Writer Carl Hoffman traveled to Egypt in February 2011, a week after popular demonstrations led to the president's resignation. These are his observations.
Cairo’s Tahrir Square isn’t much to look at. There’s no Bernini in its midst like Rome’s Piazza Navona, nor any neon corporate hustle making the night day like Times Square in New York. It’s far more prosaic—a round circle of dirt and a few scraggly shrubs in the middle of thick, honking traffic, surrounded by a jumble of open spaces and buildings that include the Egyptian Museum and the Mogamma, a vast testament to Egyptian government bureaucracy. A few modern, featureless hotels and the burned-out hulk of the National Democratic Party building stand as backdrop.
But what happened here on January 25, 2011, is hard to grasp. A handful of citizens, most of whom had never been politically involved before and many of whom were young, said "no more." They were joined by others, and then even more, and before long they had stood up to armed snipers and marauding camel riders, and Hosni Mubarak, a 30-year autocrat, was gone. For Egyptians, the empowerment and self-awareness that came with toppling the president and his police force felt as momentous as the American Revolution, and the square remains hallowed ground.
Egyptians can’t leave it alone. It’s an all-day-into-the-evening convention, a place full of debate and discussion and celebration, of chanting and drumming. Sometimes there are a few hundred people; other times a few thousand. On Friday afternoons after prayer the numbers swell into the tens of thousands.
You can munch on baked sweet potatoes and drink sweet, hot tea, buy an Egyptian flag, or have one painted on your face. Egyptians snap your photo and ply you with questions. “What do Americans think of Egypt?” they ask.
There’s a feeling of equanimity and energy in the square. It’s political theater, open-air market, and tailgate party, and the place feels every bit as momentous as the Pyramids.