Stories from a revolution: The beauty of leaderless Tahrir Square

The lack of leadership was the Egyptian revolution’s strength--until Mubarak fell. Then no one knew what to do next

Published July 19, 2015 1:00PM (EDT)

Anti-government protesters march toward Tahrir  Square in downtown Cairo, Feb. 1, 2011.              (AP/Emilio Morenatti)
Anti-government protesters march toward Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, Feb. 1, 2011. (AP/Emilio Morenatti)

Excerpted from "Circling the Square: Stories From the Egyptian Revolution"

I had met Dr. Hussein the very first time I went to Cairo, in another age, in the winter of 2000. I was escaping from a broken heart in Tbilisi; he was just divorced. Dr. Hussein was a prominent gynecologist like his father and grandfather before him and lived in an apartment above the family hospital on the island of Roda. On a clear day, if the smog was not too bad, you could see six pyramids from his balcony, three beyond the gray blocks of the city at Giza, three further outlines south at Sakkara. Dr. Hussein, eyes like gravy, sympa, a gentleness that came from dealing with women in distress and in tears, was a balm to my wounded state. He took me to the seaside at Alexandria, to parties, to afternoons in the winter sunshine on the terrace of the Gezira Sporting Club.

In 2011, Dr. Hussein still lived in the penthouse above his grandfather’s maternity hospital with the view of the pyramids. In the intervening decade he had arranged his life very comfortably. Most Friday lunchtimes found him at Café Riche, where there was an informal gathering of intellectuals. Weekends were spent by the pool at the Gezira Sporting Club or diving in the Red Sea. He had plenty of girlfriends, whom he treated generously and who came and went without too much drama. He’d taken up photography and would travel once a year to an exotic locale, Cambodia, Vietnam, Uzbekistan. His pictures were colorful and clear—limpid tropical light, emerald-green rice fields—and he made prints and put them up in the hospital corridors. The patients all said they cheered up the place.

Dr. Hussein had interned in Cairo’s public hospitals; he knew very well the ugliness of neglect and vested interest and grime. Sometimes we would talk about the system and how it had gotten that way and what could be done about it. In particular the statistics for stunted malnourished children made me shudder. But the system was too large and complicated for us to really comprehend, or to understand how to fix. Our discussions always foundered.

“It’s the mentality,” Dr. Hussein would say, unwittingly echoing Hassan. I would nod and suggest, “Maybe you should think about doing something grassroots. Like volunteering or a mobile clinic in a slum.” And Dr. Hussein would nod and say, “Yes, it is a good idea.” But good ideas are easy enough to come up with, especially by Westerners for whom a functioning state system is an assumed birthright. The actual doing of good is much harder to organize. Dr. Hussein delivered all the society babies, but I know he also treated poor women for free. He was kind, he was well-read and well-informed. He was my best friend in Cairo and helped me in a thousand ways, without hesitation, whenever I asked, which was often. He never did start a mobile clinic, but in a funny way, looking back, out of all my Cairo friends—even the dedicated activists—Dr. Hussein’s commitment to Egypt’s emerging politics would be the most consistent and longest lasting.

One night—many nights—we sat on Dr. Hussein’s balcony, a wide view above the fray. Below us, the black Nile flowed spotted with party boats lit up with pink and blue neon like iridescent water bugs. The clanging thump of the Araby disco reached us intermittently on breezes. We were an assorted assembly of friends and acquaintances, bloggers, activists, politicians, feminists—the English-speaking liberal elite who had gone to the American University in Cairo or studied in the U.S., who had second passports and parents with bank accounts in other countries. We were, we knew, a self-selected unrepresentative group. We gathered on Dr. Hussein’s balcony and drank whiskey or gin-tonic or Campari-soda and we talked back and forth. For three years there was only one subject, the revolution.

The army and the square, the army and the Brotherhood, the army and this new word: SCAF, which stood for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which no one had ever heard of before and was now ruling the country. And who/what was Field Marshal Tantawi? President? Transitional caretaker? Just another general-ruler like Mubarak and Sadat and Nasser before him? And what about his “road map” for the country and the referendum for the constitutional amendments? Should we vote yes or no? Was it too soon for elections? And did you see Alaa Al Aswany’s fight on TV with Mubarak’s last-ditch prime minister—that smoothy Shafik? Novelist versus premier! An ordinary citizen questioning the leader! Ah, but Al Aswany was really too rude! No! He was great, he didn’t let Shafik glide off with his suave bullshit and his V-neck sweaters. And Shafik, did you see what he did? Wagging his finger, thumping his chest and declaring himself more patriotic! And then Shafik resigned the next day!


