Full Circle On Tahrir Square As History Comes In Gulps
Fresh from Northern Ireland and the aftermath of the Portuguese revolution, I arrived in the Middle East in June of 1976, and turned up in Cairo to cover one of Lebanon's interminable civil war ceasefire negotiations.
But after a dinner of unwashed vegetables in a local restaurant, I came down with gastroenteritis – "enteric fever" is chiselled on to many a Raj headstone – and lay night after night with rats in my stomach and sweat dripping on to the bed linen, and, on my first walk outside, collapsed on the concrete bench of a bus station amid a canyon of traffic, and a square of broiling iron overhead walkways and fuming, shouting Egyptians.
And there I lay unconscious for five hours. No one came to my help. I woke in pain, determined that the Arab world must be a harsh and cruel place. I even composed my letter of resignation from the post of Middle East correspondent of The Times – after a mere week in the job.
The sheer filth of the Cairo bus station, the smell of urine, the awful, hot concrete Stalinism of the Mugamma building behind me – a Stakhanovite monstrosity wherein I would seek extended visas, day after day – convinced me that I could not work in Sadat's foetid dictatorship. Self-pity was the name of my disease. Tahrir was the name of the square.
Almost 36 years later, I have now prowled this place like a home, its tens of thousands of courageous democrats demanding an Egypt which I – and they – could never have dreamed of. Indeed, most of the young men and women who approached every foreigner and shouted "Welcome to Egypt!" were not even alive when I lay on that concrete bench. The bus station is now a building site for a new hotel – used for lavatories these past three weeks, the smell of urine is still there – the Mugamma, as terrible as ever, stands empty, its legions of civil servants prevented from entering the square by the revolutionaries of the new Egypt.
History has come in great gulps, sometimes bloody, almost always brave, inspiring, terrible. I had come full circle. Thank heavens I never sent that letter of resignation to The Times. I guess reporters, like nations, grow up. Perspective is a rare instinct. What was newspaper reporting three and a half decades ago – the dictatorship of Sadat, soon to be followed by the even more depressing dictatorship of Mubarak – turned this week into a widescreen epic, a cast of millions, an imperishable story of freedom against state repression.
Strange, though, how the world of films gets it right. In The Third Man, there's a wonderful moment when two British officers are waiting beside a night-time wall in post-war Vienna in the hope of capturing the mass murderer Harry Lime. From the shadows comes not Lime but a weird creature holding balloons. Would the British soldiers like to buy a balloon, he asks softly. A couple of weeks ago, I was choking my way through Champillion Street, just off Tahrir Square, with Cecilia Udden of Swedish television, both of us sick with tear gas fumes, the place vibrating with the stun guns of the state security police, when a robed figure emerged from a side street, approaching us through the gloom, dangling something in his hand. "Papyrus?" he asked plaintively. "Want picture of Rameses the Second?"
Great are the contrasts of history, and not always comfortable ones. Talking to fleeing British tourists at Cairo airport, my colleague Don Macintyre (he who looks like Jack Hawkins playing General Allenby in Lawrence of Arabia) interviewed a British couple. But when he asked their names, the woman declined to be identified because she worked for "a government department" in Britain. Yet in Tahrir, Egyptians in danger of instant arrest by Mubarak's thugs proudly gave their full names to us, anxious to demonstrate their belief in freedom and contempt for the police. What does that tell us about ourselves? Anti-Mubarakite Egypt teaches us one thing. Cameronite Britain quite another.
And then there was the man-who-would-be-king, Omar Suleiman, chatting to journalists on Egyptian television, confident, amiable, avuncular. Then he suddenly warned the reporters that "bats out of the night are terrorising the Egyptian people". Was the man cracked?
Back in the 1930s, my dad, Bill, deputy borough treasurer of Birkenhead, discovered that a friend had been incarcerated in what was then called a "lunatic asylum". Fisk to the rescue. Bill turned up at the asylum, listened to his friend's rational explanation that there had been some terrible mistake, and immediately offered to take him to the health authorities and clear up this ghastly mistake. "But I can't leave," Bill's friend suddenly announced, sticking his fingers into a nearby electrical plug. "You see, I'm a light bulb – and if you take me away, all the lights in the asylum will go out!"
So is Omar Suleiman a light bulb? How very Western of me to ask. In Arabic poetry, too, where metaphor is as distinctive as it was in early 17th-century English poetry, the expression "bat out of the night" almost always refers to a frightening creature which emerges only in darkness, blind in its capacity to instill fear and terror. Suleiman was almost certainly talking about the thieves and arsonists who have attacked Egyptian homes by night – many, although not all, of the "bats" have been plain-clothes policemen, a distinction Suleiman naturally did not make – and thus Arabic literary tradition folded into the rhetoric of a dying dictatorship. Was it really dying, we asked ourselves these past three weeks? So did the demonstrators of Tahrir Square, because revolutions, uprisings, "intifadas", political explosions, have neither rules nor timetables. Like every page of history, staring into the looking glass, we have to wait patiently for valour and blood and betrayal. On Thursday night we waited for Mubarak to leave. But this old man turned on his own people with a speech of such narcissism and self-delusion that it took the breath away. Here was the genuine light bulb, the real "bat out of the night".
Last night the bat flew away.