We had not been to Tahrir for a while. There has been what seems like an endless series of protests, starting about three weeks ago with the anniversary of the death of 47 protesters on Mohamed Mahmud Street one year ago, followed by protests over the war in Gaza, followed by outrage over the President Morsi’s decree that consolidated executive power, followed now in protests over the proposed constitution. It’s kind of hard to keep track. My old friend Kenny is visiting from the states, and he really wanted to see Tahrir on his first day in Egypt. We also wanted to share with him koshary, the uniquely Egyptian meal, made of pasta, rice, lentils, chick peas, tomato sauce and fried onions. Our favorite koshary temple is Abu Tarek, a place we had not visited since our first night in Cairo nearly four months ago.
Judy was a bit reluctant to go to Tahrir, so I proposed that we take the metro to Sadat, the stop closest to the iconic square. We would check it out, look around, and not hang around if it felt dangerous or out of control. As we climbed the street, with the Egyptian Museum and Intercontinental Hotel hovering around us, Judy insisted that she smelt or felt tear gas, I was less sure. There were maybe 5,000 people in the square, maybe 100 hundred tents in the center sheltering those who were in for the long haul, either insisting that President Morsi rescind his constitutional decree or even resign. Neither of these demands is going to be met.
The scene was like the North Carolina State Fair, or as some of you probably expect I am going to say next, like the parking lot, or “Shakedown Street,” of a Grateful Dead concert. Most people were milling about, and there were a lot of vendors selling tea, koshary, cigarettes, pretzels and popcorn. There were pockets of mainly young men in circles, energetically chanting protests about something. Some were painting there face with the Egyptian flag, and one vendor offered to pain mine, which I did not think was a good idea as it is probably best not to “take sides” in what seems to have become a culture of protest and opposition. And it certainly was not the same Tahrir that I had seen weeks ago, as the entrance to Mohamed Mahmoud street was blocked with barbed wire, so we were not able to see the latest round of graffiti on the street or enter the old campus of the American University of Cairo, which has now been closed for three weeks because of the latest round of protests. The campus has received a few Molotov cocktails that have been thrown over its walls and withstood some damage to its buildings.
I had two feelings as we walked around for 30 minutes. The first was that we were indeed witnessing history, watching people embrace the right and thrill of protest, something that had been dangerous during the 30 years of President Hosni Mubarak. I was reminded at a very gut level of the profound importance of freedom of speech and assembly. Also, I felt that on this particular night, which had not been called a major night of protest, that this routine has become so regularized that it had taken on a much different meaning than it had on those historic days that began in January 2011. It was of course still full of meaning, still an expression of previously inexpressible sentiments, but it was less urgent, less specific, and without the near unanimity that had led to the remarkable ouster of Mubarak in 18 days almost two years ago. I think history will not grant this kind of dramatic change so quickly again. In that sense, the seemingly “easy” removal of Mubarak may have created unrealizable expectations for the scope and pace of political change here, and maybe in other parts of the Middle East as well. (For this latter point, I watch with deep sadness and horror the destruction of Syria, which began with street protests where many probably felt this was going to be easy. Oh my god were they wrong.)
As we left the square and made our way to the koshary temple of Abu Tarek (it is to me the Carnegie Deli of Cairo), most of the men sitting sipping tea and smoking sheesha were glued to the television. President Morsi was delivering a speech to the Constituent Assembly, the body that had a day before hurriedly finished its drafting of a new national constitution. The move toward the finish line had been accelerated because of the fear the equivalent of Egypt’s Supreme Court was about to invalidate the entire drafting process. Though it had been meeting for over six months, the work of the assembly has been called into question as most women, liberals, Christians and secularists that were part of the body had resigned in the face of their own perception that Islamists were dominating the deliberations. In his speech, Morsi announced that the constitution would be put to a public referendum on Saturday, December 15th. Election day is not far off.
My class will be talking about the constitution on Wednesday of this week, and I am making my way through it now. I will write more about it later I hope. But for now, the country is likely to experience two weeks of debate, protest, civil disobedience, charges and counter charges, campaigning, conspiracy theories, rumors of impending doom and even civil war, dislocation, even worse traffic and emails from home urging us to leave this laboratory of democracy. But I realize that for me, as a lapsed political scientist, this is somewhat akin to being a crack addict in a crack house. I receive my political fix at almost every moment, and the next two weeks promise to flood the streets with more.
We found our way to Abu Tarek, which was empty compared to the first time we were there. We climbed to the second floor of the three floor restaurant, and ordered from the waiter. There are not really many choices to make, only koshary or koshary “special” (the latter has extra chick peas, tomato sauce and fried onions). We all ordered the special, Judy and I indulged with a 7-Up, and Kenny ordered just a water. Kenny, who loves food more than almost anybody I know, was not quite as taken with the carbohydrate orgy as Judy and me. Being the good guest that he is, he finished his plate, while overhead President Morsi finished his speech, launching yet another round in the painful (aren’t they all?) birth of Egyptian democracy.