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February 01, 2011
On Tahrir Square
Follow-up to Wind from the Sahara? Tragic declines on both shores of the Med from Around Europe 2010-12
The Sahara wind from Tunisia, after a first tentative westwards to the Algerian Atlas, is now blowing in full force eastwards, to the Nile Valley; for the North we may have to wait.
On Al Jazeera live news we see Tahrir Square from above nearly 24 hours per day. I spent a couple of nights around the corner in April 2003, in a budget Egyptian hostel at the top floor of a building, with an usual view of the 'pending slums' on the top of the other buildings, and 24h noise from the square. It was the last days of the Iraq war, and in the lobby Egyptians (no westerners in that hostel, and nearly no westerners in the whole Middle East those days, not even on the Pyramids) looked in stunned silence at the instant collapse of the Iraqi army, considered as the strongest Arab army. Impossible to say whether they were happy or sad - they refused any comment apart from saying that they had nothing against me, even if I had been American. But it was transparent what they were thinking: if Saddam is a paper tiger, then Mubarak, and the Egyptian Army, must be ridiculously weak, whatever the propaganda.
Tahrir Square is huge, crowded, full of traffic. Full-to-capacity buses do not stop on the square; they just slow down and people jump on and off them. Luxury Hotels and the National Museum on one corner, the Nile on one side, and the modern centre on the other: different worlds mix in the spiralling square traffic without interruption. Until yesterday, comparing the TV images with my memory, I was stunned by how small the crowds seemed to be: fewer people than on a normal day, and an irrelevant number in a city of 20 million. Are we seen a televised revolution, instead of a real one? I am not a Baudrillard follower, but recent waves of revolutions along exactly the same scripts and all branded with 'colours' (Belgrade 2000; Georgia 2002; Kiev 2004...) do show the influence of media and mass event management.
But today, there are one or two millions on Tahrir Square. There is a general strike. With all the international attention focussed on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian labour movement has been neglected and it appears as more influential than imagined (for an interesting recent analysis see. If religious strife is important in today's Egypt, the most pressing concern for Egyptians are unemployment and the price of food.