On Dec. 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young man in rural Tunisia, poured gasoline on himself -- and ignited an entire region. One by one, the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya toppled their rulers. One year after Bouazizi's self-immolation, much has changed in the Maghreb. But a lot has remained the same. In places where secular rulers prevailed for decades, Islamists are now trying to seize the reins of power. And many people there are just as poor and hopeless as they were before the revolutions.
This is the third article in a series by SPIEGEL correspondent Alexander Smoltczyk as he travels along the Transmaghrébine highway from Morocco to Egypt together with a photographer. On the third leg of his journey, he travels from the Libyan border, through Alexandria and on to Cairo, where he finds violence flaring up on the streets once again. Be sure to also read the first and second parts of the series.
The trip ends the way it began: with shots, flames, barricades and deaths. The journey of more than 5,000 kilometers (2,272 miles), through the landscape of revolutions, was to end on Tahrir Square in Cairo. But suddenly, what was intended as a look back on the past becomes the present, with the people around us carrying Molotov cocktails and fleeing into buildings to escape the military. No one has time to recount stories of the revolution in past tense.
The revolution has returned, as our journey ends on the banks of the Nile in mid-December. Revolutions are mysterious events, hard to grab hold of, never quite over and always alarming.
KILOMETER 4,510, Umm Sa'ad, border crossing to Egypt
Since Tobruk in Libya, the North African highway has been following a different route. Like a palimpsest, a page from a book that has been overwritten again and again, the asphalt conceals the tank routes of World War II Generals Erwin Rommel and Bernard Montgomery. There are military cemeteries along the road, side-by-side with the concrete hotels of beach resorts. Late one evening in Benghazi, a militia commander told us he wanted to build a museum for Rommel in his hometown of Tobruk. He said he admired the former German field marshal for his strategies, his tricks and his tenacity. "You Germans are always welcome here," he said.
On the other side of the border, in Libya, the names of martyrs were written on the walls, but now, in Egypt, it is the names of election candidates. There are symbols printed next to their photos to help voters recognize them. A member of the Muslim Brotherhood has picked a motorcycle as his symbol, while another has chosen a CD, and a third candidate a surfboard. In the more remote cities, the Muslim Brotherhood has set up a service to drive older citizens to the polling places. It also helps them check the boxes on their ballots.
A poster for the Muslim Brotherhood depicts smiling men with impressive facial hair: trapezoid-shaped goatees, with or without moustaches, sometimes as voluminous as a small fur coat. It looks like an invitation to some sort of a contest.
KILOMETER 5,031, Alexandria, Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral
The ulna bone of the saint's shoemaker, together with other bones, are said to be in a cedar reliquary behind and to the left of the iconostasis. "There were no real shoes at the time, you know," explains Nagati Nagi Antakia, a retired civil engineer.
At the time, around 62 A.D., Mark the Evangelist was said to have been in Alexandria, where he was looking for a shoemaker to repair his worn sandals. "He walked into the workshop of Anianos, at precisely this spot," says Antakia. When the shoemaker pricked his finger, Mark healed the wound with a miracle, marking the beginning of the first Christian congregation on African soil. Anianos became the patriarch of Alexandria, and thus the precursor to the Coptic popes.
Today, after the overthrow of the "Pharaoh" Mubarak, the Copts feel thrown back to the days of early persecutions. One of their churches in Alexandria was bombed a year ago. Since then, the mood has not improved among the roughly 2,000 Christians in the patriarchate.
They say there has been an increase in aggression. "Yesterday, a bearded man sat down in front of me on the bus and put his boot on my foot. I screamed, but he didn't move," says Dahlia, a somewhat mousy, 30-year-old geriatric nurse with a tattoo of a cross on her wrist. "They have the nerve to do anything now. Things have gotten worse. Now they can express themselves openly." She says people have already hissed "you Christian" at her on the street.
She runs two fingers across the pane of glass in front of the saint's bones. "HE said that we would suffer in this world," says Dahlia, touching her lips with her fingertips. "HE will take care of us."
The shops next to the cathedral, shoe stores and boutiques, have names like Tayet Frères and Sofinanopulo. Alexandria has always been a commercial city: loud, cosmopolitan and unrestrained. But in the last few years the city has also acquired a reputation as a stronghold for Salafists, the purest of the pure. The Muslim Brotherhood "isn't all that bad," says Antakia. In fact, he adds, many Copts voted for the Muslim Brotherhood in the first round of the election, partly because in some districts the Salafists were the only alternative. They would scare away tourists, with their hatred of bikinis and alcohol. Anyone who gets caught in the teahouses around prayer time on a Friday is likely to feel the brunt of their anger. "They're terrorists, those bearded men," says Antakia.
A specter is on the loose. The Egyptian revolution may have begun with Facebook. But now the holy book of the Koran is the determining force. Anyone who can claim to represent the pure teachings of the Koran is likely to attract voters, who are tired of corruption and boot-licking, which are easily confused with "Western values."
