Tahrir Square was a sea of Egyptian flags – they appeared on pins, children’s faces, packets of tissues, even one lady’s toenails. On our first evening in Cairo we found ourselves gravitating down there, not sure what to expect from the site that had filled all our TV screens for much of February, following the start of the revolution on 25th January.
Of course, it’s easy for a tourist to say – not having lived through the fear and danger of the revolution and the government’s reprisals – but there’s no getting around it: the atmosphere when we were there was one of carnival celebration.
‘Enjoy the revolution’ instructed one graffitied sign that filled the whole of a building side. ‘Welcome to Egypt,’ people called as we passed by, ‘Mubarak is gone.’ Egyptian families gathered on the central roundabout drinking tea bought from street vendors and taking photos of each other on mobile phones. Car horns wailed and teenagers haggled for T-shirts with ‘25th January’ printed across them in bold colours.
In an arty, student-filled café across the river in Zamalek, we leafed through a free magazine celebrating the revolution and all things Egyptian. ‘Egyptians are absolutely invincible,’ declared the editor’s note, ‘especially when we are all working together as one.’ The doodled artwork on the walls, left behind by other customers, reflected a similar attitude.
The normal tourist sites – even at Giza – were relatively quiet, and we were the only people haggling for a sunset felucca at the Dok Dok landing. Later we ate garlicky hummus, stuffed vine leaves and tagine in a smoke-filled restaurant, where locals chatted animatedly and the TVs showed in-depth analysis of the military operations in Libya.
Drinking Stellas in the Cap d’or in Alexandria, with Edith Piaf blaring in the background, we got talking to Rames, a middle-aged Christian Egyptian who wasn’t joining in with the celebrations. ‘Egypt needs a nice dictator,’ he insisted, ‘and Mubarak was a nice dictator.’ Having lived his whole life in Alexandria, he now believed he would have to leave the country.
But a few nights later, we were taken for tea in a market in a crumbling Greek town house by diving instructor Amir. As old men played backgammon and sucked on sweet-smelling sheesha pipes around us, he talked animatedly about how there is plenty of money in Egypt – but under Mubarak it went round and round in one small circle. He was feeling more hopeful, but was sceptical about how much would really change.
Outside the children’s library in the wonderful Bibliotheca Alexandrina were models of Tahrir Square, complete with tiny protestors and tanks.
Returning to Cairo, our taxi driver had to let us out at Tahrir Square, where a demonstration of construction workers was taking over the streets. Hitching our backpacks further up our shoulders, we prepared to walk the rest of the way to our hotel in downtown. Egyptians have certainly developed a taste for revolution – and the atmosphere of optimism is infectious.