaper, I thought “Here we go again”, expecting an argument.
He asked us what the headline was. Amr read it aloud. The man nodded thoughtfully, then jabbed his finger at another headline. Then another.
He couldn’t read. But he wanted to be part of the revolution. So, rather than rely on rumour and street gossip, this man had come to Tahrir to find out for himself what the media were really saying. The newspaper was the privately-owned daily Al Masry Al Youm, the opposition’s favourite read.
Blocking access to reliable information is the first weapon in any autocrat’s arsenal. But that rubs both ways. Amr brought up the fear – among Westerners in particular – of the rise of Islamist parties in Egypt – particularly the Salafis, who advocate a return to an older, stricter form of Islam.
“But these Salafis are like the BNP in Britain,” he said. “You remember all that fuss about inviting the BNP onto Question Time? But it just showed everybody how irrelevant the BNP were. It’s the same here. Mubarak tried to crush the Salafis, but he just drove them underground. He gave them power. Now Mubarak has gone, so they are speaking – but most people aren’t listening. They don’t want them.”
Out on the square, gangs of boys are jostling to gurn into TV cameras, while fifty yards away shouts rise as an argument spills over into shoving. Teenage lads buzz to and fro on gleaming motorbikes, weaving dangerously between pedestrians, apparently just showing off to each other.
Control of Tahrir Square has become a cipher, indicating control of the nation’s political future. But, as one Egyptian journalist tweeted this week, the revolution is more than Tahrir. The story of Egypt’s liberation has a way to go yet.