The national museum in Cairo is a treasure trove of artefacts, many of them brought from the cavernous tombs inside those miracles of ancient Egypt — the pyramids. The museum overlooks Tahrir Square, where Egypt witnessed a modern-day miracle in 2011 and 2013. In one of the biggest-ever mass protests staged in world history, Egyptians ousted two unpopular regimes. A favourite song of the revolutionaries was “Ana-i-Sha’b (I am the people)” sung originally by Umm Kulthum, Egypt’s greatest singer, to celebrate the country’s 1952 anti-monarchy revolution: “Every man and woman let out a voice free/ Strong, ancient, deep, and lofty/ Saying: I am the People and the Miracle”.
Ironically, a majority of the same torch-bearers of democracy now want their country to be ruled by an army strongman — Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Stranger still, el-Sisi has suddenly emerged as the most popular leader in modern Egyptian history, after Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. For a place that caught the imagination of democracy lovers all over the world three years ago, Tahrir Square has a thoroughly unremarkable appearance. It doesn’t have the humongous size of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. It lacks the architectural splendour of India Gate and its environs in New Delhi. It’s just an ordinary open space at a traffic roundabout, which a visitor to Cairo, hassled by the vexatious vehicular movement in the city, is quite likely to miss. But in January 2011, this square, and the roads leading to it, became the face of the Arab Spring in Egypt. The protests that began here ended the 30-year-old dictatorial regime of Hosni Mubarak. The promise of democracy was celebrated in Egypt, and welcomed all over the world.
But soon, when democracy came in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood in the saddle, with its leader Mohammed Morsi as Egypt’s first-ever elected president, Tahrir Square again became the seat of massive protests. This time round, the army openly backed the protesters and, in a swift and ruthless takeover in July 2013, put Morsi behind bars. This change was far from peaceful. When angry supporters of Morsi protested, the military crackdown killed over 1,000 of them. Not only was the Muslim Brotherhood outlawed again, but for the first time in its 80-year history, it was also declared a terrorist organisation.
Is Egypt back at square one? No. The situation has too many contradictions to lead to such a simplistic conclusion. Political instability, its crippling impact on the economy (tourism, the main revenue earner and employment creator for Egypt, has shrunk to less than one-fourth of its peak levels) and the lurking fear of a Syria-like violent social conflict if the Muslim Brotherhood were to return to power, have led most Egyptians to believe that their country will be safe only if a strong leader comes to continued…