A month or so after Mubarak’s fall, I met Aly, Dr. Hussein’s second cousin, one evening on the balcony. He was tall and had curly hair and one of those eternally beautiful Egyptian faces, cast several millennia ago from reddish Nile mud. Aly was half a generation younger than Dr. Hussein, but they were great friends. Both bachelors about town, both engaged by the revolution with a hope that they, as members of the educated engaged elite, could perhaps offer more than noblesse oblige.

Aly had gone out onto the street on the twenty-fifth. Of course, after the revolution everyone you ever met declared they had been on Tahrir from the very beginning, but Aly was not puffing and I was curious about the very first moments.

“Why did you decide to go?” I asked him.

He thought for a moment, squinting diagonally at the sodium-orange obscurity of the Cairo dusk.

Aly told me he had met up with friends on the evening of January 24. There was a big group of them, a dozen or more, all young professionals, gathered debating, at the Jazz Club. Three bottles of whiskey were on the table, two of them empty. After all, the next day was a holiday.

“I think we should go,” Aly had said, definite, palm on the table. Until the day before he had been hovering fifty-fifty. There would be a heavy police presence. (The holiday was Police Day.) There would be violence and arrests. And the likelihood was that it would be just another pointless demonstration, a few hundred people surrounded by an even greater number of State Security.

The friends talked openly with each other, though they didn’t usually discuss politics. Not so much out of fear, Aly thought, but simply because they were resigned to stasis. For a couple of weeks now Tunisia had buzzed softly through Cairo conversations. Aly had logged in to the “We Are All Khalid Said” Facebook page and seen all the messages of solidarity and exhortation. The cymbals clashed, high-hat swish, a certain discordance between the jazz and the cocktail-party hum of the bar. It seemed odd to Aly that even a week ago the idea of protest had been something abstract, even unthought of, and if thought about at all, easily dismissed with cynicism.

“It won’t make any difference,” one of their number, a banker, said. “It’s just a risk for no purpose.”

“Those of you who have lived outside of Egypt think differently, you think things are possible, but this is just not reality,” said another. Aly made a wry face at this, but perhaps they were right: he had a Canadian passport and a degree from McGill, and had worked in London; he had only returned to Cairo a couple of years before to become a partner in his family’s law firm.

Aly tried to convince the rest of his group. He was a lawyer; he made his case:

“Look, we all come from a privileged background, right? So taking this into account, what is our risk analysis? I would say the probability of us getting killed is low. We also know that because we come from connected families, if we are arrested, we would get special treatment, get detained for a short time and then released. So I am looking at the optimistic side of the risk spectrum and saying, look: it’s not that likely that something really terrible is going to happen to us. And even if the demonstrations don’t succeed”—Aly spread his hands wide, to concede this was the most likely probability of all—“we won’t have to regret not doing anything and we can say, At least we tried. Not like our parents, who have done nothing for thirty years and watched Egypt stagnate into this mess.”

At the end of the evening eight of Aly’s friends had agreed to join the protest. Three said maybe. The rest demurred. The nays did not make excuses, they just didn’t think it would amount to anything.

The next day Aly went out onto the street with a hangover. Five of his friends showed up; four yeses had dropped out overnight and one maybe had decided yes after all. They marched with several hundred others, chanting, navigating the police lines, blocking intersections. They managed to get onto Tahrir in the mid-afternoon and arrived amazed to find themselves cheered by the few thousand already gathered there. Aly was standing very close to the police line when the first rocks went over. He described things carefully, weighing remembered moments for accuracy. What had he really seen? Once or twice I interrupted, “Sorry, did you say see or seem?”

