On a winter evening in Tahrir Square, young skateboarders were practicing their moves in front of the huge Soviet-style Mogamma building. Nonchalant policemen and couples of all ages watched, and nobody seemed to notice the dust and the deafening traffic, scourges of life in Cairo that no revolution has ever swept away.
It felt like a long time since 2011, when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians crowded into this vast square in the “January revolution,” demanding the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s regime and “Bread, freedom, and social justice!” In 2013, at least as many gathered again in Tahrir to call for the departure of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, whom they had democratically elected president; in a military coup backed by a section of Egyptian society, the army regained control on June 30 of that year. A fledgling pro-Morsi resistance was crushed, and around 1,000 people died, on August 14 in Cairo’s Rabaa Square. Thousands of arrests followed. In June 2014, Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi became president with 97 percent of the vote.
Since then, life for most Egyptians seems, at first glance, no worse than before. Cafés are still full of people smoking shishas, watching football, and chatting. Men and women meet in bars for a beer. There are films and concerts, and contemporary art at Townhouse, a superb exhibition space in a former paper factory near Tahrir.
There is no reminder in the square that it was where Egyptians demanded the fall of two presidents. The avenues that radiate from Tahrir are orderly and clean, and the interior ministry, the object of much revolutionary hatred, has been relocated to a distant suburb. Apart from a few traffic officers, there is little visible police presence. Yet last autumn Amnesty International severely criticized Egypt’s political climate: “The authorities severely restricted the rights to freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in law and practice. Journalists, activists and others faced arrest, prosecution and imprisonment on charges that included inciting or participating in protests, disseminating ‘false rumours,’ defaming officials and damaging morality.”
“I think Sisi’s doing his best”
I met Miran, 30, and her friends near the square. She said: “Do I feel like I live in a dictatorship? No, not really.” She comes from a middle-class family, her father is an engineer, and took part in the 2011 revolution—“of course”—and the 2013 demonstrations. “My mother is absolutely behind Sisi. She loves him. My father’s more critical. He thinks Sisi can’t run the economy and since he’s been in power the cost of living has risen. I’m in the middle. I don’t love him, but I think he inherited a terrible economic situation and is doing his best.”