How do you celebrate a revolution that has not yet run its course?
Many Egyptians pondered the same question late last month as they poured into the streets to mark the first anniversary of the start of the uprising that felled former President Hosni Mubarak. One year after the dictator stepped down, protesters still occupy the center of Tahrir Square, the state commits human rights abuses at levels higher than before, and holdovers from the previous regime make up a large percentage of the country’s interim leaders.
It’s a reality many Egyptians didn’t expect when they turned out in droves in and around Tahrir last year, uniting around one common goal: toppling Mubarak.
My Egyptian friends tell me that during 18 days of demonstrations in January and February 2011, the square represented an idyllic place they wanted their entire country to emulate. Clean and free of Egypt’s ubiquitous litter, Tahrir became a space where Islamists and liberals amicably discussed politics, where women did not have to fear the sexual harassment common in Egypt, and where everyone pushed aside prior convictions about one other, rose their heads high, and were proud to call themselves Egyptians.
Some said it foretold a “New Egypt.”
“Everyone wanted the same thing, for Mubarak to leave,” my friend Mohamed, 23, told me.
One year later in Tahrir Square, that united spirit was all but lost.
Different stages ringed the outside of the massive traffic circle that served as the epicenter of the uprising, Islamists on one platform and liberals on another. Speakers competed for attendees’ attention. There were lots of demands, with posters calling for everything from police reform and a transition to a civil state to the military’s immediate departure from power.
Jan. 25, 2012, felt a very different from its predecessor the year before, Mohamed said. This year, the crowd didn’t come together as one. The fraternal spirit that had gripped Egyptians seemed far away.
“It wasn’t the same,” Mohamed said.
Many Egyptians harbored mixed feelings about celebrating a revolution they felt had not yet ended; some said a celebration should not take place at all with many members of the former regime still in power.
But other attendees said they wanted to recreate the spirit of the “days of the revolution” last year, that hopeful time when few protesters predicted the coming collapse of the Egyptian economy or an increase in crime across the country.
As I walked around Tahrir this year, I felt like I was at a political rally reminiscent of the many other demonstrations I’ve observed in the square over the last eight months. I thought back from time to time to a Save Darfur rally I attended six years ago on the National Mall in Washington.
Thousands in attendance at that 2006 rally – which featured George Clooney and Barack Obama, no less – called for an end to genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region. The demand was clear: no more killing.
In subsequent years, it seemed like many of my friends lost interest in saving Darfur as the political situation there became more complicated and requests for action multiplied. Egyptians, too, have found themselves divided and weakened by a muddled political scene, with most people unsure of what they want other than stability and personal safety.
The weeks since Jan. 25, 2012, have seen over 70 people killed at a soccer game in Port Said, Egypt, and a spate of street clashes in downtown Cairo. Amid the political instability, more and more Egyptians seem to want a return to the heady days of January and February 2011, or perhaps even the time before.