The unpredictability of revolution
- 2 March 2014
- From the section Magazine
Three years after the start of the Arab Spring, Egypt's capital city is feeling the impact of the revolution in some surprising ways.
At the chaotic height of Egypt's revolution against the brilliantined autocrat Hosni Mubarak, every single member of the uniformed security forces suddenly disappeared from the streets.
It felt like the last word in disorder - a police state without actual policemen.
They are long since back of course, not bringing order exactly, but presiding pompously over a reduced level of chaos.
You can watch as officers allow a teenager balancing a huge wooden tray of fresh flatbreads on his head to cycle the wrong way down a one way street with his hands in his pockets.
Then a motorcyclist will follow - presumably on the grounds that a motorcycle is just a cycle with a motor on it.
A motorist will then attempt the same manoeuvre - what after all is a car but two motorbikes connected in parallel? Only then will an officer officiously intervene - the police have their limits.
The seething streets of Cairo are clogged and chaotic, and pedestrians and mopeds swarm dangerously around the larger, slower moving vehicles like electrons in a chemistry diagram.
The signs of renewed life are everywhere.
Flatbed carts drawn by wiry little donkeys can be seen plodding along in the downtown traffic. They were banned under Hosni Mubarak, presumably because they reminded him of Egypt's wretched rural poverty. Well, that and the donkey droppings everywhere.
Big-bottomed sheep carcasses hang outside butchers' shops in more prosperous suburbs, sporting the long, broad, pink stripes of the slaughterhouses where they were processed.
They look as though they died wearing cheerful winceyette pyjamas, but they are a sign that, for well-off Egyptians at least, a sense of prosperity has replaced the uncertainty. This time three years ago the banks were shut and the cash-dispensing machines were empty.
There are suddenly more foreign tourists about too - a sprightly group of middle-aged American women stopped me in the garden of our hotel. Would I mind taking a photo of them?
Egypt feels as though it has lived through endless ages of political change since the fall of Mubarak, but it really has only been three years.
There have been three constitutional referendums for a start - the latest of which produced a document so comprehensive and so inclusive that it contains a pledge to protect the employment rights of people of restricted growth.
And there have been countless rounds of parliamentary voting - the results of which have been annulled - and a presidential election which produced the first elected leader in Egyptian history, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi.
He was removed from the presidential palace and installed in prison by the army last year. And after a fierce crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organisations, a kind of stability has been established.
Most Egyptians give the credit for that stability to the armed forces and in particular to their leader, Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.
He is credited with restoring national pride and with vanquishing lots of vague but sinister conspiracies in which Egyptians believed the Islamists were going to carve up this vast and ancient country and join the pieces willy nilly to neighbouring Muslim states.
Hardly anyone in Egypt had heard of the Field Marshal until two years ago - and even now very little is known of his early life or of his views on how to tackle Egypt's suffocating problems of poverty, overcrowding and unemployment. And yet he is now widely celebrated as a saviour of the nation.
That says something about Egyptian political culture, of course, and the underlying hankering for a strong leader, preferably in a high-ranking officer's uniform.
But you can already buy chocolate frames with portraits of al-Sisi laser printed on to a chocolate canvas within, and you do not get to that point without having a degree of charisma. He is delicious, by the way.
The problem is that very few of the demonstrators who first bravely took to the streets to topple Mubarak would have hoped or guessed that three years on, Egypt would be back where it started - and indeed where it has always been in modern times - with the Army in control of national life and a senior officer poised for high office.
Revolutions, of course, are notoriously unpredictable.
It used to be fashionable to quote the Chinese leader Zhou Enlai saying in 1972 that the events of the French Revolution of 1789 were too recent to be properly interpreted.
In fact that was a misunderstanding and he was actually talking about the Paris riots of the time, and thus offering a commonplace observation of the news rather than a slice of mystical Chinese sagacity.
But if he had said what everyone thought he said, he would have been right. Revolutions can be a very long game.
Egyptians, like the rest of us, watched this week as Ukraine took the first steps down a road that Egypt has already travelled, and no-one knows how that will turn out either.
What we do know from Egypt is that revolutions sometimes have a way of surprising the revolutionary.
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