The rocks went over in a barrage and the police picked them up and threw them back. There were also gun cracks. Aly began to run back from the front line, thinking that it was stupid to throw rocks at the police because it only provoked them, but he stumbled and looked down and saw his friend Seif collapsed on the ground. Seif was curled up with his arms around his head, rocking himself, covered in blood. Another friend crouched down too. They couldn’t tell what was bleeding—Seif was the doctor among them—everything was very chaotic, some of the kids were running after police vans careening through the crowd. So much blood! They pulled off Seif’s T-shirt and saw dozens of red-ringed black pellet dots on one side of his torso and continuing along the underside of his arm. Bird shot. They wiped away the blood with his T-shirt and could see that the wounds were not deep. After a few moments, Seif sat up. He was all right. People around them said, don’t worry, he’s not critical, it’s better to let him rest a bit, not drag him around trying to find an exit and make him bleed more.

After a while, despite the to-and-fro battle at several entrances to Tahrir, they managed to get Seif to hospital. All the time more people kept arriving on the square. It became clear the police were outnumbered and they stopped trying to attack the crowd. The night before, Aly and his friends had debated what would constitute a success. Five thousand? Five thousand people would be something! Now Aly looked around and saw he was part of crowd numbering thirty thousand or fifty thousand or more. Everyone was calling and texting excitedly to tell their friends, Come! Come! Something is happening here! At dusk the authorities jammed the mobile signal in the vicinity, but by that time it was too late. By nightfall Aly was grinning because all of his friends who had been at the Jazz Club the night before had come to Tahrir, all the no-shows and maybes and naysayers as well as all their girlfriends and wives and a further, outer circle of friends.

Aly broke off the telling for a moment and leaned over the balcony railing watching a wedding dancer hip-swaying on the deck of the party boat passing below us. I asked him again why he had decided to go, because he had told me a story in lieu of answering.

“You know,” he replied, “I can’t really remember exactly why.” I watched him trying hard to think back to the time before, when even the possibility of all that had happened seemed impossible to imagine. He marveled, blinking, a little uncomprehending, that this coin-toss moment had come up heads.


Another drink?” Dr. Hussein came over to rescue us from white space and dangling participles. “So, cousin, what are you going to call your group?”

Aly laughed. He and his Tahrir friends were thinking about the next step.

“It doesn’t have a name yet. It’s a Facebook thing. It’s just about fifty or sixty of us who were on the square together. We were considering forming a center-left party but now we are thinking we should look around at one of the parties establishing themselves and join them as a bloc.”

Now everyone on Dr. Hussein’s balcony began to talk at once.

“But there are so many—”

“Anyway Hamzawy—yes, the one with the seventies fro; what is up with that safari jacket?—and Shobaky are talking about a liberal party. On the left there’s a new socialist reform movement, that’s a group within the wider party.”

“What party?”

“I think they are going to call it the People’s Coalition Party.”

“Hahaha! The PCP!”

“I’m definitely voting for that!”

Dr. Hussein interrupted.

“There’s Abu Ghar, who’s a gynecologist, who’s forming a party. Amr Hamzawy has split off from that group. I asked my dad to call Abu Ghar and he’s going to send a representative to talk to our group on Saturday.”

“So you will be the gynecologists’ party?”

“Yes, the gynecologists’ party . . .” Dr. Hussein was laughing too. “Basically our group, which doesn’t have a name, is going to form a coalition with that other group that doesn’t have a name so that we can join a party that still doesn’t have a name.”


I watched Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton in Reds again. Ten Days That Shook the World: all the sweep and drama of the Russian Revolution observed by John Reed, agitprop reporter, with Beatty’s twinkling blue eyes and chiseled cheekbones. But watching this time, what I noticed more than epic and heartthrob was the talkiness. Almost all the scenes were debate. The first half of the movie is set among American socialists-syndicalists-communists trying to organize an American left in a New England cottage, earnest ideologues up against an ornery union and a solid status quo. Their grandstanding arguments fill the air with smoke, cigarette and metaphorical. Jack Nicholson lurks in the corner, playing Eugene O’Neill with a quiet seducer’s leer. The second act is Petrograd in the maelstrom of the Bolshevik October takeover. John Reed, Comintern delegate, rallies and rails among a babel of Italian, French, German, English and Tatar on the floor of the International Soviet; committees, meetings, the constituent assembly, the third Congress of Soviets. It is a movie of argument, fists on the table, shouting, storming out, shaking heads with warning, wrong roads, necessary roads, faction, action, reaction.