KILOMETER 5,040, Bibliotheca Alexandrina
The latest trend among girls at the moment is to walk around the city with their mobile phones hidden in their headscarves. These young women congregate on the square in front of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, or New Library of Alexandria, a prestigious building that represents enlightened Egypt. It is a luminous building in the shape of a half-submerged disk, directly on the coastal road.
In February, during the revolution, students formed a human chain around the building. Tanks were positioned in front of the library. Now the site is reminiscent of the Paris Sorbonne in May 1968. The walls and windows are covered with posters, graffiti, cartoons and satirical poems. They want to get rid of the old director, Ismail Serageldin, an old-guard intellectual with many honorary doctorates and a liberal reputation. In February, the director boldly quoted Victor Hugo: "No army can defeat an idea whose time has come." Now he too will probably be swept away.
Three female students giggle into their mobile phones as they stand in front of the bust of Alexander the Great. All three are wearing makeup, jeans, and a token headscarf. They are 18.
All three have just voted for the first time in their lives. Who did they vote for? "Nur." "Nur." "Nur." The Party of Light, and the party of the bearded men, the men whose spokesman in Alexandria has just hit upon the idea of covering up all statues and banning bikinis on the beach -- and makeup.
"What? Makeup too?" asks Nashwa Ahmed. "I voted for Nur because they know what is forbidden and what is allowed. They are the clearest." The students seem to think that a party is something like the rules of the road. Because they themselves have no notion of what is right and wrong, they vote for the party that makes the biggest fuss about clear separations. To them, the fact that the first thing the Salafists want to do is ban them from the coed university seems unclear. But would they put up with it? In the last year many people have learned a lot.
On its last 100 kilometers, the Dakar-Cairo highway becomes a four-lane highway, which trucks creeping along in every lane, like boulders in the rushing stream of traffic speeding toward Cairo.
The revolutions in North Africa may have failed in many respects, but they have given a purpose to this road. There is a new communicative space between Rabat and Cairo. Marwa Nasser, a young English student standing in front the Alexandria library, put it this way: "A year ago, I knew nothing about Libya or Tunisia. It was all foreign to us, and far away. Now we get together, on Facebook or at meetings. We discuss how to deal with the religious people, and what ought to be written into our constitution. We are the same, and we have the same problems. We understand each other."
The subtle repression in Morocco, the helplessness in Tunisia, the ongoing post-revolutionary optimism in Libya, the daily betrayals in Cairo -- these are all stages of redefining the same region. Some are further along, while others have already been thrown back, arranged next to each other like faults in a stratified geological formation.
In recent months, a common space has been created that hasn't existed since perhaps the days of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, in the 1960s, when North Africa's elites dreamed of pan-Arabism.
Today people in Alexandria and Benghazi listen just as attentively as the Tunisians when the Islamist Rached Ghannouchi gives an interview. An Egyptian director from Suez goes to Rabat to edit his film, because he feels he is under watch in Cairo. Movement has returned to North Africa, and people are traveling across its borders once again. Only Algeria continues to protrude out of the current, like the trucks holding up traffic on the highway into Cairo at night.
KILOMETER 5,280, Cairo, Dokki district, Café Costa
"Why did the Egyptians vote for us?" asks a man who has seen a good share of persecution because of his beard. "They voted for us because of their bad conscience." Mohammed Tolba says that he was not allowed to cross any of the bridges over the Nile River, to prevent him from spreading his doctrine. He and wife were not permitted to set foot in the beach resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, because the authorities feared that he, as a bearded man, would frighten the tourists. "The Egyptians aren't the least bit religious," he says. "They just want to get into paradise, despite their sins, which is why they voted for the Salafists."
Tolba is an oddity among the Salafists, the coolest of the pure. The founder of the revolutionary Salafyo Costa group, he is a computer engineer who attended an American university and wears Western clothing. Most members have large beards, but the group also includes unshaven Christians and liberals, women in headscarves and fully veiled "Niqab girls," as Tolba calls the young women.
Costa Coffee, the Egyptian counterpart of Starbucks, is where the group was founded. It is as if members of the Society of Saint Pius X had decided to call themselves members of the Society of Starbucks and had joined forces with Muslims to do outreach in the streets of Neukölln, a Berlin neighborhood with a large immigrant population.
The café is the group's headquarters. It is where its core members met and planned their first campaigns against Mubarak. The revolution was their coming out party as a group, and it also marked the first time in years that Tolba had walked across one of the Nile bridges. "We wanted to keep the experience of Tahrir Square alive, when everyone was talking to everyone else, no matter what they looked like or thought."
Tolba is from a liberal family. He became a Salafist more than 10 years ago, after a close friend had been involved in a traffic accident. Since then, he has adhered to his faith like a lay monk or a Scientologist -- strictly, but privately.
