Monday, 26 December 2011

Tahrir Today: Cairo Revisited

The day before, there had been thousands of people demonstrating against the brutal stripping and beating of women protesters at the hands of the Military Police.  But on Saturday, when I went to Tahrir Square for the first time since March of this year, it was quiet and somewhat bedraggled: tattered flag banners ringed the remnants of a tent city served by makeshift stands selling tea or roast corn on the cob. Of the people lounging around, not all looked like young protesters; there were some older men in farmer garb and some who looked like homeless vagrants. There wasn't a policeman in sight, but car traffic circled around the square unimpeded under the direction of Tahrir civilian volunteers.
Earlier that week clashes had resulted in several deaths and scores of injured demonstrators calling for an end to the military power grab and an immediate transition to civilian rule. It must be a bitter irony to the young liberals who spilled their blood for that cause that those who stood to gain most by their sacrifice- the Islamist parties- had been conspicuously absent from the struggle. A transition to civilian rule would inevitably mean handing over power to a parliament dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood who, together with the Salafis as a junior partner, have won the first two rounds of elections by a landslide.
There is that sense in Egypt today, of a revolution hijacked, gone awry. Some people shake their heads, speak of a lost generation, of emigration, if not for them, then for their children. Things will get worse before they get better, they say.
The anxiety over the economic crisis is the most acute and pervasive. A stark case in point is the Mena House Oberoi, the landmark hotel where world leaders once held meetings against the stupendous backdrop of the Giza pyramids. I had lunch there today, and it was sadly empty of guests: the vast expanse of hotel reception rooms and restaurants with their gorgeous Mamluke-style wood paneling and coffered ceilings, the pools, the annexes under construction, all empty but for a handful of tourists. Seeing me look around nostalgically at the familiar landmarks of one of the fabled hotels of my youth, the eager-to-please staff offered to show me the Churchill suite; they hope against hope for better days. But we all know that with some Salafi spokesmen spewing the most ignorant and prejudiced propositions imaginable on the media, the tourists were keeping away in droves.
A final incident comes to mind. On the way to the hotel via the Pyramids Road, traffic was so bad that we decided to try an alternate route on the way back- the 6th October Axis bypass. In the middle of the fast-moving traffic on the busy highway, an accident occurred. The engine of the car involved was spewing smoke, and the man in the car looked in imminent danger of the engine blowing up. While we were trying to figure out how to call the police,  we saw a man on a passing bus leap off and rush to the aid of the trapped motorist, smashing the window to open the jammed car door. Hard on his heels came two other rescuers. All three of the Good Samaritans sported the typical Islamist beard.

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