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The thing about Egyptians, observed the first known foreign correspondent to have written about them, is that “in their manner and customs they seem to have reversed the normal practices of mankind . . .” So what would Herodotus have thought of the latest generation of Egyptians to shatter conventional wisdom, the bedraggled yet defiant demonstrators of Tahrir Square?
My guide to the wellspring of Egypt’s revolution, an archivist at the grand old Egyptian Museum, all but rolled his eyes at the question. “Herodotus? What would Voltaire have said? That’s what I want to know. He would have been in despair. Hundreds dead. And what has it achieved?” Then again, my archivist companion, was not, as he readily admitted, on that day of all days inclined to be starry-eyed about the progress of the revolution.
He works in the delightfully shambolic home of the Tutankhamun treasures overlooking the square. Next door is the blackened building that housed the headquarters of Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party until the demonstrators set it ablaze a year ago. They were happy times for most Cairenes, but that was then. My archivist’s salary had just been cut, he said, reflecting apparently a climate of official austerity in response to Egypt’s plummeting tourism revenues. He strode on in that crazed Cairene way heedless of traffic to the heart of the square where a jumble of tents is all that remains of the epic crowds of a year ago.
A young man raced over into the middle of the five-lane traffic and ostentatiously stopped all the cars to let us through. “The police are banned from here,” he said proudly. “If they dare to show their face we beat them and chase them away. They will never be back.” So when does liberty turn to licence I asked the archivist, pen-in-hand? Another man appeared asking angry questions about the foreigner with his notepad. A small argument broke out. Fingers were jabbed. Then as swiftly, tempers cooled.
Maybe Romania’s wham-bam Christmas Revolution beguiled us all about the nature of revolutions – 10 days from the first protests to the execution of the tyrant. (Then again it wasn’t so much a revolution as an internal party putsch.) Great revolutions are more protracted affairs. There must have been months in Paris in the 1790s when it seemed little was happening.
It feels like that in Cairo. This is a city that is nervously awaiting the next convulsion. All the heady talk on chat shows of new political parties and freedoms seems as much form as substance. Beneath it all the “tectonic plates are shifting” says one liberal columnist. Unfortunately it is just not clear in which way.
What is clear is that Cairo is a city where informants are after months of openness wary of giving their names, and conspiracy theories are rampant. How many times was I told over a few days that the Americans are plotting to take over the Suez Canal as part of a master plan to divide the country? (One Cairene suggested into four parts but did not explain how.)
Such lunatic theories play brilliantly to the advantage of the military authorities, whose regime does not seem half as ancien as the their liberal opponents recently hoped. People continue to be snatched off the streets, detained, and in some cases beaten up. Ahdaf Soueif, the award-winning novelist and impassioned chronicler of the revolution, says that six months ago all Egyptians would happily have done a deal with the military to leave the past unexcavated. But now after recent crackdowns such a concord is out of the question.
So are revolutionary liberals again doomed to be on the wrong side of history? The Islamists of course have the numbers and the army the muscle. In contrast, the new parliament seems supine. As for the last few Tahrir protesters, they seem more Occupy St Paul’s than Paris of 1848. There is a thriving trade in Tahrir Square T-shirts and revolutionary tat. How are the mighty fallen, it is tempting to conclude.
Yet the liberals still have the power to control city centres, the heart of all revolutions. Activist lawyers oppose the military with a confidence unthinkable a year ago. They lack a leader but then so does Egypt. Herodotus had harsh words for most Pharoahs. He would surely have been as tart about the generals for all their attempts to position themselves as the rock of stability.
Keep the faith, I am told by the liberals. It is a faith worth sustaining and that, surely, would have been Voltaire’s view.
The writer is the FT’s comment and analysis editor