Cairo felt different. Tahrir Square, of course, carried a new set of meanings. The traffic, the pollution, the Stalinist gloom of the Mugamma building—these had shrunk, and revolutionary graffiti, redignified national flags, and the endlessly various Egyptian people now dominated the eye. Neither did it feel the same to walk over the Qasr el-Nil bridge, not after the glorious battle of 28 January. (I kept trying to work out where the police van was burnt.) And the streets were in fact cleaner, in central Cairo at least. In ritual overcompensation for the years of filth, people had been observed during the revolution’s eighteen days scrubbing the pavements with toothbrushes. A man in a café called Ali Jabr explained it to me:
The Egyptians used to hate their country just as they used to hate themselves. Anywhere you went in the world, the people thought the Egyptians were rubbish. And the Egyptians agreed. After the revolution we know we aren’t rubbish, so we pick our rubbish up from the streets.
You know that something rare and powerful is occurring, something all-encompassing, not limited to a political or intellectual elite, when even a mobile nuts-and-seeds stall has ‘Social Justice’ stencilled on its side.
I visited in late March and early April. My plane to Cairo was a quarter full at best. The airport was almost empty.
The immigration guard peered long at me and asked if I was originally Iranian, prompting me to wonder if anything had changed at all. There were no pictures of Mubarak on the walls. That was a change.
Then the driver who took me into town. He addressed the revolution immediately. ‘Tell me congratulations!’ he grinned. I did so. ‘We’ve finished with him!’ he exulted. ‘We’re free!’ Pictures of some of freedom’s martyrs swung from the rear-view mirror.