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Tahrir, the saddest square in the world?

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Suhaib Salem/Reuters

(Read caption) Antigovernment banners are reflected in water at Tahrir Square in Cairo January 16.

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Tahrir Square at dusk can be a lonely and forbidding place. When the wind kicks up, trash swirls past the smiling faces of young men killed in clashes against the government that are painted on the walls along Mohamed Mahmoud Street.

And into the filthy stairwells of the local metro station, reeking of urine and abandonment.

And past the small cluster of young toughs who man the homemade barricade they use to keep the vast majority of traffic out of the square.

The ability to cross Tahrir, which used to route traffic through the center of this teeming city, is like the parting of the Red Sea in Cairo today – a rare (and in this case minor) miracle.

A squat young tough is controlling access on this evening. A car rolls up to the barricade – a friend! – and the metal barriers are pulled aside as he is waved through towards the Nile and home with a smile and a high-five. An aging Peugeot sedan with a mother and three young children crammed in, her husband at the wheel, tries to nudge through behind him, but the tough roughly slams the gates shut and begins banging on the hood. 

The mother pops out, fuming, and starts screaming abuse at the self-styled revolutionary blocking the way. He laughs and a few of his friends, some holding metal bars, start to drift over. The family gives up and sets off for what promises to be a one-hour trip to navigate the mile or so around the square.

Next up is a furious cab driver, who jumps out of his car yelling that he's trying to make a living, and tries to yank open the barricade. The young man whistles for support and more of his pals run over. An older man, with gray hair and a drooping mustache, comes over, gets in the cab driver's face, and tells him, "Unless you want to walk home, I suggest you leave now." The cabbie gives up and putters away, leaving a stream of curses in his wake, the bedraggled community of Tahrir unruffled by his passage.

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Vendors, drifters, football fans

Almost two years after the joyous uprising that drove Mubarak from power, this is the day-to-day depressing reality at Tahrir. The young revolutionaries who filled the square in 2011 are mostly gone now, with the tents now occupied equal parts by vendors, people with seemingly no place else to go, and young members of the Ultras, Cairo's hard-core football supporters clubs.

Are they making a difference at the square? On most days, it doesn't feel like it. The energy and passion are gone. Some enterprising tour guides have started leading foreign tourists through the square to teach them about the "revolution." The real revolution? It's everywhere, in the graffiti and evidence of past battles. But a living revolution? It's hard to feel it here.

Some Egyptian friends disagree, arguing that the square can be galvanized to action at a moment's notice, and that it will play a role in Egypt's transition again. But no matter how many people might be here, there's an emptiness, because Egypt has moved well past the point where being against something was enough. Now is the time for being for something, and that's the sort of political problem that doesn't get fixed with mass protests.

Second anniversary ahead

There are still plenty of real grievances in Egypt, and some are hoping that the square will be revitalized again on Jan. 25, the second anniversary of the uprising. But for now, Tahrir is a desultory and occasionally dangerous place. Last week, ineffective Molotov cocktails were thrown at the Arab League headquarters on one end of the square. At the end of December, Mohanned Samir, a member of the April 6 Movement, was shot in the head in Tahrir. Some suspect that Mr. Samir, a critic of the new Muslim Brotherhood-led regime and of Egypt's military establishment alike, was targeted because he witnessed the killing of Ramy al-Sharqawi, another activist, not far from the square in 2011 and was prepared to testify about it. When he was shot in the head, he had only recently been released from eight months in prison for participating in the violent protests in December 2011. 

An Ultra named Mohamed al-Mesri proudly stretches his shirt to show the scar left by six stitches he received when he was knifed on the right-side of his chest a few weeks ago. Who stabbed him? "A thug with a beard." Why is he still at Tahrir? He wants justice for the more than 70 soccer fans killed in clashes at Port Said in February 2012 that most Ultras believe was backed by the military to punish them for supporting the revolution.

The average Cairo resident's experience of post-revolution Egypt is of the horrendous traffic snarls created by the various barricades – including a government-built wall that blocks off the end of the street housing the parliament – that have upped navigating Cairo by car or bus from "nightmare" to "nightmare+." President Mohamed Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood has become a target of protesters' ire, must be pleased that the average citizen's daily contact with the "revolution" is a bout of frustration, missed appointments, and delays getting to and from work.

There is, of course, some hope in all this. The revolutionaries interested in political change have moved far beyond the square, organizing in political parties or independent groups to push demands that the new Constitution be amended, or that military trials for civilians stop, or for a bigger voice in how Egypt is governed.

But the Tahrir of "The 18 Days," as many Egyptians refer to the uprising that ended Mubarak's reign, is long gone. Two days after Mubarak stepped down, I had already sensed the inevitable shift.

Last night, as I made my way through "liberated" Tahrir Square in Cairo, I was overcome by sadness.

There were signs of organized political actors muscling in on a popular movement whose unity was thanks in part to the beautiful simplicity of their demands. Give us freedom, rid us of Mubarak, let the Egyptian people tend to their own problems. By 10 last night, the first few cars had appeared in the square. Amid the sweeping up, the hugs and congratulations, It oddly felt like an era is over.

The new era can be a better one, but it's increasingly being fought in the often dirty world of politics – a world in which few of the Tahrir activists had any direct experience before the revolution. "We protested once, and it worked, so we protested again and again," says Mustafa Eid, a young Egyptian who has given up on public protests, at least for now. "We kept going back to the same method, but it stopped working. Average people don't see the point."


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