Tahrir Square stands in the center of the Egyptian capital
Christophe Ayad

CAIRO - What has become of Tahrir Square? It is of course still right there, in the center of Cairo, just off the banks of the Nile, the eternal Egyptian Museum, the Nile Hilton hotel (under seemingly endless restoration) and the Mogamma — the huge Stalinist building that serves as permanent headquarters for the Egyptian administration.

Yes, the Square itself still exists, but its spirit is gone. The place is now occupied by street children and drug dealers, a whole array of destitute people who took over the vast esplanade, half of which remains inaccessible to traffic. The banners and graffiti slogans can still be seen. But real revolutionaries, not so much.

In the middle of the traffic island, where the grass has been consumed by sand, there is a “Museum of the Revolution” that features photos of martyrs at the entrance: all young people killed during the year in clashes with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Those who were killed during the “first revolution” — in January and February 2011 — from bullets fired by troops protecting Hosni Mubarak’s regime, have disappeared. Also gone are images of those from Mohamed Mahmoud Street who fell in clashes near the Ministry of the Interior during the autumn of 2011. And no sign either of the Salafists killed in Abbassia during protests against the elimination of the Sheik Hazem Abu Ismail from the presidential run in spring 2012.

Guarded by sinister-looking men, the “museum” is mainly a retrospective of anti-Muslim Brotherhood propaganda — including caricatures of their members as sheep — and a glorification of the eternal Egyptian people and its brave army. Everywhere, posters exalt the General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Commander of the army, Minister of Defense and strong man of the new government, as the direct descendant of former Egyptian leaders Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. Mubarak has been forgotten in this new Holy Trinity.

The "aborted" revolution

The new master of the premises, Mustapha El-Guindy, is an old-time Egyptian politician, an adventurer who, after making a fortune in cruise tourism, founded an NGO in the late 1990s — Tourism for Development, which encouraged reinvesting profits made through tourism into the fight against poverty.

The actual impact of the project is impossible to verify, but the political career of its founder was bound to prosper. An independent Member of the Egyptian Parliament from 2005 through 2010, vice-president of the Pan-African Parliament, reelected in the autumn of 2011, he considers himself a friend of the Revolution, close to the liberal Mohamed El-Baradei and the Nasserian Hamdeen Sabahi, two of the main heads of the National Salvation Front, which unites opponents of the deposed president Mohamed Morsi.

El-Guindy arrives in Tahrir in a black sedan, wearing a black djellaba and patent-leather shoes, also black, like his hair. Welcoming, kind and garrulous, he speaks in perfect French.

As soon as the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power, El-Guindy became very active. “I know them”, he said. “They are an international mafia organization which doesn’t work for the good of the country. They wanted to change Egypt’s identity. I am their prime nemesis; I held the square with a handful of young people with our bare hands. They almost killed me twice.”

Bragging, he builds his legend confidently and considers himself a backbone of Tamarod, the organization of young people that collected several millions of signatures demanding Morsi’s resignation and organized the huge June 30 protest that led to his fall.

According to El-Guindy, this is the start of the “people’s great revolution”. On a platform, he brings up repentant police officers, tears running down their cheeks. “This revolution will work because the people, the police and the army are finally united. Before, it was an aborted revolution. We wanted bread, freedom and dignity and all we got was an extremist president who divided the country. We will now be able to start work.”


The role of the veteran politician consisted of reuniting all those who the young activists’ revolution in Tahrir had scared away, the so-called “couch party”, who watched the events on their television sets; and even the fouloul, supporters of the old regime. “After all, they are Egyptians,” he insists. What cemented this recovered national union, El-Guindy explains, was the army, guarantor of the protection of Egypt against its enemies, foreign and domestic.

On July 26, anniversary of the 1952 revolution which forced King Farouk out of power, when General al-Sisi called on Egyptians to give a mandate to fight against the Brotherhood’s “terrorism,” El-Guindy came back to Tahrir Square with millions of other Egyptians. For him, this display of popular support proves that Morsi’s July 3 fall “wasn’t a coup.” Tahrir Square, which witnessed the birth of the individual and pluralism in Egypt, is now the scene of the return of the people and the masses.