Cairo February, March, April, after the eighteen days, was like this too. In corner and café and hotel lobby, between bawwab and banker, across the koshari counter, radio call-in show commented on by the grumpy taxi driver. Every Friday the square filled up again with men holding forth in a circle, crosspurposed, finger-pointing. Someone up on the stage shouting into a microphone. At the end of Reds John Reed dies of typhus in a Moscow hospital as the Bolsheviks fight a civil war to consolidate the revolution. His efforts and dreams are unreconciled, and the screen devolves to a black backdrop. Fifty years have passed, and the film concludes in documentary and retrospect. John Reed’s friends and comrades, real people, not actors, tell their recollections in interviews, old now, wise and defeated.


The protesters from the square now sat in cafés and talked about forming groups, committees, blocs, NGOs, parties, Facebook groups, YouTube channels, pressure groups, think tanks, unions. Suddenly everyone was making a documentary; new newspapers started up with names like Tahrir and The 25th; there were photo exhibitions of the revolution set up in the foyer of the opera; graphic designers painted graffiti portraits of the martyrs on city walls around Tahrir. Vendors set up stalls selling revolution T-shirts. Shop windows were full of Egyptian flags stitched and sequined onto evening bags, sparkly earrings, watch straps. Egyptian-flag stripes were painted across walls and gates and around tree trunks. The Mubarak metro station was scratched off the map and in the Tahrir station hall there was a gallery of revolutionary art. Billboards lining the highway for soda and pizza and mobile phones all touted the new Egyptian pride as advertising. In the evenings there were memorial concerts and charity fund-raisers for the families of martyrs. Debates were held in hotel ballrooms and the auditoria of universities; politicians, former judges and generals went on talk shows and kicked off presidential campaigns: How can a civil state include Islamists? What about the Turkish model? .  .  . Should the senate be appointed or elected?  .  .  . A presidential term should be limited to five years! . . . Do we want a president or a prime minister? . . . Right now we need to establish a presidential council committee, because the army is controlling everything .  .  . The core of any democratic system is accountability. . . . And what about Mexico, which is a democracy but they had to fire all the police because they were in bed with the Mafia . . . And Pakistan? Let’s not forget the experience of Iraq!


One evening I sat in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel with a couple of journalists and four activists from the Coalition of the Youth; two of them were liberals, one a Marxist, and the fourth was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. At the adjacent table sat a party of senior police commanders in black uniforms with brass stars and laurels on their shoulders. A pianist warbled Cole Porter melodies and my porcelain teacup tinkled in the saucer when I put it down to take a bite of almond tuile. The activists explained their position, four sides of a revolutionary square. The journalists leaned forward to catch each sentence. Yes, the army was trying to talk to all sides, no, the army had its own agenda; yes, there would be elections, but not yet, but in the meantime the referendum on constitutional amendments?

“Will you be voting yes or no?”


“Yes.” “Yes.”


Out of the blue-black street Hillary Clinton swept through the revolving doors and crossed the foyer at a brisk clip, surrounded by a small knot of entourage and two agents in dark suits with earpieces. The four activists made rueful grimaces; they had all refused to attend the meeting with the American secretary of state in protest against her close ties to Mubarak.

The question on the table was a grand one. Would this be democracy as the Americans understood it, one man (or woman), one vote, and liberty for all, or was this going to be some hybrid balanced on the twin pillars of Arab political default: strongman and Koran? This big question was spliced into the concerns of the immediate, medium and long-term: Hillary’s visit, the role of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), military detentions, the constitutional referendum next week: what did it mean for a transitional road map? Falling currency reserves, a mooted IMF debt package. The journalists turned, inevitably, to the question of Israel. What policy would a new Egypt pursue against its neighbor? Would the Islamists uphold the Camp David Accords? It was here the four activists joined hands for a moment (metaphorically).

“Well, Israel is an enemy for all of us . . .”

Hillary stepped into the lift, which carried her up and away.

“And what about civil liberties, what about homosexuality?” asked the other journalist, scratching his temple.

The Muslim Brotherhood activist frowned and leaned back in the soft gray chenille sofa opening his palms, passing the question to the liberal with a shaggy Egyptian fro.

“This is your department,” he said, discomforted, but amused too at the shared discomfort.

The liberal demurred. “That’s way ahead of where we are now.”

The reporters made shorthand loops in spiral notebooks. I ate all the almond tuiles. Eighty million people were embarking on an uncharted experiment into Arabic democracy, a great ball of popular hydrogen pumped to burst and rolling off a cliff—but at least pretty much all Egyptians could agree that they didn’t like gays and they didn’t like Israelis.


