The body sways slightly in the breeze, its heavy bulk suspended from the lamppost above by a length of thick cord. Next to this effigy – of Mubarak, of SCAF, of the lingering corruption and instability in Egypt, the choice is yours – a hand-written poster proclaims that “the revolution will not stay unfinished”. Below the sign a gaggle of bearded Salafis and veiled women wave banners, while Islamic chanting blares from loudspeakers around the square.
This is Cairo’s Tahrir Square, one year on. The same Tahrir Square where thousands of Egyptians gathered on 25 January 2011 to overthrow their tyrannical leader; the same Tahrir Square where government forces opened fire on unarmed civilians and where street battles were waged under a cloud of tear gas. Now, more than 14 months later, under the swaying mannequin and in front of the protesting Salafists a group of fair-skinned backpackers are posing for a photograph – tourists.
This is my first time in Cairo, and although the noise, chaos and heat are all as I expected – as are the lingering smells of cardamom-laced coffee and traffic fumes that pervade the city – I am surprised to find that mine is one of only a handful of Western faces I am able to spot in the teeming masses of the city. Where have all the tourists gone?
Although the official statistics say that tourist numbers fell a third in 2011, the deserted archaeological sites and echoing hotel corridors suggest that the true number may be much greater. The well-beaten track from Luxor to Sharm el Sheikh is all but deserted; a few sorrowful looking tour buses sit churning up the dust in the car park of Cairo’s Pyramids. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office still advises against travel to many parts of the country, and many of my friends and colleagues looked at me slightly oddly when I informed them I was intending to go to Egypt – indeed, during my time in Cairo several people were killed in demonstrations in front of the Defence Ministry.
But despite this fear of instability – or perhaps because of it – Egypt has seen an increase in young, idealistic, thrill-seeking travellers who are inspired by the events of January and February 2011 and want to come and see for themselves the site where it all happened. Tahrir Square is no longer just a place for demonstrations and sit-ins; it is a must-see sight on Egypt’s new Revolutionary Trail.
One of Cairo’s biggest ‘attractions’ (if I can be forgiven for using that word) on this new tourist trail is its abundant and flourishing street art. Prior to the revolution it was almost unheard of to see anti-establishment slogans decorating the walls of the city – but now the political protest that died out in Tahrir Square has taken on a new medium on the streets and walls of Cairo and Alexandria.
“It’s hard to separate the graffiti community from the Egyptian revolution and all the political events that have unfolded since,” says blogger Soraya Morayef, which is why graffiti has become one of the must-sees for Cairo’s new generation of intrepid tourists – whether that be to see works by famous names such as Ganzeer, Keizer and Alaa Awad, or witness the evolution of the No Walls Project or the Martyrs’ Mural on Mohamed Mahmoud Street.
I weave my way through the traffic in Tahrir Square – smaller in real life than it seemed on news broadcasts – and lose myself in the crowd of protesters in the centre of the roundabout. Mohammed, my Egyptian friend, shakes his head sadly at the sight of the Salafis and lets out a barely audible sigh.
“They have hijacked our revolution,” he says, “this country will never be free.”
It is a surprising sentiment, but one expressed by many of my Egyptian friends who feel they have been betrayed by the very system they fought so hard against. And yet it is because of them that Egypt has been put back onto the world map; because of them that Egypt is no longer silent.
Despite the frustration and stagnation evident in Egyptian society, there is also a lingering sense of pride: a sense that collectively, they, Egypt, stood up to authority and tyranny and sacrificed themselves for what they believed. Cairo, for all its dirt, squalor, fumes and humanity, feels like a city elated; a city of dreams.
Standing on the corner of Mohammed Mahmoud Street, watching the setting sun dip behind the banners and flags in Tahrir Square, I can’t help but feel infected by some of that elation, and feel that I, too, have been a part of Egypt’s history. But on the wall behind me stare the painted faces of Mubarak and General Tantawi, distorted into one. The message is clear: different face, same system.
The Revolutionary Trail may have begun in Cairo, but it is a long and difficult road, and the end is not yet in sight.