Egypt's Man in the Moon The Watchdog of Tahrir Square Fears for the Revolution
Pierre Sioufi lives high above Tahrir Square in Cairo, in an apartment that became a headquarters for the uprising against the former regime. Mubarak's arrest was a triumph for the revolutionaries, but what happens next?
It is late at night, and as the last protesters roll up their banners and slowly leave Tahrir Square, Pierre Sioufi is still sitting at his desk, the blue-and-white Facebook page illuminating his face, a smoldering cigarette wedged between his fingers and a glass of scotch sitting next to the keyboard.
"The numbers keep going down. What on earth is wrong?" he asks. "Do the protesters think they've already won?"
Since Sioufi believes they haven't won, he has unfurled a black banner from his 10th-floor balcony high above Tahrir Square. The six-by-four-meter (20-by-13-foot) banner is meant to symbolize the impending death of the revolution.
It is now the 66th day of this revolution, the night of March 31, and another 13 days will pass before former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is arrested.
As has so often been the case recently, Sioufi is keeping watch high up in his apartment. Acting on behalf of the entire globe -- at least as he sees it -- he will stay up until the morning hours, keeping an eye on the square that has become world famous in the last few months. He sees everything from his perch, which makes him something of a man in the moon for this revolution. Sioufi has learned to read the movements of the protesters and the army and to anticipate events. As soon as something happens or merely looks suspicious to him, he alerts the rest of the world through the messages he sends via Facebook and Twitter.
A Headquarters for the Uprising
The curfew is about to begin, and Sioufi is alone once again. The apartment, which extends well into the building beyond the vestibule, seems dark and empty. He has only one visitor on this evening: his friend Sharif Burai, who brought along a bottle of Dewar's Scotch. The days of the revolution now seem distant; days when his apartment was full of people and became a headquarters of sorts for the uprising. That was in January and February, when there were violent clashes down in Tahrir Square, and Sioufi still believed that Egypt was experiencing a revolution.
Some 30 to 40 activists were constantly in his apartment at the time, staying there day and night. They had set up their computers and were showering in the flat. They occupied the bedrooms and slept on the Louis XIV sofas in the living rooms, on the chaise lounges in the hallways or simply on the floor.
Then came the television crews, which could not shoot footage on the square because they would have been arrested: Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya and a few Americans. Instead, they filmed from the rooftop deck and the balconies, where they felt safe. The army hadn't dared to venture up to the home of a man who was clearly wealthy and, as they believed, probably powerful. The images that the television crews recorded from Sioufi's rooftop terrace were the images of the Egyptian revolution that the world saw. And if it's true that revolutions only exist if the world can see them, one could say that Sioufi made this revolution possible in the first place. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen called him the "guru of the revolution."
Sioufi explains that he was not a revolutionary from the beginning. He was doing well in Mubarak's Egypt, he says, because the president would occasionally throw him a bone or two. Sioufi owns the entire 10-story building on Tahrir Square, and he also owns other apartments throughout the city. He talks about his grandparents, who made their fortune with a paint factory. Sioufi was never very good at managing the money, allowing the mansions and apartments to deteriorate, collecting old flacons and postcards, and reading the collected works of Hugo, Proust, Flaubert and Balzac, which he found in the apartments. Now 50, Sioufi has acted in a few Egyptian films, including one with Omar Sharif. In Egypt, Sioufi looks like a giant. He is almost two meters (6'6") tall and fat like someone who has decided to stop paying attention to his health.
When the Egyptians began gathering on Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, Sioufi had just returned from Amsterdam, where he sat in coffee shops and smoked marijuana. He wasn't particularly interested in the protests, and his intention was to head straight for the Egyptian coast with his girlfriend. But the rage and energy of the young protesters slowly caught on with Sioufi. "A revolution at your front door -- it isn't something you see every day!" he says.
From then on, his friend Sharif came to the apartment every day, even though the two men had almost fallen out of touch until then. But suddenly Sioufi and Sharif -- both of them somehow adrift, each in his own way -- had suddenly rediscovered a purpose: the revolution.
But by mid-March, the demonstrations began to wane. All the activists -- Sioufi calls them the "Facebook kids" -- haven't turned up for some time now. The camera crews have found cars and have left Cairo for Benghazi in Libya, where all the excitement is today.
"The Problem was Mubarak's Resignation"
While the world still celebrates the Egyptian revolution as the victory of a young democracy movement over an autocratic, corrupt system, one can hear a different account up here in Sioufi's apartment. It is a tale of failure that revolves around the question: How exactly does a revolution continue once the first battles have been won?
"The problem was Mubarak's resignation," says Sioufi. "After that, we believed that we had achieved something. And then we stopped. But I want a real revolution or no revolution at all."
On this night, 48 days have passed since the president disappeared and the military took control of the government. A large majority of Egyptians voted in a referendum for constitutional amendments that allow for speedy new elections in the fall. This early date, however, favors the established organizations, including the military, the old parties and the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood. The new democracy movements will have difficulty organizing and shaping their agendas by then. For this reason, Pierre Sioufi and Sharif Burai, like most activists in the revolution, voted 'No' in the referendum.
But as long as there is still hope, Sioufi does not tire of writing his reports on Facebook. He has written more than 150 since Jan. 25, accounts filled with sharp observations and analyses, brief reports and self-reflection. In this way, Sioufi has created something of a diary of the revolution, written in English. And although most of what he writes is about battles, corruption and politics, there is a poetry to his words that derives its strength from the fact that Sioufi is constantly forced to redefine his position. He is now a revolutionary, he of all people -- can that really be true? In one posting, he describes how the lack of events produces a feeling of exhaustion:
The night was calm. I personally felt that I could go and sleep as soon as 3 and did. The fact that I could sleep underlines one very worrying fact and that is that I do not believe the Army communiques anymore.
But whenever the army once again marches across the square, and when there are clashes and there is movement and life in the square, Sioufi's messages shed their drug-induced gloom:
After a long night yesterday, when even if I had wanted to close my eyes and sleep, the sound of a war being fought on my doorstep would not have given me the opportunity, the army was far too noisy, to the point I thought for a moment that I had been transported to a favella under attack by the mercenaries.
Sioufi takes some tobacco from a case with the words "Greetings from Amsterdam" printed on it, and he begins to crumble the tobacco. It's almost two. The curfew begins in a few minutes.
"Perhaps tomorrow will be a big day," Sioufi says. A demonstration has been announced for the next day, April 1, under the motto "Save the Revolution." Some 70,000 people are expected to attend.
- Part 1: The Watchdog of Tahrir Square Fears for the Revolution
- Part 2: An Egypt of a Bygone Day