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Days and nights of a revolution

The Egyptians mind their dates perhaps more than anyone else — and they show that by naming places and events by them. Amitava Sanyal reports.

world Updated: Feb 15, 2011 02:00 IST
Amitava Sanyal

The Egyptians mind their dates perhaps more than anyone else — and they show that by naming places and events by them. The bridges linking the north of Zemalek island on the Nile are named July 26 (when Gamal Nasser seized the Suez Canal in 1956) and May 15 (now, does it mark the 1948 Arab-Israeli War or the Corrective Revolution of 1971?).

Just when you think you’ve mastered the dates with a little help from Wiki, you come across the October 6 bridge (launch of 1973’s disastrous Yom Kippur War against Israel).

And the tradition continues. The latest revolution — the January 25 one, which started on National Police Day — is not the country’s first Facebook mobilisation. That was the April 6 Youth Movement of 2008, launched to support a workers’ strike in El-Mahalla El-Kubra to the north of Cairo.

Football under curfew

Egyptians don’t mind curfews. The country has lived continuously under a state of emergency for three decades, but nobody can recall a curfew imposed before this January 25. Kids man the neighbourhood watches. At a bylane off Aziz Abaza Street, close to the chancery of the Indian embassy, a boy not a day older than 10 removes the roadblocks for us.

“If it had been curfew hours in Tamil Nadu,” says an embassy employee, “I’d locked myself in.” Thankfully it isn’t — and people and cars, though few, can be seen on several streets of Cairo.

In Alexandria, a city of more than 4 million people, lovers stroll the Mumbai-like seafront close to midnight. Near the Al-Qaed Ibrahim mosque, a centre of protests during the day, a pack of eight kids play street football at midnight.

Gauging the official mood

The Egyptian state TV comically conveyed the uneasy, unsure official mood on Thursday the 10th, the evening everyone expected Hosni Mubarak to step down. Contrary to expectations, Mubarak came out with a much delayed and patronisingly cheeky speech.

Before the speech the mood at Tahrir was ecstatic. A peppy concert by a Cairene band called Downtown had added to the electricity in the air. The state TV, for the first time in a fortnight, started showing zoom-ins of the chanting crowd and irreverent banners.

One of them read: “Excuse me Mr Mubarak, you have run out of talk-time.”

When the speech began a hush descended on the one-million-plus crowd. They remained in a disbelieving silence even as Mubarak declared he wouldn’t step down immediately. But when he started saying “In my youth, I have served the country…”, the crowd went berserk. A massive roar of ‘Erhaal, erhaal’ (Leave, leave) rose up.

The state TV quickly zoomed out and stayed that way. That is, till almost 24 hours later, when the despot finally departed.