Originally appeared in The Atlantic.
CAIRO, Egypt — The last week in Tahrir has taught a number of cruel lessons, chief among them that the old Marxist chronology of tragedy-then-farce is severely out of date. As my friend Graham Harman has observed, the spectacle of 21st-century camelborne cavalry charges against peaceful demonstrators is itself a blend of Pythonesque absurdity and profound evil. That tragicomedy happened in a single afternoon. What could possibly serve as a second act?
As of Monday, the Square’s population had dwindled perceptibly. Now and then, one witnessed minor altercations when protesters suspected each other of infiltration. By the next day, these fears vanished — not because of any lack of infiltrators, but because the massive crowds made policing Tahrir impossible. The Egyptian military still mans the entrances, but only halfheartedly. This weekend, one had to brave a crush of demonstrators to get inside, and endure the danger that all the pushing and shoving would knock you into a coil of concertina wire. Now, almost every entrance to the square is open, and the crowds are huge and unmanageable. Infiltrators come and go as they please.
These crowds are a blessing. Until recently, the government could paint the demonstrators as foreign-led subversives. Now, Egyptians know the subversion is real but homegrown. Yet increasingly, the blessing seems mixed. Of the newcomers to the square, few are hard-core revolutionaries. Instead, they are tourists from Cairo and beyond, snapping photos and gawking at the remarkable spectacle of their president ridiculed, hanged in effigy, and taunted in a venue where he was once scarcely mentioned in an unflattering way. The square was once mobilized for self-defense, and at the rattle of a piece of sheet metal, a hundred men and women would sprint toward the threat, ready to be maimed for the cause of freedom. Now it takes ten minutes to cover the same distance, and you’d have to push past vendors of popcorn and novelty sunglasses to get there.
The protesters have tried to keep momentum by spilling south toward Parliament. But Parliament is not enough, and everyone knows it. The two sites commonly mentioned for the protesters’ next step are the president’s palace and the state TV building, which in January was attacked but not seized. During my years in Cairo, before any of the recent troubles, the state TV building was always heavily guarded and assumed to be a vital prize for anyone attempting a coup. It remains a forbidding target, with snipers in the windows and tanks on the streets. If the protesters mobilize to march there, expect violence.
It falls now to the protesters to prove that their revolution is alive and hasn’t turned into a mere carnival. Outside the square, Egyptians are complaining. The complainers include even some who regard the protesters as heroes. “They should go home. Already they’ve made a change, and it can’t be reversed,” said Wanil, an Egyptian engineer outside the square. “Mubarak got his 70 billion dollars, and maybe that’s the price we pay for being too lazy to get him out of power for 30 years. But whoever is president next, if he takes even one pound, we will eat him.”
Elsewhere one sees strife due to lost wages, and the inconvenience of an eight o’clock curfew. Outside the headquarters of Omar Effendi, the Egyptian version of Macy’s, about a hundred men rioted because they had missed pay during store closures last week. The protesters, of course, say that the blame falls on Mubarak. They echo Trotsky, who wrote that blaming revolutionaries for economic woes is “like accusing a newborn of the birth-pangs of the mother who brought him into the world.”
Is the revolution stillborn, effectively smothered by the gawking crowds of Tahrir? There is plenty of reason to doubt that it is. Reports of riots and burning government buildings elsewhere in Egypt are a sign that it lives on. One waits, though, to see whether this revolutionary baby still has enough air in its lungs to scream to have its navel-strings severed and be allowed to crawl forward. Tomorrow, after Friday prayers, will be an interesting time.