There are 20 million residents of Cairo and at least as many chairs. I am a single one in the Borsa cafe district. Cheap, maybe even flimsy, but by far the most popular chair in town. Even though my colors are not the national black, white and red, but purple and yellow, I’m Egyptian through and through.
If the revolution had a living room, it was here. In my lap, surrounded by palm trees and dirty walls, Egypt’s 2011 uprising started and faded, joked and found respite from the tear gas. Journalists called it a social media revolution, but the groundwork was laid here in Borsa: not in tweets and likes, but in coffees and conversations.
Countless liters of Arosa Tea and lentil soup from Kazaz restaurant have passed over the tables in front of me since the 18 days of uprising. When international news cameras left, a citywide curfew kept me alone at night. Only a few dared to defy the orders of the military government, in search of caffeine. But I waited, and they came back.
The fire breather and his son busked for change. The perfume salesman watched the crowd. Scooter drivers cut through the alleys looking for a shortcut, blasting the newest song by Okka and Ortega. In June 2012, Mohammed Morsi was elected and my quadrupedal brothers were hoisted aloft in celebration: "Morsi to the throne!” It rhymes in Arabic.
But one year later, a new activist began hanging around. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called himself a rebel, asking for the signature of those who sat with me. By June the streets and squares were packed again.
Morsi fell, cautious celebrations were had, and that rebel appeared on TV with the military. Was it a second revolution or a coup? “Fuck Sisi, the revolution continues,” said the man on top of me.
At my feet, the lemons squeezed and dropped by the revolution rotted. I could see in the faces of those who returned in the morning for their coffee and newspapers: another man in fatigues will be running the country, there won’t be many protests more. Months go by, another year.
In 2014, letters were read over me, signed by Ahmed Douma, Alaa Abd el-Fattah and countless more imprisoned activists. They protested that the army had highjacked the revolution. The head of the army was now in the blue suit of a President, shaking hands with world leaders.
Then that familiar cacophony of the march, of resistance, came back into the air like an old song on the radio. Chants, a crack, then screams. “Shaimaa!” they cried. An activist and a mother, gunned down by the police. “Impossible,” the police would say, that the birdshot pierced her organs. Then shouldn’t she be here, with us, breathing, living, trading stories?
So here we are, today. For a moment we all forgot the songs of justice, the melodies of joy, but if you're looking for the revolution, you don't need to go online. Take a sit, have a coffee, listen to what I have to say. History starts and ends here with me, in the Borsa.
Text: Gabriel Luis Manga
Photos courtesy of Sidewalk Salon: 1001 Street Chairs of Cairo, a book by Manar Moursi and David Puig