Tahrir Square, Sonallah Ibrahim writes, is for most Cairene writers “their point of departure.”
The importance of this square does not lie in the fact that it constitutes the center of the city, or that it is surrounded by strategically important buildings like the Hilton Hotel, the Egyptian Museum, the Mugama (which comprises 1,400 offices occupied by thirty thousand employees who deal with sixty thousand people per day), and the American University. Nor is it important because at its center stands an empty statue base erected twenty-five years ago, after the death of Abd al-Nasser, for which the Egyptians have yet to choose a personality to occupy it; nor because, according to a popular joke initially targeting one of the Arab kings, it is the space used by the prime minister to distribute the national budget: he stands at the center of the square and hurls the national budget into the air, taking what lands on the ground for himself and giving what remains in the air to the people.
Tahrir is important, Ibrahim writes, for one because it is near Cafe Riche. This excerpt, from Cairo from Edge to Edge, is about the cafe’s “golden age” in the sixties and seventies, “when it used to bustle with the most vital literary debates” (and when “many were taken to detention camps or prisons because of a word or a joke recorded in a secret report, written at a neighboring table.”)
Tahrir’s importance today of course is as the public center of Egypt’s uprising. The largest public demonstrations of Egyptians in a generation are not only joking about the regime; they are trying to bring it down. Tear gas has cleared out of the air of Tahrir since the police retreated last week, replaced by banners, songs, chants, and so many people. Of course millions, reportedly, or at least hundreds of thousands, are protesting across Egypt, in Alexandria, Suez, cities of the Delta, and Upper Egypt. But Tahrir has the attention of the 24-hour cameras of Al Jazeera, streaming on my computer in England, at Oxford, when I can’t possibly read about the Young Turks. Tahrir, some commentators say on the British and American media, is freedom. They muddy it. It means liberation, and this mass movement, is about just that. As Jonathan Schell has just written in the Nation, it is liberation from “the Egypt of President Hosni Mubarak—of the rigged elections, the censored press, the axed Internet, the black-clad security police and the tanks and the torture chambers.”
Schell writes “If the world has a heart, it beats now for Egypt.” There are pictures streaming and reports of pro-Mubarak “demonstrators” (likely paid, “heavily choreographed”) fighting with protesters in Tahrir, clashes and “mayhem.” Rocks flying. The military is watching. “Rocks being thrown left, right and center,” says AJE.