CAIRO, Egypt — Tahrir Square is no more, some say.
Egyptian government officials frantically called on designers and engineers last week to quickly build a monument in the square commemorating the “martyrs” who died in Egypt’s 2011 revolution and this year’s military-led uprising that ousted Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s controversial Islamist president.
What was once the most iconic symbol of popular dissent — a square littered with revolutionary banners and dangling strings where effigies of Mubarak once hung — is now covered in lush green grass and decorative plantings. In the middle of the square is a newly erected stone memorial where a series of steps lead to a podium.
But the monument has been met with disappointment and anger.
“If you want to commemorate the martyrs, at least get rid of the people who killed them,” Alfred Raouf, an engineer and political activist who took part in the 2011 revolution, told The Huffington Post. Raouf added that revolutionary youth were not invited to take part in the monument’s creation. “It’s going to be the Ministry of Interior commemorating the people they killed.”
The monument was built just in time for Tuesday’s anniversary of the clashes on Mohamed Mahmoud, the street where some 40 protesters were killed by police forces during 2011 demonstrations against government brutality. Three more died one year later in clashes on the anniversary. Cairo is now bracing for what could be another bloody anniversary, as opposing groups are set to rally on Tuesday. Anger also surrounds the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to protest on the anniversary of Mohamed Mahmoud, since protesters say the Islamist group’s leaders failed to support them in 2011.
On Monday, Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawy laid the foundation stone of the memorial in a ceremony attended by government and political figures. All streets surrounding Tahrir were blocked off by security forces.
Egyptian blogger Zeinobia slammed the memorial as a “cruel irony,” writing that the government was merely trying to whitewash its own deadly actions. “Honestly I feel that the police, army and government fear Mohamed Mahmoud anniversary and what may happen then,” she wrote on her blog. “They do not want anyone to touch Tahrir Square.”
Tahrir’s new memorial isn’t the first controversial monument to be built recently. Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque, the site of the mass sit-in where over 600 pro-Morsi protesters were killed by security forces in August, now has a huge, abstract sculpture representing the arms of the military and the police protecting an orb — the Egyptian people. While the monument drew some criticism, Tahrir’s shocking makeover takes the cake.
“I think the construction of such a memorial [should come] when a process of transitional justice, and at least accountability for the crimes of the past three years, is underway,” said Dr. H.A. Hellyer, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution in D.C. and an associate fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute. “So far, that’s not remotely on the horizon — and the memorial is going to be perceived as a symbolic way of turning the page, but with the wounds very much still open.”
Olfat Mohamed, the mother of one of the protesters killed during the 18-day uprising in 2011, told Egyptian news site Mada Masr that while she hopes tourists who see the monument will remember her son and what he died for, she feels the government has largely forgotten him. Many Egyptians share her sentiment.
Interior Ministry Spokesman Hani Abdel Latif offered the ministry’s condolences to the “martyrs of the revolution” during a televised address on Sunday, but he warned that violence on Tuesday would not be tolerated.
“Tahrir Square right now belongs to the military riding on a wave of hyper-nationalism,” said Ahmed Ghanem, a writer and political activist. “But if I learned anything from the past few years, it’s that if they don’t correct their path, Tahrir will be filled with angry Egyptians again in no time, and the current overlord might become Morsi 2.0.”