Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and we’re being served mint tea by Ahmed, a street trader. Around us taxis, cars, minibuses and buses, in different degrees of decay or restoration, hoot and zip around the never-ending stream of people.
The only evidence of Tahrir Square’s dramatic moment in history last year is the larger-than-life graffiti art all over the streets fanning out from the square: Mubarak aka Hitler with his iconic moustache; revolutionaries bearing arms; tanks and headless puppets on a string.
This is all that stands witness to the 18 days in February last year when the people occupied the square and revolutionised Egypt… Other than that there’s an eeriness to the casual and relaxed way people go about their lives. Street traders serving tea and replenishing sheeshas, selling trinkets to passing tourists, stuffing the daily newspaper through the window of an impatient commuter.
I am back in Tahrir Square, on holiday, this time acting as tour guide to my husband revisiting the three hectic and scary days I spent in Cairo in early February last year, producing a piece for M-Net’s Carte Blanche – the only SA TV crew to film the revolution live. It was the week of the planned Million Man March.
I was asked to produce a story because of the many previous visits I had made to Egypt over the past decade, making programmes on the pyramids, often featuring Indiana Jones wannabe Dr Zahi Hawass, head of Egyptian Antiquities.
I stop and scan the familiar buildings – the landmark former Nile Hilton, now in the process of being transformed into a Ritz-Carlton hotel, standing sentinel next to the river at the western side of the square; the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, low and graceful, guarding the northern entrance; opposite, the ugly Mugamma al-Tahrir government building whose architecture reeks of Soviet-style concrete oppression, in stark contrast to the elegant palace of Khawaga Gianaclis across the street, home to the American University in Cairo old campus.
What gives the lie to this scene of tranquillity is the burnt-out hulk of the National Democratic Party headquarters which I last saw, smouldering, 15 months ago after demonstrators torched it – the most potent symbol of the fall of the Mubarak regime.
Accompanied by presenter Chantal Rutter, who had lived in Cairo, so also knew her way around, we camped out in the Four Seasons Hotel about 1km south of the square.
Apart from journalists all the major hotels were empty and boarded up and the area had the feel of a war zone as we stepped out of the lobby and made our way to the square for the first time. Our local camera crew were wary, knowing that Mubarak’s security police could swoop on them at any time and lock them up.
It was Tuesday, February 1, around 2pm. On the great lion statues of Qasr el-Nil Bridge, Cairenes were perched waving flags and banners, shouting slogans.
Wherever you looked you saw young, old, poor, middle class moving as one towards the square, which was filling up with protesters who arrived daily to bolster the full-time occupiers, numbering in the thousands, who had taken up their positions the week before with the silent acquiescence of the army. The mood was all love and peace, and all religions.
Our mission: to talk to some protesters, film the action, record the views of opposing factions and a government representative, then edit it for live transmission to the Randburg studios that Sunday.
We interviewed Amr Moussa, former Arab League secretary-general and Mubarak’s foreign minister in the 1990s, whose face, it would turn out, would be plastered all over Cairo next time around as a presidential candidate. He was the voice of moderation and compromise, a credible leader who claimed to speak for Arabs throughout the Middle East.
The day after the Million Man protest, Tahrir Square was under attack.
Mubarak’s security forces moved in and, while the army looked on, the square became a battleground, leaving 13 dead and 900 injured – so Moussa’s words of optimism sounded unlikely, if not hollow.
After two days of filming, Chantal and I split up, she chasing after some final footage and me heading for an edit suite overlooking the 6th October Flyover and the museum.
Our Carte Blanche team had found CNC, Cairo News Company, site of many former live interviews with Mubarak – making the current assignment even more incongruous – and they were working in very difficult circumstances.
They had heard that morning that the security police were targeting foreign crews, and that meant me.
I spent three hours sifting through my footage when suddenly the studio manager decided it was unsafe for us to continue.
How to leave became a problem. Outside pro-Mubarak groups were patrolling the streets looking for foreign journalists.
A sweet young office assistant offered to chaperone me past the barricades. A hundred metres away the battle raged as we dashed along the street to the flyover, and then I was on my own, clutching my precious tapes and hard drive.
Chantal was waiting for me at the hotel. We’d managed to get a flight out that night, and on our way to the airport we were stopped and interrogated for an hour by security police.
A diplomat friend of Chantal got us released.
Roll forward to today: Mubarak is gravely ill and under detention, and presidential elections are about to be held. The feelings of anticipation are tangible.
Ali, our taxi driver from the airport, summed it up with the remarkable observation that Egypt, after 7 500 years of pharaohs, kings and dictators, was about to taste democracy for the first time.
We South Africans sometimes think we have the monopoly on struggle against oppression: but seven and a half millennia!
In Giza, home of the pyramids, all the talk is of tourism’s parlous state. Ali continues his homily, saying he wants a president who can walk into the job on the first day and know what he’s doing.
This rules out most of the 11 candidates, and the surprising favourite of the moderates is Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s former minister of civil aviation.
Shafik is unapologetic, even proud, of his links to the Mubarak era.
His election promise to the residents of Nazlet El Seman – the village below the pyramids whose livelihood is tourism – is to reopen the pyramid plateau at night. This promise has made him their choice.
At the other end of the spectrum is Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy, who’s not necessarily the first choice among moderate Muslims. Moussa is the other perceived favourite among the middle-aged we speak to, but then we hear the views of the more radical youth who want new leadership and changes.
Heading back into town the next day our new driver gives a glimpse of why the Mubarak regime was so hated by ordinary people. In Cairo’s equivalent of our taxi recapitalisation programme, all taxi drivers are to be given a financial incentive to trade in their decrepit black-and-white taxis for new all-white vehicles.
A measly 5 000 Egyptian pounds, about R7 500, is offered per taxi.
We take the rickety lift to the fourth floor and through the dark passages of CNC’s office to the balcony with its view of the 6th October Flyover and south along the Nile.
We stand for a few minutes and I try to recall my experiences, but everything seems so unreal and normal.
Earlier, we retraced my steps and photographed the ash-covered National Democratic Party building, which is the only remaining sign of the climactic few days of last February. My memories are finally jolted into the now, and when I find the edit suite, it looks empty and forlorn, as if coveting another news-breaking story.
Depending on what happens at the polls this week, I have a feeling it won’t have long to wait.
* Lucas is a producer for Carte Blanche