I reported from a protest at Tahrir Square, in the historic centre of Cairo, on 29 January 2011, just days into a mass movement that ended the rule of Hosni Mubarak, a strongman president who had ruled Egypt for 30 years. The army was called in to stem the uprising after the swelling number of protestors had made the police withdraw from the streets on the previous day. Over the next few days, with Tahrir becoming the symbolic heart of the uprising, a sea of demonstrators occupied the square, and the area filled up with tents and banners. The mood was excited and confused. Many of those I spoke to were unsure what to make of the army, which had been sympathetic to the protestors.
In the years of political turmoil that followed, I covered nearly every protest at Tahrir—“liberation” in Arabic. Through late 2012 and into early 2013, the square was filled with banners and tents again, but the protesters had changed, and so had the enemy. This time, they were demanding the resignation of Mohamed Morsi, the new president and a member of an Islamic political group, the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi was deposed in July 2013, by order of the military, and an unelected, army-led government took over. Afterwards, a monument commemorating all the “martyrs” of the protest movements was installed in the square.
Today, though, protests are not troubling Tahrir anymore, and the state is in complete control of the square. It sees noticeably fewer people and cars, the street vendors who once occupied its pavements have been kicked out, and the monument remembering fallen protestors has been replaced by a towering pole bearing an Egyptian flag. Political graffiti that once documented the uprisings has almost all been wiped away. The little that remains is on a single wall on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, just off the square, bearing the faces of some of the protest casualties. Right besides those are freshly carved plaques, in English and Arabic, stating that the message of Egypt’s three major religions—Christianity, Islam and Judaism—is “peace.”