Anyone watching Al-Jazeera’s coverage of Egypt’s uprising would have seen the tent-packed rotunda in the centre of a teeming Liberation Square. The camera was sitting on the rooftop terrace of my friend Pierre, who had opened his home to the protesters. On any given day a hundred or so activists, journalists, friends and strangers milled about, slept on mattresses, cooked soup to take to the stalwarts on the square, uploaded and downloaded news or used the precious bathroom facilities before returning to the fray. Pierre offered refuge to the demonstrators, and a birds-eye view of an historic moment to the world.
A large, imposing Egyptian with hair that rises like wisps of smoke from his head and a chaotic beard to match, Pierre is trilingual, cultivated, and of a radical, contrarian bent. He used to feed dozens of stray cats on his sprawling tenth-floor empire, a space that also served as pedestal for two of downtown’s most spectacular billboards. The metal frames supporting them lent his roof a sort of Mir space-station aesthetic, something futuristic and doomed. Ditto the contortions of his cactus garden, the only things that could thrive on air that boasts one of the highest lead contents in the urban world. We spent many a happy hour with Cairo’s flabbergasting glory spread out at our feet, the Nile a silvery-grey ribbon amidst braids of traffic. Never did we imagine how that view might one day be transformed by a sea of humanity.
When I congratulated Pierre for protecting the activists, he said, ‘actually, they protected me’, recalling the frightening days of 2 and 3 February when armed plainclothes police and hired thugs stormed the square, snipers manned rooftops, and blood flowed as protesters struggled to hold their ground. Early in the uprising, military officials had requested Pierre to keep the TV cameras away. He politely agreed, but disobeyed. Amid the turmoil, the cameras became a watchful eye. The army officials returned – this time to ensure the cameras were still rolling. The army wanted proof of its role as public defenders in contrast to the police aggressors.
Pierre and I visited the rotunda where young people politely checked our IDs and frisked us, to ensure the space stayed safe. People gathered wherever a discussion was taking place; it was Egypt’s first public forum where opinions were debated, news shared, and a large wooden pillar erected where pictures of the dead and missing in the uprising were posted. But tensions were growing: many wished the protesters would leave so that traffic would ease; others felt they represented the as yet unanswered demands of the revolution. By the time we left, a group outside the rotunda demanding the protests end entered a shouting match with those who wished to stay on.
Workers’ strikes throughout the city were meanwhile worsening an already chronic traffic problem. People’s patience had worn thin and the protesters in the square became the target of their frustration. The rotunda contained around 20 tents and small clusters of protesters, while many hundreds more stood around checking the scene. Skirmishes broke out when thugs attacked the tents and the army used the unrest (that some said was orchestrated) as an excuse to forcibly clear Liberation Square.
Afterwards, an activist said: ‘never mind, in a war you must lose some battles’, but the fronts are many and the events unrolling with such rapidity they’re almost impossible to track. Rumour is rampant, as are theories as to who is behind what. The regime’s security apparatus is still largely in place, public opinion not fully on the revolution’s side, the army’s purported respect for the activists’ demands balanced precariously against the need for economic recovery. Egyptian citizens have won a degree of greater freedom, at least for now, but they are no richer. Food prices are as high as ever, and jobs scarcer than before as companies strike and/or regroup.
Activists are still collecting data on the uprising’s casualties and the list is growing – from the generally accepted number of 300 to nearly 700. Hundreds more who were detained have simply disappeared and there is plenty of cause to expect the worst. I asked Pierre what he thought, and he said, ‘I stopped thinking’. Hard facts and quotidian realities have displaced revolutionary euphoria as Egyptians realize that their fight for justice has only just begun.