What is ‘The Square’ that Beat Mubarak?

It started on the 25th of January, 2011. All that I’ve been writing about on Religion Dispatches in the past 18 days—it all started then. The creation of ‘the Square’; something that we cannot describe as simply Tahrir Square in the centre of Cairo, nor a ‘revolution’ in the assumed meaning of the word. A revolution has leaders—the Square did not. A revolution usually has huge amounts of violence from those revolting—the Square did not.

But where it counts for the people of the Square—a revolution means that the current ruler goes, due to the power of the people. And go he did—on the 11th of February, 2011, a little after 6pm, the vice president of Egypt announced that the president had stepped down, and that Egypt was now under the authority of a military council. That same council declared shortly thereafter that they had no desire to keep power, and that they would take the pertinent steps thereafter.

At so many points in the last 18 days, those in the Square could have turned to wanton violence. And it would not have been out of the ordinary—they’d been pushed so far. But despite the provocations, despite the brutality deployed against them, despite the martyrs among those who protested, the Square, whether in Tahrir Square, around the country, or indeed, around the world, never succumbed to violence. The people would not be pushed over the edge, as I so often thought they would be, with the country suffering greatly as a result.

But the people showed that the human spirit remains indomitable—that they would not choose despair over commitment or cowardice over bravery. I’ve been struck so many times over the last few weeks how well-behaved the people of the Square have been—whether its been the young men and women searching those who came into Tahrir, the youth manning the check-points in the neighborhoods, or the many others that could have taken advantage of the uncertainty of the situation, but didn’t.

The Square has redefined what the word ‘revolution’ can actually mean, because it defied the stereotypes and the expectations of so many—even those who supported it. The Square existed in the efforts of those inside Egypt who brought medicine into Tahrir; it existed in the efforts of those overseas who spared no effort in raised awareness about the situation; and most of all, it existed in the innocent lives that were lost.

Egypt now has a huge challenge in front of it—one that may well be larger than the one they have just overcome. The expectation on the part of many is that all of the problems of Egypt will now be solved—but disappointment will almost surely follow. Yet one hopes that the people of Egypt have shown themselves what is possible when people work together for a common good. They now hold a great responsibility, and they have earned the right to exercise it.

H.A. Hellyer is Fellow of the University of Warwick (UK) and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (USA). He lives between Cairo, Egypt, and Oxford, UK. www.hahellyer.com