Tahrir Square showed Egyptians how to be a citizen

Development Policy17 Mar 2011Petra Stienen

At the moment I am in Cairo to listen to the stories of the revolution. It is amazing how eager people are to recount their experiences. Tahrir square itself has returned to the normal routine of traffic jams. Only some graffiti and a few tanks in the surrounding streets are silent witnesses of what happened just weeks ago.

Everybody in Cairo has a story to tell about those 18 days at Tahrir Square. The Liberation Square is the central square of this enormous megapole of 20 million people. Having been at the square has become a sign of commitment to the new Egypt. Of course in other cities such as Alexandria, Suez and Aswan, people also demonstrated for political reforms and the fall of the Mubarak regime. But the slogans of the 25 January revolution ‘For Dignity, Democracy and Social Justice’ resonated especially from Tahrir Square, and in front of the eyes of the whole world.

Some people already went to protest against police brutality and to call for political reforms on 25 January, the National Day of the Police. As it turns out, many of them were activists of the first hour and they were much more organized than they let the world believe initially. Others came on 28 January for the Day of Anger. Friends took their children in the hope that they would grow up in another Egypt, without the regime of Mubarak. They wanted to take their future and destiny in their own hands.

My friend Zeynab, whom I have known since we studied together at Cairo University in 1988, was reluctant to go at first. She was concerned about security and instability — until she saw what the regime did on 2 February, a day that is now known as ‘The Battle of the Camels’, as Mubarak backers stormed into the downtown square riding camels.That made her furious and she felt that enough was enough. So she went to Tahrir Square as well. So did more and more Egyptians of all ages. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who had no particular political background but just felt empowered by the people at Tahrir Square standing up against the regime. The resignation of Mubarak on 11 February truly was following the will of his people.

In the meantime everybody is aware of the enormous challenges ahead in changing the economic, political and social structure of Egypt. Nobody thinks lightly about the cost of the revolution; hundreds of people died and thousands were injured. The army rounded up the last group of protesters on 9 March and arrested more than a hundred of them. Young activists told me gruesome stories of torture and sexual harassment of their arrested friends by the army. It is likely that their cases will be referred to military tribunals, even though they are civilians. No wonder that people are apprehensive of the role of the army in the coming months. In addition, many Egyptians are concerned that the army will strike a deal with the Moslim Brotherhood, excluding the new generation of Egyptians who were represented at Tahrir Square.


But the change that took place within the minds of many Egyptians has passed the point of no return. Everybody seems to be politicized by the events at Tahrir Square. Living rooms, universities, TV shows, cafes, parks and taxis are teeming with political discussions about the upcoming referendum on constitutional reform next Saturday 19 March.

Taxi drivers tell me that they will go and vote as it is their duty as citizens, a word that previously was never used by them. Political activists, journalists, women’s rights activists and businessmen all talk about how they felt empowered by exactly that focus on Egyptian citizens at Tahrir square.

The sense of unity between Muslims and Christians after a long history of sectarianism is still around, despite some horrible clashes in the past few days. Respect for others, cooperation between men and women of all ages, tolerance, self-organization and a sense of unity among all, are words that are repeated over and over again.

The big question in the next months is of course whether this sense of unity and citizenship can be translated into a new political system. While I was having coffee with a good friend in Beanos in the fancy district of Zamalek, they played the song ‘Sawt al-Hurriya’ on national Egyptian TV. The clip will be a reminder of how Egyptians of all walks of life raised their voice and called for freedom at Tahrir Square. In the coming months this reminder can assist people in finding a moral compass and a point of reference for the challenging days ahead.