At least once a day I visit Tahrir Square. It’s a 15 minute walk through the hotel blockades, across three busy streets, and past the Egyptian Museum.
Protestors have blocked Tahrir Square to traffic with metal barriers and barbed wire. There’s been an ongoing sit-in at the Square since November 22nd when President Morsi issued a controversial constitutional declaration that rendered his decisions above judicial intervention. Egyptians are not amused.
Tents with Arabic script occupy the central part of the roundabout as well as along the perimeter on the Nile side of the square.
On my first two visits I walk through trying to take in everything around me. It seems smaller than it appeared on television. It’s mostly men in the square. Some are selling tea, others books, flags and political paraphernalia. I appear to be the only foreigner. I stop to ‘take a call on my mobile’ so that I can linger and look around in more comfort. Everyone is looking at me. I decide it is time to move on.
In subsequent visits I feel more brave, but not so much as to take out my camera. I lean against the barricades and look into the centre of the Square and reflect on what has happened here. I am glad that I came to Cairo.
On my final visit to the Square I venture from my usual path around the sidewalk perimeter and into the centre which would normally be full of traffic. A young man approaches me and offers a pamphlet. It’s in Arabic and I decline with a shrug saying, “Bittikallum Arabiya shwaya.” (I only speak a little Arabic). He also carries three styrofoam cups with paintbrushes and asks if he can paint on my hand. He paints an Egyptian Flag with I ❤ Egypt. I give him a tip and ask if it is ‘safe’ to take pictures of the square, but he doesn’t understand. As I walk away a man on a motorcycle follows me, doing loops towards me and then away, and back again. I see a female western tourist with a guide happily snapping photos. I decide to quickly take one photo – the only photo of Egypt not from my hotel balcony. Mr. Motorcycle man is on his away-loop and I decide to leave Tahrir Square.
I never feel unsafe in Cairo, but I feel uneasy and always watched, but not ‘watched by the state’. There’s a tenseness that I find difficult to put into words. In a strange way, I feel like I am in a 1960s movie set in Eastern Europe during the cold war. It’s the closest I can come to describing how I feel. It’s a feeling that I am comfortable with for six days, but no longer.
Update: Two days after leaving Cairo, the authorities negotiated with the protestors to remove the barricade and reopen Tahrir Square to traffic.
Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world. – Scott Cameron