He believes that the pyramids are a monument to slavery, but unlike other Salafists, he doesn't feel that they ought to be blown up. However, he does believe that punishments like beheadings and cutting off the hands of thieves are a consistent tool of criminal justice, "but only if the majority of Egyptians concur." And that, he says, will take a few more years, which is why his group doesn't discuss politics or justice. "We are a forum of people who normally couldn't stand each other for more than 15 seconds." The Costa Salafists were among the first protesters on Tahrir Square. They hate the military council. When soldiers violently shut down a protest march by Coptic Christians in October, Tolba and his Costa group went to the site and set up a field hospital.
"The point is to uphold the spirit of Tahrir. Here…" He points to a photo on his mobile phone of a lifeless body on a pile of bloody corpses. "That's me, lying there. That's what they did to us. And now we're supposed to take part in their elections? Never."
He hates the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and he despises anyone who makes compromises with this regime. Tolba is a man of principles, a Saint-Just of the Islamic revolution. "We don't need justice," he says. "We need courts." Tolba practices the behavioral rules of the early followers of the Prophet Mohammed as a path of self-purification, not as a manual for building a country. "We have our own culture in Egypt," he says. "We don't have to import anything from Saudi Arabia. I am an Egyptian above all."
A mobile phone vibrates on the table, followed by another one a short time later. Suddenly people are getting restless in the café. A few of them stand up.
The revolution has returned.
KILOMETER 5,290, Cairo, Tahrir Square
It is the night in which the third wave of the Tahrir rebellion begins. The protesters have occupied the side street in front of the parliament building. There are a few dozen tents, readings, banners and street children bumming cigarettes. There is the smell of urine and a street fighter wearing sunglasses, Mohammed al-Agiery, who sounds like a US military spokesman when he describes the police operation: "We lost 1,010 eyes. He had 10 kills. But now we are better prepared."
The street is crowded with people, and one of the young women in the crowd is probably the woman who, on the very next day, will be dragged, half-naked, along the street by uniformed men, who will kick her like a bag of garbage. But today she is still chanting with the others: against the betrayal of the revolution, and against these military leaders who have taken advantage of the rage and the courage of young people to keep themselves in power.
They have blocked the entrances to the cabinet building and placed a coffin painted in the national colors on the street for each martyr of the last wave of the revolution. And although it was meant as a gesture of remembrance, it now seems as if the coffins were being kept at the ready for what is about to happen. Sheets of concrete were thrown from the rooftops. Some say it was the military, while others insist it was employees of the administration. Now there are chunks of concrete strewn across the street. An old woman is collecting them and handing them to a boy. A column of smoke rises between the office buildings.
The first of the wounded, apparently hit by a rubber bullet, is gasping for air, still holding the Egyptian flag in his hand. Other protesters show up with burning torches, determined to set fire to the buildings, any buildings, even the headquarters of the Egyptian Geographic Society. In the midst of the running, shouting and waiting crowd, an old man is holding up a banner depicting a photo of his dead son.
The "revolution," the spirit of Tahrir, is back, as if it had merely been waiting in a side street. Many Egyptians find it disruptive, and many just want to see calm return to their streets. But they also don't want to see their daughters being dragged, half-naked, across the pavement.
The Evangelical Church of Cairo is behind a sinister-looking government building built in the Soviet style. The church courtyard has been turned into a field hospital. The injured refuse to be taken to a government hospital. The courtyard is a scene of confusion in the darkness, where pitiful figures hang from stretchers, their skin glistening with their own blood. A young man, his face turned to the side, is gazing into the distance.
A young woman in a Niqab is running around with dressing material. There are conservative men with dark marks on their foreheads, the result of frequent prayer, next to young men in street-fighter outfits, a Coptic nurse, people weeping, and people holding onto each other. There is a cross hanging high above the scene, but it seems completely irrelevant.
The field hospital was ready for use within hours. The telephone lines were working, and people were filming, photographing and publishing their images. They have learned a lot within the last year. It was an intensive course in civil organization and civil disobedience, in political science and political theology, a crash course in learning how to assert oneself. The Koran may have displaced Facebook, but that will no longer be the case when the pious calls for change are not actually followed by real change.
It is the night of the third wave of the revolution on Tahrir Square. Nothing is over, and everything continues. In its building on the other side of the square, the Arab League is reaching its latest decisions about Syria, another country to which the movement that began in the Maghreb has now spread. Does the movement represent the birth of a civil society, an Islamist renaissance or just another chapter in a history of tribal conflicts?
It's too early to tell where the movement is headed, not even after traveling endless kilometers on the highway of revolutions, from the Atlantic to the Nile.
There are many signs on the side of a road, signs that provide clear information about where travelers are headed. But whether they are right is something one only learns at the end of the journey.