Dispatch from Tahrir

I spent most of the day today walking around Downtown Cairo and Midan Tahrir. There are still tens of thousands of people in the square. A definite rhythm has established itself, with Tuesday and Fridays the serious turn-out days; the rest of the week a moulid-like atmosphere pervades the area, with families visiting it, taking pictures next to tanks and the various memorials and displays set up in the square--out on the fun excursion. Some genius has started making hundreds of laminated مصر فوق الجميع ("Egypt Above Us All") tags that you can wear around your neck (they sell for 2 pounds, about 30 cents). Sellers are also doing a brisk business in Egyptian flags, snacks and drinks. Opposition newspapers are taped to walls so everyone can read them; and some enterprising local restaurateur has set up shop in the demolished Hardee's. 

One of the most fascinating things was seeing and hearing all the political conversations everywhere. Someone told me a few nights ago: "We used to just talk about soccer. Now we talk politics" and it's true. I stood on a corner with a few people I know and in the span of 45 minutes random people approached us and discussed: the reports of arrests and disappearances; whether beltagiya should be held responsible or whether they are just the product of oppression; whether change needs to come from the bottom or the top. At one point someone took issue with my foreign appearance and my notebook and asked the woman I was talking to what she was telling me and if she was Egyptian--this degenerated into mutual suspicion and an argument that was then mediated by other by-standers. Everyone in the square is a little paranoid about informers, agents provocateurs and the media's portrayal of events--but these struck me mostly as the to-be-expected jitters surrounding the opening of an entirely new, and very promising, national debate. Everyone can say anything they want, today, in Midan Tahrir and to a great extent across the country, and this is a huge, confusing adjustment. Someone told me an argument between pro- and anti-Mubarak people had broken out on the bus he'd ridden into town--he'd finally told the ones supporting the president: "Do you think we would have ever had this conversation two weeks ago?"

Someone else I interviewed today told me: "The entire Egyptian political elite owes an apology to the people"--for being incapable of imagining that they could do what they've done in the last two weeks (I would widen that observation to the world press and commentariat). That said, I have yet to meet anyone--among the activists, among the participants--who claims they saw this coming. 

 

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.