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Egypt

The geography of a revolution

It begins with clashes in the night. Some kids are throwing rocks on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. They’re bored, have nothing to do and come from poor neighbourhoods: this is what is said about them. And yet, their cause is a just one: they clash with police forces in memory of their friends who died the same week in November, one year earlier. Sixty died in total. Some were shot in the head or chest. When you take the time to talk to them, those who are still alive and throw rocks into the empty darkness, they say, “We will not forget. They must know that we will not forget.”

The atmosphere on Tahrir is tense. Cars are scarce, and some taxis refuse to enter the square. It is recommended to go in groups at night, especially for girls. At this particular moment it’s still possible to laugh at the cowardly drivers: what do they think Tahrir is, a minefield? The clashes are concentrated on Mohamed Mahmoud street. Three days later tear gas is launched into the very square and the neighbourhood begins to stir. It’s at once gradual and fast.

On Friday, after a night of clashes spurred by the president’s surprise decree, the crowds took hold of Tahrir just like they’re used to. Throngs of families and other groups flowed in from all directions, welcoming the arrival of newcomers. Merchants and vendors took their places before the crowds, accommodating demands with remarkable agility, gas masks made in China piled up among their wares. For a low-budget alternative, there are also hospital masks at one Egyptian pound each. It’s a good deal but not very effective, which most do not learn until after going under a rain of tear gas.

A new wall was built across Qasr el Aini Street, a main tributary from the south and center. A classic attempt to contain the flow of masses, futile in Egypt as anywhere else. While these walls near Tahrir are not yet famous, they are a symptom, a warning, that the army has not had its last word.

Nor have the revolutionaries, and two hours later the wall has been painted in bright yellow with a large black smiley face in the middle, jeering and triumphant. Cars diligently skirt around the wall, veering left towards the Nile two hundred meters before Tahrir through the normally calm upper-class neighbourhood of Garden City. It’s only a matter of hours before new traffic rules take shape. The roads are no longer one-way as taxis charge against the flow of traffic along the Corniche: no one intends to let a wall hold them back. Qasr el Aini is now flanked by barbed wire and pedestrians adapt naturally to detours. People still go about their business as usual.

When you can build a wall, why not build two? After five days of geographic stability, the army has backslided. All night long trucks were deployed amidst the din of flying rocks in front of the American embassy outside of Tahrir. The operation is carried out under the leadership of Simon Bolivar, whose statue overlooks the embassy as the war of rocks and tear gas transpires on the adjoining street. Thus, the path between the Corniche and Tahrir by Bolivar Street is cut off. At the time the bronze face of the Libertador is covered with a hospital mask by a noble revolutionary.

Those are the same kids who celebrated their martyr friends in anonymity one week earlier. However, during the time passed, the political hand has changed: Tahrir has been occupied again. Egypt could be cooking another revolution. It was no time to stand down. The narrow street was no longer big enough: the playing field between the youth and police forces has stretched all the way down to the Corniche. Cars have begun to abandon this route through the crowds. Now it is by the heart of Cairo with its row of ministries crowded with brown trucks and cronies that most cross to rally Tahrir. The detour is longer than previous ones, but still doable by car or on foot.

On Friday during the third day of mass assembly, Talaat Harb, a major artery in north-central Cairo, is made pedestrian-only. Earlier in the week, cars had already begun to give up. The sound of heated verbal sparring poured out from the sidewalks until the early hours of the morning. This time it’s not the merchants selling cream, koshary, and drinks that inconveniently block the entrance and bicker with irate drivers. Now it’s the same barbed wire that impedes the side streets to the south of the square. There too, the road is twisted and windy. No doubt: it is by the number of pedestrians in Cairo that one can gauge the revolution.