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On Tuesday morning I walked around Cairo’s Tahrir Square, weaving through and around the thousands of fellow protesters, trying to get a view of things. The space felt like a giant playground. Everything was accessible to me. Pro-democracy and anti-regime chants rose and fell.
I tried to climb a few trees, but then I saw an opening near a lamppost on a railing so I ran over and jumped up. Someone gave me a hand to keep me from falling over and greeted me with an arm around the shoulders. I was buoyed by a sense of well-being as I gazed out at the square; news reports put the crowd at over a million people. The roar of their heretofore-silenced voices washed over me and shook the earth. Democracy was coming to Egypt.
The week had been a difficult one, full of violence. I was present when the first protest began in the same place eight days earlier, about two hundred meters from the national museum. A group of about 30 men came together and within minutes were surrounded by riot police. But they pushed back. An hour later there were thousands, all calling for the president’s ouster. For the next three days, dusty streets and public squares became stages for battle. The riot police were deployed to prevent protesters from getting to Tahrir Square. They fired tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets, and live ammunition indiscriminately, injuring a small boy close to me. Many demonstrators responded by hurtling stones at the helmeted police; a few launched Molotov cocktails.
The violence mounted on Friday night, when demonstrators torched the ruling party’s headquarters, and the army rolled into the Square. That was also when the air began to change. A palpable feeling—accomplishment—united all the demonstrators in the square on Saturday. After that, public sentiment was transformed. The desperate rage was now halfway optimism, underpinned by gritty determination. There was work to be done—Mubarak remained in place—but progress was being made.
By Tuesday, the eighth day of protests, I was weary but glad to be with the Egyptian nation for their revolution. The Square overflowed with people. The atmosphere was a mixture of celebration and disbelief over what had begun. Men carried their small children on their shoulders and chanted in unison. Women engaged in spirited debate about constitutional reforms, transitional governments, and civil liberties. People of both sexes from Cairo’s stagnant slums, from the worn and fraying middle class, and from suburbs brimming with Mercedes Benzes came together to clean and tidy up their hard-won public space. They used their hands or flaps torn from cardboard boxes to lift the refuse from the streets. It was a classless revolution, at least for a day.
Others worked to shuttle food and beverages from remote districts of the city to the collective organism at the center. Throughout the day I was offered sandwiches and juices and water—always with a smile and a warm word. I watched one man play a good-natured game of back and forth over a pack of cigarettes with army soldiers; he insisted that they take them, and they insisted that they couldn’t.
The next day would turn out to be one of the most violent. Thugs hired by the president massed to break heads in the square before they themselves were overrun. But for one day, Tuesday, the true, generous soul of Egypt shone through.
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