Mohamed Mahmoud is a small street that branches from Tahrir Square; the American University in Cairo stands on the corner. Two years ago, the police violently dispersed a dwindling sit-in there by a few dozen relatives of people killed during the uprising against Mubarak. The policemen were caught on cell phones dragging dead bodies to the curb like bags of garbage. Young people poured back into Tahrir Square and spent four days fighting the police, who fell back along Mohamed Mahmoud, protecting one of the avenues to the Ministry of Interior. (The Muslim Brotherhood, concerned that the violence would derail the upcoming parliamentary elections, prohibited its members from taking part.) For perhaps the last time, street protests by groups that identified as revolutionary had an impact on the political process. They demanded that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces set a date for presidential elections and for stepping down from power. The SCAF agreed.
Forty-seven young men died; hundreds were injured. Police snipers aimed for the face, and many protesters lost an eye. For weeks afterwards, eye-patches appeared on statues in downtown Cairo. As with all the thousands killed since January 2011, no one in the police or the military has been held responsible.
The authorities cleaned up Tahrir Square ahead of yesterday’s anniversary. They white-washed the layers of graffiti on government buildings, erasing the accusations against generals that they are traitors and murderers. They put in new turf, flowers, flags, a review stand, and a small marble podium, with a plaque that – under the names of two interim government officials and a general – promised the imminent arrival of a memorial statue. It did not specify what was being remembered.
On television a few nights before, Ahmad Harara, a young dentist blinded in both eyes in separate clashes, shamed a TV presenter into reading out the names and ages of all the Mohamed Mahmoud dead. ‘All this?’ the presenter blurted out, before going through the list, which he said was ‘heart-breaking’. Harara pointed out that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was part of the army leadership that oversaw the killings. ‘Are those men, who are still arresting and torturing people now,’ he asked, ‘going to hold the memorial service for the people they killed?’
On Monday, the square was surrounded with tanks and barbed wire. Officials scuttled in and out for a rapid ceremony with no audience.
Later that morning, people milled around the refurbished square. On the grass in the middle, TV crews conducted interviews. A group of men were talking. ‘It’s all their fault,’ said a man in a nice shirt with a bluetooth earpiece. He meant the Muslim Brotherhood. ‘They stole the revolution.’ One young man told another: ‘I should be able to say that something’s wrong without being called a terrorist and a Brother.’ There was disagreement over how bad Mubarak actually was. A self-identified leftist talked about the need for transitional justice. ‘I didn’t go down into the street for Islam,’ he said. ‘I went down against oppression.’ I stood on the edge, wondering how many in the crowd were informers.
I also took a few pictures of the wall of the university on Mohamed Mahmoud. For two years it has been covered with a series changing murals, memorialising the dead as they fall: football fans, Coptic protesters, a professor from al-Azhar University. Some were portrayed as angels; some as figures in ancient Egyptian friezes. There were even strangely beautiful portraits of the battered faces of famous victims. Twenty-four hours later the entire wall had been covered with an ugly red-and-pink camouflage pattern.
The podium was defaced almost immediately: a state newspaper accused Communists and Islamists. By yesterday it was a pile of rubble, covered in graffiti, some of it about al-Sisi’s mother. Protesters showed up carrying fake coffins and giant black-and-white flags with the portraits of dead friends. The put up a banner over Mohamed Mahmoud: ‘The Brothers, the Army and the Old Regime Not Wanted.’ They chased pro-army groups away. They took a break to watch the Egypt-Ghana match on television (Egypt lost). There were the usual heroic photographs and celebratory tweets. This was the first significant protest against the military-backed government that couldn’t be blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood. It was a symbolic victory in the battle for control of the stories and places of the revolution. But again and again protesters treat symbolic victories as real ones, as if holding a street or a square in central Cairo meant holding some real power.