It’s strange how quickly a revolution becomes ordinary. For decades, Egypt was the quintessential Middle East police state, but now the sight of freshly sprayed ‘Fuck you Mubarak’ graffiti seems normal. Cairo’s famous traffic gridlock is long gone; the shops are shuttered. Amid the protestors in Tahrir Square, dozens of young and middle-aged men are picking up rubbish and piling it into the scorched carcass of a police truck. ‘Why are we cleaning the streets?’ says one old man. ‘Because this is our city now.’
It took just a few hours of fighting on Friday afternoon for the fearsome police state to melt away entirely. In its absence, some people are directing traffic themselves. A boy strolls past, carrying a looted riot shield; young guys swagger around town with baseball bats and one veiled woman has a bizarrely huge chrome-studded truncheon. Outside my hotel, a group of youths armed with iron bars have set up an impromptu patrol to deter thieves. This is vigilante security in a city without police.
‘It’s very safe,’ says one of the hotel staff. ‘Have a nice day.’
Maybe Mubarak, a former air force commander, thought sending two F16s and an attack helicopter to buzz the crowds in Tahrir Square would cow them into obeying the curfew. The opposite was true. In fact, Mubarak not only misread the public mood but the army’s mood too. The warplanes were not carrying bombs; the machine guns on the tanks were not loaded with cartridges, and their cannons remained capped.
The soldiers were not going to fire on their own. With the police so loathed, this conscript army had turned into an object of love. Over and over, the crowd chanted, ‘The people, the army, with one hand,’ offering the soldiers bread and flowers. Soldiers in turn helped protestors on to tanks and embraced them. Parents photographed their toddlers in front of tanks. At one point, to huge applause, an army officer was carried aloft by the crowd, punching the air as he screamed along with the slogans.
This week has turned the most unlikely people into revolutionaries. The idea of spontaneous protest is usually a fiction, but this was the genuine thing. There were no leaders, little organisation. No one thinks twice about giving a full name, about being photographed. No one is afraid any more.