Midan El-Tahrir—I prefer the Arabic word, ‘midan’, because, like ‘piazza’, it does not tie you down to a shape but describes an open urban space in a central position in a city, and the space we call Midan El-Tahrir, the central point of Greater Cairo, is not a square or a circle but more like a massive curved rectangle covering about 45,000 square meters and connecting Downtown and older Cairo to the east, with the river and Giza and the newer districts to the west; its southern boundary is the Mugamma building and its northern is the 6 October Flyover–
The Midan has been our Holy Grail for forty years. Since 1972 when (then President Anwar) Sadat’s forces dragged the student protestors at dawn from around the empty plinth at its center and into jail, demonstrations and marches have tried and failed to get into Tahrir. Two years ago we managed to hold a corner of a traffic island in front of the Mugamma3 building for an hour. We were fewer than fifty people, and the government surrounded us with maybe 2,000 Central Security soldiers, the chests and shoulders of their officers heavy with brass.
Since Egypt’s ruler Khedive Ismail established it in 1860—its core modeled on Paris’ Étoile, six main roads leading out of its center and a further six out of the larger space surrounding it—control of Tahrir has seemed central to controlling the country. Ismail himself stationed the Egyptian army and the Ministry of Defense here, and when the British occupied Egypt in 1882 their army took over the barracks and the Ministry on one side of Qasr El-Nil Bridge and they put their embassy on the other. The Americans were to follow suit and put their increasingly fortress-like embassy next to the British. Then in Nasser’s revolutionary times Egypt put a statue of Simón Bolívar between the two embassies; the Arab League building and the headquarters of the Arab Socialist Union went up in place of the British barracks, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs faced them from the (nationalized) palace of the Princess Nimet Kamal across Tahrir Street.
But, as well as housing the symbols of military and political power, Tahrir is home to the civic spirit of Egypt. The Egyptian Antiquities Museum (1902) marks the northern end of the Midan, and when in 1908 the Egyptian national movement founded—through public donations—the first secular Egyptian University, they rented the palace of Khawaga Gianaclis—now the old campus of the American University in Cairo—at the other end. In 1951 the government decided to consolidate all its departments that the citizens directly dealt with in one central building, and so Mugamma3 Al-Tahrir was built. And, early in the 1952 revolution, the small mosque near the Mugamma3 was enlarged and dedicated to Sheikh Omar Makram, the popular leader against Napoleon’s French Expedition in 1798, the British ‘Fraser’ Expedition of 1807 and, later, against Muhammad Ali himself when he felt the ruler was taxing the people unfairly. Omar Makram died in exile but his statue was part of our revolution; a meeting place, an inspiration, a bearer of flags and microphones and balloons.
In 1962, the first modern international hotel in Egypt, the Nile Hilton, opened in Tahrir, next to the Arab League. Eight years later, on the evening of 27 September, 1970, and having just closed the two days of negotiations and arm-twisting that ended Black September and killed him, President Gamal Abdel Nasser—whose picture was raised by many during the revolution—stood on the balcony of the thirteenth-floor suite he had occupied for a few nights and gazed at the Nile. He turned, smiling, to Abdel Meguid Farid, the Secretary to the Presidency: “How come I’ve never seen this amazing sight before? Look at it. I’m buried alive out in Heliopolis.” Then he went home. And it was from a window in the Arab Socialist Union next door that, two days later, his wife and daughters watched his funeral surge across Qasr El-Nil Bridge towards Tahrir. This is the building that became Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party headquarters—the only building in Tahrir to be torched by the revolutionaries.
The Hilton—now bearing the Ritz-Carlton sign—has been undergoing renovation for years. In front of it is a waste ground surrounded by sheets of corrugated iron—which we will use in the battles for the Midan. This massive space in the central midan of our city has been in this ruined condition for twenty years. We are told it’s to do with the construction of the Metro. Also to do with the Metro, we’re told, was the removal of the empty plinth in the middle of the garden of the central roundabout, the plinth around which the students gathered in 1972 on the night Amal Dunqul wrote of in The Stone Cake:
Five o’clock struck
with soldiers a circle of shields and helmets
drawing closer slowly… slowly…
from every direction
and the singers in the stone cake clenching
like a heartbeat!
Lighting their throats
for warmth against the cold and the biting dark
Lifting the anthem in the face of the approaching guard.
Linking their young, hopeless hands
a shield against lead
Now, the whole country is gathered around that central, plinthless garden. In one of the most moving moments of the revolution—and there were to be many—the people’s delegations that had come in from the cities and the provinces to the Midan set up their banners and set up the chant: “El-shar3eyya m’nel-Tahrir”—legitimacy comes from Tahrir.
Excerpt from Cairo: My City, Our Revolution by Adhaf Soueif, published in 2012 by Bloomsburg Publishing. Text © Ahdaf Soueif, 2012. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
Ahdaf Soueif is the author of Aisha, Sandpiper, In the Eye of the Sun, I Think of You, and other novels. Her novel The Map of Love was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1999. Her non-fiction work on political upheaval in Egypt, Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, was published in 2012.