Photo Essay: One Year On In Cairo

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The first anniversary of Egypt’s 25 January uprisings just passed in Cairo — and Tahrir Square was more like a political carnival than the riot so many had anticipated. Even on 28 January, a year on from the deadliest day of the entire revolution, no protesters threw stones and the military did not fire tear gas or swing batons. The media was left to replace their lens caps and write about "underlying tensions" and "the challenges ahead" instead.

In the absence of violence, however, Cairenes had a chance to reflect on their losses. On Qasr El Nil Bridge, thousands joined together to pray and grieve for those killed there, some of whom had been praying on the bridge moments before they died at the hands of security forces. All had been attempting to get to Tahrir Square, 200 odd metres away, on a day when hundreds died.

Photo: David Hollier

Down in Tahrir, there’s a real hunger for a particular kind of justice for the old heads of the "former" regime, especially the one here who still has presidential power — that’s Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi (left). Former president Mubarak (centre), currently alternates between being on trial and on various types of life support. On his right is the former Minister for the Interior Habib al Adly, often described as "the most hated man in Egypt" for overseeing a police culture where torture was endemic.

Tahrir Square is plastered with signs, banners, posters and graffiti, most of which revel in the freedom to ridicule those who for so long had tied the public’s tongue with savage censorship. A year after Mubarak was forced to step down, the novelty of this expression has not worn off — crowds close in on each new notice, photographing their favourites and sending them on with their phones.

Photo: David Hollier

One of the features of post-revolutionary Egypt is the explosion of street vendors. Once a permit — with the mandatory backsheesh (bribes) — was required to sell in public. Now you can buy anything in the square, from tracksuits to sweet potatos, from bandages to vuvazelas, which have been mercifully unpopular.

Moving through the Tahrir throng builds an appetite, and this enterprising Egyptian is happy to oblige with his assortment of nuts and seeds.

Photo: David Hollier

One of Tahrir’s last surviving specimens of flora gets a protective cover of defiant posters. Almost all of these in some way call for the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) to hand power over to a civilian government — much faster than they are slowly doing.

Photo: David Hollier

For any event in or near the square, follow the local kids for the prime viewing position. These guys had climbed up to the base of one of the bronze lions that flank Qasr El Nil bridge on the Tahrir side of the Nile. For all the grief and passion being expressed at this event, these kids were in festive form and more than happy to take centre stage.

Photo: David Hollier

As the crowd built in anticipation of the commemoration prayers for those killed here on 28 January, this mother of one of the victims came forward to speak. She called for the end to military rule in the name of her son. Overcome with emotion, she falls into the consoling arms of friends and family.

Photo: David Hollier

Press gather on the north side of the bridge. The state media was thrown into disarray last week when several high-profile staff led protests at the Government’s media headquarters, Maspero, over the network’s anti-revolutionary, pro-SCAF bias. Unlike several government institutions, the Maspero building has not been walled off from the public by SCAF, and protesters are targeting it as a potential focus for ongoing demands for free speech.

After this event, almost all of those gathered marched along the Nile to Maspero and called on State TV to hold SCAF accountable.

Photo: David Hollier

The imam from Cairo’s oldest mosque, Al Azar, addressed the crowd before leading the prayers. Unsurprisingly he spoke forcefully against the SCAF, labeling them "traitors of the revolution". But when he used the same language to denounce the Muslim Brotherhood, tension rippled through the crowd, at least some of whom voted for the Brotherhood.

It is impossible to draw precise lines of division between the three major forces vying for power in Egypt. These are the SCAF who still rule, the Muslim Brotherhood whose Freedom and Justice Party took their leading position in the new parliament last week, and the Salafis, the hard-line Islamists who surprised everyone by gaining 29 per cent of the votes in the same parliament. (The secular parties are represented, but their small share of the vote restricts their influence.)

After almost 80 years in opposition, and technically illegal for most of that, the Brotherhood have a reputation for saying whatever their audience wants to hear. This won’t be so easy when in they’re in power, and the harsh words of the imam are almost certainly a taste of things to come, presuming the new constitution to be written in February enshrines freedom of speech. 

Photo: David Hollier

By the end of the imam’s speech, the women had gathered along the southern side of the gathering in readiness for the prayers that were to follow. At this point they are hearing murmurs of dissatisfaction from some of the more pious men who want them to move to the back of the gathering. "It is normal in Islam for there to be nothing in front of the men praying," one female protester told me when she saw me looking perplexed.

Photo: David Hollier

All wait patiently for a handful of men who have taken it upon themselves to direct the women to the rear.

Photo: David Hollier

The imam clarifies some of the points of his speech before leading the prayers. He is from Al Azar, the religious institution whose mosque and university in Cairo form the foundation of their Sufi-influenced Sunni practices and teachings. Renowned for their tolerant strain of Islam, the organisation has been targeted by the more fundamentalist Salafis. Precisely how much influence the Salafis have in Al Azhar remains the subject of ongoing and often fierce dispute.

Photo: David Hollier

Cairo’s often cacophonous noise fades, the crowd pauses in silence, and the prayers commence. Many of those close to the victims wept openly as they lifted their hands skywards and called their god’s name.

Photo: David Hollier

The open and devout practice of faith has about it the quality of spectacle, as was announced by the urgency of every photographer to be in position for this precise instant. For whole moments, the clicking of cameras was the only sound accompanying the prostrate mourners. When such practice occurs in honour of young men killed by their own security forces, however, the mood passes beyond the grasp of cameras.

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