No one predicted in 1989 that when a large East German crowd would turn up at the Berlin Wall, nervous border guards, who would have shot them a week ago, would instead open the gates. In 2011, no one predicted when the year began, that the story that would change the world would be Tahrir Square, a noun that has now turned into an adjective.
So what does it feel like to be in a revolution? Getting into Cairo this week, my head buzzing with the now eponymous television images of flag-waving crowds and tear gas and the headlines talking of yet another ‘million-man march’ on yet another ‘Friday of Regaining Honour’, I was surprised.
Expecting naively to inhale that special romantic whiff of liberation, that holy cliché the headline writers call the ‘spirit of Tahrir’, I found instead a reality check; an entire society grappling with the skull-numbing messy reality of a hangover that follows the glorious, intoxicating haze of a night of gay abandon.
A year after the protests at El-Qeddesine Church in Alexandria that ignited the revolution, the country has come a full circle, “hovering precariously on the brink of an abyss”, as Egypt Today magazine puts it. There are the protesters, dazed to be still fighting after they thought they had won their victory; there is the Army, reluctant to give up decades of control; there are the Islamists, salivating at the prospect of a two-third majority in Parliament with just one more round of voting to go; and the biggest of them all is what the locals call the ‘Hizb El-Kanaba’ (the Couch Party), the vast majority who watch things unfold on television, dismayed at how this will all eventually turn out. No one really knows what will happen.
This is how a revolution plays out in real life behind the headlines: without clear-cut certainties and with ambiguities at every turn. “Sometimes I think the protesters are right,” says our hospitable guide in Cairo, “sometimes I think the Army is right.” It is a trite summation of a revolution that seemed to have been a full stop but turned out only to be a comma. Perhaps this is how things always turn out.
The sense of exhaustion is most palpable at Tahrir Square. The grand nineteenth century plaza remains the pulsating heart of resistance but the afternoon after the latest march this week, it has almost as many hawkers, sellers of the local version of chuski, popcorn and street food, as it has protesters. Under the gaze of Omar Makram, the nationalist hero against Napolean’s invasion whose statue stands at one end, a small hardcore of protesters, holed up defiantly in their grubby tents, heroically try to keep up the spirit with songs of resistance but this is clearly a different time from the euphoria of February and March.
Amid the esoteric debates about democracy and people-power, there is also the bitter reality that Egypt’s economic growth rate has fallen from about 5% in 2010 to less than 1 percent in the last quarter. Foreign reserves are drastically down from $35 billion in end-2010 to about $20 billion and some 300,000 people have already lost their jobs in tourism. The Egyptian Stock Exchange lost 20 billion Egyptian pounds this week alone and most of the promised aid from Arab countries is yet to arrive. The result is that a country that turned down the IMF’s offer of a $3 billion loan facility in June, flush in the afterglow of revolution, may now have little choice but to go back to it to help find up to $15 billion that experts say is needed to stave off a financial crisis.
Little wonder then that a commentator in the Arabic newspaper Al-Masry Al- Youm muses that her country feels like a “surrealistic painting where there are no faces”, only the “lines and colour whose implication seems incomprehensible to many people.”
What is a revolution without irony? On the one hand is the cable TV anchor who shaved off his moustache to make a statement against women protesters being beaten up, asking his male viewers to do the same; on the other side is the military, still struggling to come to terms with a changed country of aspirations.
Few seem to have taken up the moustache challenge literally but behind the mirth is a serious message that in a divided society this is now a fight about honour.
Democracy is still to bloom in Cairo but by showing what is possible, by standing their ground when they had everything to lose, and by having the courage to imagine, the protesters of Tahrir Square have changed the world. It was the greatest story of the world 2011 and may yet be the most interesting one to watch in 2012.