The re-birth of Tahrir Square

Ask what happened to the spirit of Tahrir Square and we find the reply in the Maghreb. Today Tahrir Square is in Algeria, in Sudan, and in many other places besides. Perhaps the secret of the Arab Spring lies not in its victories or its defeats, writes Elias Khoury, but in its ability to liberate people from fear

By Elias Khoury

Anyone visiting Egypt today will search in vain for that spirit of Tahrir Square which brought such upheaval to the Arab world early in the 21st century. The spark of revolution, which started in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, found in Tahrir Square the place that would become the symbol of the Arab peopleʹs uprisings against tyranny. Tahrir Square was a laboratory of freedom and its side streets saw remarkable popular resistance to despotism and dictatorship.

What happened to the Square? Has it disappeared amid the full-scale repression which the young activists of the revolution have faced as a result of the quasi-public collusion between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Muslim Brotherhood? It ended with a coup against the Brotherhood, which restored military rule.

Alaa al-Aswanyʹs novel "The Republic, As if" was damning in its accusations, reality mixing with fiction during this bloody phase in the life of Tahrir Square. It led directly to the writer being brought before the military court! Published by Beirutʹs Dar al-Adab, the book was banned from Egypt.

Dictatorship abrogates legal standards

Recently the Actors Guild in Egypt expelled Amr Waked and Khaled Abu El-Naga from its membership on charges of high treason. The reason: the two actors criticised the constitutional changes at a conference in Washington attended by several members of the U.S. Congress!

The expulsion notice, which was signed by the head of the Actors Guild, Ashraf Zaki, appeared with shocking haste and without an investigation. It is a blatant example of the regimeʹs intent to ditch the law and is a sign of the new Egypt.

Former member of the Egyptian Actors Guild, Amr Waked (photo: picture-alliance/abaca/A. Abd Rabbo)
اعتبرت نقابة المهن التمثيلية المصرية مشاركة كل من الممثلين عمرو واكد وخالد أبو النجا في جلسة استماع حضرها عضو بالكونغرس الأمريكي بشأن التعديلات الدستورية "خيانة عظمى"، وألغت عضويتهما. كان واكد وأبو النجا قد عبرا عن اعتراضهما على تعديلات قد يجري إقرارها على الدستور المصري، وتحدثا عن الأوضاع الحقوقية في مصر، أثناء مشاركتهما في جلسة استماع عُقدت في إحدى قاعات مجلس الشيوخ تحت رعاية عضو مجلس النواب توم مالينوسكي.

But what is the meaning of high treason? And how has the Guild, which is supposed to defend its members, become the kind of tribunal that rules in absentia without even hearing their defence?

It is a pointless question: tyranny is the enemy of the legal framework which protects citizens. The priority of any dictatorship is to destroy the legal process and to strip society of the protections it has acquired through hard struggle.

The first thing one notices about the government-controlled media in Egypt is its mediocrity and its extraordinary ability to trivialise itself in its attempt to ridicule its opponents.

Perhaps the height of hypocrisy is seeing two talk show hosts discussing the January revolution and suggesting that it did not happen, or that what happened was nothing but anarchy and that the Army intervened to restore control within the remit of its war on terror!Where is Tahrir Square in all this?

The Square, as it is today, is mired in apathy, as if nothing had ever happened there. Thatʹs the way it seems. The Tahrir Square activists are either in detention, exile or silence; the only sound that reverberates is the sound of oppression. The relapse which followed the Arab Spring has led to repression, pure and simple.

The image of Sisi as heir to Abdel Nasser quickly faded after the deal involving Tiran and Sanafir (by which Egypt ceded control of these two islands to Saudi Arabia) and then it waned completely after Egypt entered into military co-operation with Israel in Sinai.

Yet Egypt is not alone in this. The wave of counter-revolution has only one clear discourse, namely security. Its only outlook is to crystallise the practice of repression for repressionʹs sake, that is, with the sole objective of retaining power, without regard to any attempt to craft political legitimacy out of a socio-political project. This is what Syria is witnessing at the moment and the facts of Libyaʹs disintegration point to this; itʹs the same elsewhere...

Cairoʹs Tahrir Square as it looked at the height of the January 25 rebellion in 2011 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
الياس خوري: "نسأل أين ميدان التحرير، فيأتينا الجواب من المغرب العربي. ميدان التحرير يقع اليوم في الجزائر مثلما يقع في الخرطوم، وهو قادر على الفعل في أماكن أخرى. ولعل سر "الربيع العربي" لا يكمن في انتصاراته أو هزائمه، بل في قدرته على تحرير الناس من الخوف".

This type of authoritarian incapacity can be seen clearly in Algeria, where the symbol has merged with reality in a fantastical way. Bouteflika was not only incapable of political rhetoric, he was incapable of any kind of speech. Moreover, the power of the generals and the mafia around him now seems mute and helpless in the face of the Algerian peopleʹs Tahrir Square-style uprising.

Ask what happened to the spirit of Tahrir Square and we find the reply in the Maghreb. Today Tahrir Square is in Algeria, Sudan, and in many other places besides. Perhaps the secret of the Arab Spring lies not in its victories or its defeats, but in its ability to liberate people from fear.

Although the Syrian slaughter has provided a model with which the Arab regimes might terrorise their people – there was even a vague attempt to replicate it when Bouteflika began talking about "preventing the Syrianisation of Algeria" – the wall of fear has been broken.

The defeat of the Arab Spring has seemed likely to extinguish this glimmer of hope, to return the Arab world to the tyrannical duopoly of military and oil and to crush the will of the people in the struggle between Sunni and Shia, between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The combination has thrown the region into Israelʹs lap. But the defeat cannot and will not stop the renaissance. If the Arab world has reached rock bottom, it canʹt go any lower and it canʹt last forever.

The trial of al-Aswany, the charging of Amr Waked and Khalid Abu al-Naga with high treason, the arrest of the young activists from Tahrir Square and the turning of the Syrian people into refugees reflect a determination to eradicate the spirit of freedom which Tahrir Square engendered, but they are only part of the picture in the Arab world. Itʹs a spirit no-one can quench.

What we need now is a radical re-birth in Arab thinking. We need to renew our demands, so that we can turn the uprisings of the Arab Spring into an intellectual, political and moral project that gives meaning to the goals of freedom, democracy and social justice.

Elias Khoury

© 2019

Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton