In 2007 I dreamt of a revolution. It started from Tahrir Square.
Why Tahrir? I don’t think I fully understood at the time.
Back then I was working at a bank, whose head office was located in Garden City, one of the classiest neighborhoods of Cairo. Until recently, it had been the neighborhood of choice for the most prominent Egyptian families, yet it slowly transformed into a business center filled with weathering architectural relics. As a result of the sheer number of cars in the area, it had become impossible to park in Garden City, and as such, I was forced to park my car in Tahrir Square’s main garage, a 20 minute walk from my office.
For two years, I would stroll down the entirety of the square. Each morning, precisely at 7 am, listening to my favorite musical masterpieces, from Brahms to Hans Zimmer. For those two years, every morning, five days a week, a single image would haunt my imagination as the orchestra blasted in my ears: a magnificent revolution brought about by thousands of Egyptians flooding the square to fight injustice and oppression.
And on one day the Egyptian Museum is set on fire, burning down Egypt’s ancient history, pushing people to storm Tahrir Square and start a bloody revolution.
4 years later my scenario became a reality. Egyptians revolutionized in 2011…In Tahrir Square.
Tahrir square is Egypt’s largest and most important square. It was commissioned by Khedive Ismail, Mohamed Ali Pasha’s grandson. Due to that the square was named ‘Ismail Square’.
With the beginning of the 19th century, and over his 40 years of ruling, Mohamed Ali executed a plan to transform Egypt from a backwarded country into a modern world-player. After his death his grandson Ismail, who was fascinated by the West, especially France, decided to re-plan Cairo’s downtown to look like Paris. The new planning started with Tahrir Square, a big circle that leads to some of Cairo’s most important streets and lies at the heart of a 4 thousand year old city. It was inaugurated in 1865. It is close to many important buildings, like the University, the Abdeen Palace, the Egyptian Museums or the Omar Makram mosque.
An ironic gesture is that on one of the sides of the square lies a huge ugly building that hosted the National Democratic Party, Egypt’s ruling party run by the president and government, against which the 2011 revolution was upheld. The building was burned down during the revolution, some say by the government officials themselves to hide evidence of corruption, and has since been demolished to build a hotel in its place.
From all the above, you can tell that Tahrir Square is a heavily symbolized place with popular and historic artifacts. With its crucial location, significant buildings, historic museums, and exits leading to important places, it has become a destination for all freedom fighters and citizens aspiring for a better tomorrow.
Among Egyptians, the Square’s name was changed from Ismailia to Tahrir in 1919.
On that year, thousands of Egyptians marched out to the square to protest in front of the British forces barracks, which were located in Tahrir at the time, requesting the return of their national leader Saad Zaghloul, who was exiled to Malta. Many were shot and killed, causing more riots all over Egypt. Zaghloul was allowed to return to Egypt weeks later. This incident is called the 1919 Revolution.
In 1935, Egyptian university students marched to the square to protest against the British occupation. Several were killed. Egyptians ran to the square in 1952 to bless a military coup that was much supported by the people, turning it into a people’s revolution. Finally in the 1960s an official decree was issued to name the Square with the title Egyptians have been knowing it by for 40 years at the time: Tahrir (Liberation). The square also became the venue in the times of war between Egypt and Israel in 1967, and 1973. In 1977 Tahrir was flooded with thousands of people in what came to be called the Bread Demonstrations, protesting World Bank and International Monetary Fund-mandated termination of state subsidies on basic foodstuffs.
Tahrir became and stayed the square for all protestors like the next years showed. In 2000 it was the place for demonstrating against Israel’s Invasion of the Al-Aqsa mosque and the following massacres. In 2003, when people marched out protesting against the American invasion of Iraq, it was the very same place where discontent and anger were displayed.
Tahrir square has become, for my generation and the ones preceding us, the place to go when we want to scream against injustice. It has become the place that embraces every Egyptian seeking justice, freedom and democracy
That is why in 2011 it made sense that the starting point for our revolution would be Tahrir Square. This was not from the spur of the moment. For ten years, the square and downtown streets had witnessed endless demonstrations and protests against dictatorship and fascists controlling the country with corruption and oppression.
Today if you look closely you can find dry blood of martyrs on the walls and pavements of the square. You will also find graffiti drawings telling the story of the 18 days when Egyptians had a sit-in in Tahrir Square asking for bread, freedom, and social justice.
It all started on the night of Jan. 25, 2011.
Activists started a rally in downtown leading up to Tahrir on the national police day.
On the same day in 1952, police officers of Ismailia – a strategic city located by the Suez canal-had refused to surrender the station to British forces, resulting in the death of the whole station force; they were 50 police officers and soldiers.
Therefore, the 25th of January was chosen for a reason. It held a strong message against the ministry of interior (Mainly the police forces), which was the regime’s iron-fist hammering opposition and all those criticizing the regime and demanding freedom of expression and better living standards.
This came a month after Tunisia’s uprise. Tension was in the air. Police forces were aggressive and violent, trying to prevent protesters from sitting in Tahrir.
This made the rest of Egyptians – most of which were not even interested in politics at the time – furious. Three days later, on the 28th, which was a Friday, the official day off in Egypt, thousands and thousands of people walked from every corner of Cairo to Tahrir Square. A bloody battle lasted for 7 hours until protestors managed to occupy the square. This resonated throughout all main squares in Egypt; hence started the 18 days of revolution, till the president stepped down.
Throughout those surreal 18 days a lot of bewildering incidents took place, all tricks and pressures were done to make Egyptians back down, but we knew how to organize and stand as one, and suddenly Tahrir became the center of the universe to all of us. It had become, as always, the place where we can dream of a better tomorrow, and actually see it happening.
After a very long night of celebration (more than 500,000 people in the square alone), the world woke up to find Egypt a different country, with people cleaning and re-painting the square, dealing with it as a sacred spot that had elevated them into something different.
The world’s astonishment at what happened in Tahrir does not surprise us. It was a peaceful revolution that gave a strong statement: Democracy, Freedom and Justice are concepts that have been acknowledged in the Western world centuries ago, and it was about time they reach the square around which the oldest civilization had been built.
In the years following 2011, Egyptians came to realize that those 18 days were not the end, but a mere beginning. We went back to the square more than once. To face Military dictatorship, and then to fight extreme-religious fascism.
In 2013 the world stood still when Egyptians went out in what has become to be known as the biggest human gathering in history (some estimates put it at 30 million people) to oppose an extremist president. These demonstrations that covered 1 million square meters of Egypt had one center: Tahrir Square.
When will be the next time Egyptians go back to Tahrir? The question will always stay hanging; Egyptians’will has become unbreakable, their ability to face oppression and their search for freedom seems not to withhold anytime soon. The spirits of our forefathers, pharaohs, and the spirits of our martyrs, and that of Abdel Monem Riad, and Khedive Ismail, Omar Makram, Ahmed Orabi, and others, are still roaming Tahrir, looking into the faces of modern Egyptians passing the square…encouraging them to keep looking for a better tomorrow.
Walaa Kamal is an Egyptian entrepreneur, novelist, scriptwriter, translator, and copywriter. He had worked for years around Tahrir, and also lives 30 minutes away from the famous square. He participated in Egypt’s 2011 revolution and subsequent events. He is an enthusiast to Egyptian patriotism and national identity. His debut novel „Serenity“ is under print and is due to be published in March 2016.