CAIRO - What has become of Tahrir Square? It is of course still right there, in the center of Cairo, just off the banks of the Nile, the eternal Egyptian Museum, the Nile Hilton hotel (under seemingly endless restoration) and the Mogamma — the huge Stalinist building that serves as permanent headquarters for the Egyptian administration.
Yes, the Square itself still exists, but its spirit is gone. The place is now occupied by street children and drug dealers, a whole array of destitute people who took over the vast esplanade, half of which remains inaccessible to traffic. The banners and graffiti slogans can still be seen. But real revolutionaries, not so much.
In the middle of the traffic island, where the grass has been consumed by sand, there is a “Museum of the Revolution” that features photos of martyrs at the entrance: all young people killed during the year in clashes with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Those who were killed during the “first revolution” — in January and February 2011 — from bullets fired by troops protecting Hosni Mubarak’s regime, have disappeared. Also gone are images of those from Mohamed Mahmoud Street who fell in clashes near the Ministry of the Interior during the autumn of 2011. And no sign either of the Salafists killed in Abbassia during protests against the elimination of the Sheik Hazem Abu Ismail from the presidential run in spring 2012.
Guarded by sinister-looking men, the “museum” is mainly a retrospective of anti-Muslim Brotherhood propaganda — including caricatures of their members as sheep — and a glorification of the eternal Egyptian people and its brave army. Everywhere, posters exalt the General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Commander of the army, Minister of Defense and strong man of the new government, as the direct descendant of former Egyptian leaders Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. Mubarak has been forgotten in this new Holy Trinity.
The "aborted" revolution
The new master of the premises, Mustapha El-Guindy, is an old-time Egyptian politician, an adventurer who, after making a fortune in cruise tourism, founded an NGO in the late 1990s — Tourism for Development, which encouraged reinvesting profits made through tourism into the fight against poverty.
The actual impact of the project is impossible to verify, but the political career of its founder was bound to prosper. An independent Member of the Egyptian Parliament from 2005 through 2010, vice-president of the Pan-African Parliament, reelected in the autumn of 2011, he considers himself a friend of the Revolution, close to the liberal Mohamed El-Baradei and the Nasserian Hamdeen Sabahi, two of the main heads of the National Salvation Front, which unites opponents of the deposed president Mohamed Morsi.
El-Guindy arrives in Tahrir in a black sedan, wearing a black djellaba and patent-leather shoes, also black, like his hair. Welcoming, kind and garrulous, he speaks in perfect French.
As soon as the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power, El-Guindy became very active. “I know them”, he said. “They are an international mafia organization which doesn’t work for the good of the country. They wanted to change Egypt’s identity. I am their prime nemesis; I held the square with a handful of young people with our bare hands. They almost killed me twice.”
Bragging, he builds his legend confidently and considers himself a backbone of Tamarod, the organization of young people that collected several millions of signatures demanding Morsi’s resignation and organized the huge June 30 protest that led to his fall.
According to El-Guindy, this is the start of the “people’s great revolution”. On a platform, he brings up repentant police officers, tears running down their cheeks. “This revolution will work because the people, the police and the army are finally united. Before, it was an aborted revolution. We wanted bread, freedom and dignity and all we got was an extremist president who divided the country. We will now be able to start work.”
The role of the veteran politician consisted of reuniting all those who the young activists’ revolution in Tahrir had scared away, the so-called “couch party”, who watched the events on their television sets; and even the fouloul, supporters of the old regime. “After all, they are Egyptians,” he insists. What cemented this recovered national union, El-Guindy explains, was the army, guarantor of the protection of Egypt against its enemies, foreign and domestic.
On July 26, anniversary of the 1952 revolution which forced King Farouk out of power, when General al-Sisi called on Egyptians to give a mandate to fight against the Brotherhood’s “terrorism,” El-Guindy came back to Tahrir Square with millions of other Egyptians. For him, this display of popular support proves that Morsi’s July 3 fall “wasn’t a coup.” Tahrir Square, which witnessed the birth of the individual and pluralism in Egypt, is now the scene of the return of the people and the masses.
Another of the square’s traffic islands is occupied by a tent covered in slogans against the Obama administration and Western media, accused of being lenient with the Muslim Brotherhood. The tent is run by a small party, Al-Ahrar Al-Ichitakiyin (Socialist Liberals), as one of its executives, Mohamed Wajdi, a retired officer explains. Here again is the army, and General al-Sisi as Nasser’s reincarnation.
Mustapha El-Guindy does not rule out a candidacy from Egypt’s new military hero, praised by the media non-stop. El-Guindy's own nationalist and socio-populist approach is very popular in these times of Nassermania, and he has plans to found a center-left party with the son of Nasser, Abdel Hakim, the professor Mohamed Ghonim — a world-class specialist in renal transplants — and “with the revolutionary youth, the true ones, not those from embassy salons.”
This future party’s program? “Minimum wage, bread, drinkable water and free electricity.” His words take a prophetic turn: “The poor are there, all around us. If we don’t take care of them, they will take over the Square.” Soon after, he climbs back into his sedan and disappears into the Tahrir night.