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History’s crossroads

Stand in Tahrir Square,and see Egypt’s past and future.

Written by Alia Allana | Published: February 10, 2011 9:51 am

If it were just a square. For 16 days now one square and a unified cry has caught our attention. Hundreds of thousands have poured into Tahrir Square,made it their home,demanding the resignation of the modern day Pharaoh,Hosni Mubarak.

But the Pharaoh likens the square to his backyard. He looks at the gathered mass as rebellious children,whose cries,if ignored,will eventually grow fainter and die. But the square still bustles,with chants and tanks,bullets and banners.

Yet there is more to Tahrir Square than the day’s protest. The square tells a story of an evolving Egypt.

One simply needs to look at the buildings. Housed behind the neoclassical portico of the Cairo Museum is a glimpse of times gone. Amid artefacts galore,it holds the most famous of them all: the golden death mask of the child-Pharaoh Tutankhamun. The museum is the centre for the preservation of Egyptian antiquities and identity; together with the national government,it has for years been in a brawl with the British Museum over the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone. Egypt continues to relish its past,for,unlike its neighbours,it is not a random construction born of post-colonial whims. It has existed since time immemorial — something of which Egyptians are notoriously proud.

Look towards the southern end of the square on any of the many interactive maps bouncing about the Internet. At the far left,in a staid,fusty building,are the headquarters of the Arab League. The Arab League,and the idea of pan-Arabism it represents,were both very much an Egyptian aspiration — and it met first in Tahrir Square in the 1950s. But today the Arab League’s relevance is being questioned: why has it not spoken out more strongly against Egypt? In the past it had attacked the country due to its cosying up with Israel,and subsequently the US.

Now look at the Khairy Pasha Palace,the oldest building on the square. This houses the American University of Cairo,the first such to arrive in the Middle East. First it came to Cairo; now there are campuses in Lebanon,Dubai and Sharjah. It’s also home to the first student newspaper,Caravan,in the Middle East. US influence is ever visible on the square: one need not go too much further to be doubly assured of that: standing proud and tall is the Nile Hilton,the building from which most foreign correspondents have sent their dispatches.

Then there is the Egypt of today. A tall,stony,imposing building is for government departments,from the ministry of the interior to the post office. It’s also where foreigners,including myself,who have fallen victim to the charms of Egypt have stood in queue for a visa extension. The Tahrir Compound and the adjacent ministry of external affairs are the heart of the government in downtown Cairo.

The square is suspended in time,a vortex and also a thoroughfare. Turn your back on the square and you find yourself at the Corniche,the hub for young lovers and idle strollers; turn 180 degrees,you face the bridge that leads you to Giza and the pyramids.

This is where Egypt stands right now. The square is a mirror to Egypt. The very road that runs past the headquarters of Mubarak’s party,the NDP,also runs to Giza,symbolising the old order. The other,to the Corniche,is based on Parisian design,modelled on Rue La Fayette,named for the radical marquis who fought in two earlier revolutions,the American and the French.

Mubarak’s stagnant reign brought little change to the square. It serves as the hub for the new metro,though — for Tahrir Square does not stop. It is jam-packed with commuters and passers-by,still the heart of the city. The buildings too remain the same. The US embassy is a stone’s throw away,as is the national parliament building. The main reason so many feathers are ruffled this year,after all,is that it became clear to many after recent elections,in which the opposition was stifled and Mubarak’s party was “victorious”,that Mubarak was preparing the throne for his technocrat son.

Does the sight of all these buildings motivate the protesters? Are they angry with what the square has now become,what it mirrors?

Tahrir Square reflects Egyptian reality. It always has. It wasn’t an ad hoc decision to take Tahrir. Rumour has it that the protesters won’t march to the palace,because they fear losing Liberation Square. Tahrir stands at history’s crossroads.

alia.allana@expressindia.com

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