Walking out across the lobby I bumped into Naguib, the spokesman of the revolution.


I hadn’t seen him since Tahrir Square on the morning before Mubarak fell. We gave each other a big delighted hug. He was coming out of the roundtable with Hillary Clinton, grinning and tired and energetic all at the same time. I explained I had been sitting with a group of refuseniks.

“Well you might as well go and listen to what she has to say,” he said.

“So now that everyone has a group,” I said, “what’s the name of your group?”

“My coalition is one of the six founding coalitions of the coordinating committee of the masses,” Naguib replied without batting an eyelid.

“What’s the politics? What’s the leaning?”

“I am as liberal as a conservative could be and as conservative as a liberal could be.”

“Are you going to run for parliament?” I asked him.

Naguib smiled. “I don’t think so.” Naguib spoke slowly, running his hands through his brilliantine curls, still thinking about it. “I had the experience of responsibility on Tahrir. I was organizing medicine, food, tents—everything. And if I was elected from my part of the city, where there is a big section of slum, it means a high proportion of the people I would be responsible for would be living below the poverty line. How could I sleep at night? That’s way too much responsibility. Whoa.” He put out his hands to rein in an imaginary horse.


There had been no leaders on Tahrir. Wael Ghonim spent much of his ten days in prison convincing his interrogators that he was not the mastermind head of this mythical overnight media sensation, “the Revolutionary Youth.” The generals spent a lot of time negotiating with the Muslim Brotherhood to tamp down the protests, not quite realizing that the Muslim Brotherhood were not in control of the crowds. The beguiling beauty of Tahrir had been its collective nature; no organization save word of mouth. During the eighteen days, everyone was committed to the same cause: “Leave!” Initially the lack of leadership was the revolution’s strength—no figurehead to arrest, co-opt or defame, according to the usual best practices. But after Mubarak fell it quickly became its weakness.

The revolution had no leader. The revolution had espoused no ideology. Freedom! Bread! Social justice! Egypt had no political parties except for the Muslim Brotherhood and some discredited old leftists and Nasserists. None of them had any idea of what to do next and had been so long in sleepy opposition that political reflexes had long atrophied. No one had any template or plan and in all the crazy months to follow no one ever really came up with one. There was a new word called transition. At first this was vague and promising.

In the early months, there was a whirl of activity. But now I look back and it seems we were all just rushing around a hole. For example, there was so much calling up and meeting and talking that Egyptians, overwhelmed by the constant ringing, stopped answering their mobile phones. At first people just ignored the calls from numbers they did not recognize; brrring, click to silent, continue conversation. Later it was impossible to get even close friends to pick up for weeks at a time. Phones vibrated on tables like buzzing flies. Texts tinkled and piled up like tin cans on a string. Facebook instant messages sometimes worked if you could catch someone online. DM via Twitter produced an instant response, but only from activists under the age of thirty.

Sketches, finger drawings in the air, scribblings on restaurant napkins. For the moment it didn’t matter that there was no plan because everything was possible and everyone was so pleased and happy to congratulate each other on this lovely extraordinary revolution that had made everything possible—Look! we are voting next week! Constitutional referendum! Everyone will have a purple finger and we will say yes or no! Then everyone will get a pay raise because the thieves won’t steal all the money, and my bumpkin neighbor with the son-in-law in the police who likes to dump his trash right outside my door will be taken down a peg or two and learn to be respectful like a neighbor might be in, say, well, Sweden, where everything is fair and even the street kids have shoes and also gloves!

Never mind that most people (the majority) had spent the eighteen days watching TV on the couch—they became known as the Couch Party—muttering, “I don’t know what these kids are doing.” Grumpf. “They’ll burn the whole country down just because they want to have a bonfire party!” Mubarak was gone. Now there was this big new shiny word that was called democracy—a word that we all reminded ourselves came from the Greek, demos, “people,” merged with kratia, “rule.” Fridays on the Tahrir continued protests and intermittent violence. I recalled studying Coriolanus at school, Shakespeare, lamenting the fickleness of crowds. I mentally amended the etymology to “rule of the demo-nstration.”

Excerpted from "Circling the Square: Stories From the Egyptian Revolution" by Wendell Steavenson, published this month by Ecco Press.

By Wendell Steavenson

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