Walking into Tahrir Square during the 18 days of the January 25 revolution in 2011, you could hear a single chant being echoed throughout the square that called for the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. In the center of the square, white tents housed people of different political and social walks of life.
Today, a sand-colored monument stands on that same plot of land. It was erected by the current pro-military government to serve as a memorial for those who lost their lives during the revolution. Just a few days before the anniversary of January 25, people have started to gather there, covered in red, white and black from head to toe, dressing children in military clothing and carrying pictures of the Armed Forces commander-in-chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Ramadan Mansour, a vendor selling t-shirts in Tahrir, looks at the scene in consternation.
“There is a huge difference between 2011 and this year,” says Mansour, who has been working in the same spot for the last 20 years. “In 2011, everyone was together, but now things are divided between those who are for the current government and those against.”
For the anniversary on Saturday, Mansour predicts that all the different political groups will go down to the square, but that political dissenters will not be able to freely express themselves.
“They will mostly be military lovers,” his friend Karam Eid interjects.
Leading up to the third anniversary of the revolution, labels like these haunt the square, in which a diverse group of people once stood united. In 2011, the big selling point of Tahrir was that it accommodated liberals, Islamists, leftists and people from different social classes who all co-existed in the same space. This year, however, there is an on-going battle over who gets to be the defining force of the square — supporters of the military, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood or those who are opposed to both.
Omar Nagati, urban planner and architect, believes that this shift in the country’s politics will have a direct reflection on Tahrir as a space.
“At first, the people were united by one goal, but now people are divided. Instead of [Tahrir Square] being a reflection of people’s desires, it’s a contestation between two political agendas or ideologies,” Nagati says.
“At first, there were multiple layers of demographics [in Tahrir]. The first being the activists who were connected through social media. The second layer being the Muslim Brotherhood, the main organizing structure, with barricades, field hospitals, and a supply strategy. Then there was the pilgrim side, people coming in with their families, visiting the place,” he explains.
“It had a utopian atmosphere.”
Ahmed al-Mojadidi, a resident pediatrician, got to experience that atmosphere first hand when he went down to the square on January 25 2011.
“It was a great experience. There was a variety of people and the boundaries between them were faded. There was an element of camaraderie, and everyone was willing to listen to the other person’s opinion,” he says.
Mojadidi admits that he still gets goose bumps whenever he sees aerial photos of a packed Tahrir Square during the 18 days of the revolution.
However, the 27-year-old would not go to the square nowadays.
“I don’t want to say that the revolutionary spirit is dead, but it has been suppressed,” he says. “Tahrir now symbolizes a really good try.”
Adham Zidan, another protester who was present in Tahrir in 2011, shares the same sentiment.
Zidan compares it to revisiting an old apartment you used to live in years after you’ve moved out. While there is a sense of nostalgia related to all the good memories you had in that place, there are other people living there now.
“The idea of the square will belong to whoever claims it,” says Zidan. “But every time people try to revive that kind of spirit, it turns into a carnival … it’s a diluted, nostalgic form of the original.”
Hamza al-Farawy, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood-led Anti-Coup Alliance, recalls that one of the main criticisms levied against the Brotherhood at that time was that they were not opposing the military.
“So now, other people supporting them [the military] in Tahrir Square is very strange to me,” he says.
Farawy, who was also present in the square in 2011, believes that the reason things are so different this year is because three years ago, people had no prior experience in politics.
“Before 2011, the political experience in Egypt was different. We were all testing the waters with each other and nobody knew anything about the other person. If a person thought one thing about members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the stereotypes were broken, so we all came together — it was a utopian atmosphere,” he says.
“Now that we know about each other and have experienced the political scene together, everyone has formed their own perception of the other group,” Farawy adds.
While Tahrir serves as an icon of the revolution for Farawy, he explains that when the Brotherhood faced difficulty in the square following former President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster, the group had no problem moving their protests to other spaces.
“We moved our protests to Rabea [al-Adaweya] Square because if Tahrir was going to hinder us delivering our message, then we could easily change our plans to move to another location,” Farawy explains.
“The last six months, after the declaration of Rabea and Nahda, the city itself became a canvas, competing for urban space through drawing graffiti, erasing the graffiti, building a monument, tearing it down, repaving the square. It became a ritual. A fight over a spacial entity,” offers Nagati.
But while other spaces became available, the battle over Tahrir remains the most significant.
“Tahrir Square is still relevant. It is still very charged and there is a constant battle over who gets to take over Tahrir,” Nagati adds.
Farawy says that for now, the alliance will participate in the third anniversary of January 25 by sharing the space.
“Whoever wants to go to Tahrir Square has the right to do so, and we will not come in contact with them. Tahrir Square does not belong to anyone, and it is available for everyone,” he says.
One of those people is Mostafa Kamal al-Gazar, who has been roaming the square carrying petitions to endorse Sisi’s run for president.
“I’ve taken a non-paid leave from work, I’ve neglected my children and my house, I haven’t been taking care of myself — all for Sisi, who saved the Egyptian people on June 30,” he declares.
While Gazar could allow for those against the ruling regime to come to the square on the anniversary, he could not stand to hear chants against the police or the military, he says.
“I respect these two men, [Minister of Interior] Mohamed Ibrahim and Sisi,” Gazar insists.
While protesters gathered in that very same spot three years ago on the occasion of Police Day to fight against the oppressive ways of the Ministry of Interior, the rhetoric has seen a major shift this year with some people gathering in Tahrir to celebrate the police instead.
Wael Abou Shoeish is a co-founder of Kammel Gemmelak, a group that is urging Sisi to run for president, and the sole founder of the Nabdet al-Shaab campaign, which serves the same purpose. He confirmed that he is going down on January 25 to celebrate Police Day and, of course, to demand that Sisi run for president.
“We’re going to celebrate the events following June 30 and celebrate the police force as well as the army, and we will not leave the square until Sisi has announced his bid for presidency,” affirms Abou Shoeish.
Abou Shoeish believes that while the January 25 revolution started off well in 2011, people with foreign agendas then joined the protesters in Tahrir Square. The country was only restored to order on June 30 with the beginning of the Muslim Brotherhood’s downfall.
Still, Abou Shoeish would not be opposed to the idea of members of the Brotherhood being in the square, so long as they remained peaceful.
“We will accept them, ahlan wasahlan (welcome), but if any of them are not peaceful, our reaction cannot be predicted,” he warns.
Many are predicting that violent clashes are likely to break out between the two sides due to the tension of sharing the same space.
“There is no clear ideological framework that ties [Tahrir] all together,” says Nagati. “If it was going to be claimed, it has to be reclaimed by this kind of utopian group that existed in the first place.”
But for some, the square has lost its significance.
“The physical space has become a sort of nuisance now due to the ongoing protests,” says Zidan, who believes that if people were to rise up again, it needs to happen outside of the square.
“When something happens over and over again, the quality of its symbolism is lost,” he adds. “Now, we’re so far from where we began that there’s no point anymore.”