Another of the square’s traffic islands is occupied by a tent covered in slogans against the Obama administration and Western media, accused of being lenient with the Muslim Brotherhood. The tent is run by a small party, Al-Ahrar Al-Ichitakiyin (Socialist Liberals), as one of its executives, Mohamed Wajdi, a retired officer explains. Here again is the army, and General al-Sisi as Nasser’s reincarnation.

Mustapha El-Guindy does not rule out a candidacy from Egypt’s new military hero, praised by the media non-stop. El-Guindy's own nationalist and socio-populist approach is very popular in these times of Nassermania, and he has plans to found a center-left party with the son of Nasser, Abdel Hakim, the professor Mohamed Ghonim — a world-class specialist in renal transplants — and “with the revolutionary youth, the true ones, not those from embassy salons.”

This future party’s program? “Minimum wage, bread, drinkable water and free electricity.” His words take a prophetic turn: “The poor are there, all around us. If we don’t take care of them, they will take over the Square.” Soon after, he climbs back into his sedan and disappears into the Tahrir night.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!

Pomp And Pirouettes: When Ballet Stars Bid Farewell

On June 11, the prima ballerina Eleonora Abbagnato bid farewell to the Paris Opera, under the gold roof of the historic Palais Garnier. It's an obligatory passage for Parisian ballet dancers of a certain age, a moment that is often happy, always dreaded and sometimes salutary.

Ballerina Eleonora Abbagnato performing at her adieux
Eleonora Abbagnato Official Instagram Account
Cecilia Delporte

PARIS — With one last look at Chagall's enchanting fresco, at the teachers who watched her grow up, at the stage that saw her blossom, Eleonora Abbagnato took her final bow. Never has a star ballerina's farewell been so dramatic, as her big exit was postponed by three cancellations due to a strike, and then the pandemic.

"I'm always positive, I think that destiny does things well," she says in her dressing room a few days before her "adieu." "I knew this evening would eventually take place!" This artist, who wanted to model her last dance on Le Parc by Angelin Preljocaj, ended up dazzling the crowd in a tribute to Roland Petit, which nicely echoed her career.

"He is someone I knew at the age of 10, so it was important to me to perform a ballet by this choreographer. The last time I danced Young Man was for Nicolas Le Riche's farewell, I was four months pregnant! It all began with Roland, and it all ends with him." The ballerina has lost none of her taste for the stage, but there are traditions that forge an institution: At the age of 42, each Opera dancer must leave the premises with a final au revoir to the public and the company.

"It's probably less painful than in other foreign companies, especially Anglo-Saxon ones, where there is no age limit but you are summoned to be told that you are no longer in the shape you were when you started out," says the former star Agnès Letestu. But how will this particular evening be remembered, as a rite of passage or the beginning of a new life? "The farewell is both a moment of extraordinary love with the hall, the orchestra pit, the backstage area ... and at the same time the turning of a page in the history of this institution. Even if the phoenix always rises from its ashes through the appointment of a new star," says Brigitte Lefèvre, the Paris Opera's dance director from 1995 to 2014.

No faux pas when choosing the last dance

This uniquely talented artist deserves the same exceptional ceremony created for the departure of Elisabeth Platel in 1999 and Carole Arbo two years later, which was televised for the very first time. For these kinds of events, the star's personal life comes into play — family members are present in the room, children occasionally come on stage. A perfectly choreographed protocol is followed to a tee, mixing various speeches with the arrival of the Minister of Culture; sometimes a special distinction from the Order of Arts and Letters is awarded. Moments of grace are sprinkled throughout the evening, such as the improvised dance between Aurélie Dupont — the director of dance at the time — and the departing star Marie-Agnès Gillot. The festivities continue into the night, charged with excitement and emotion.

These farewells are planned two or three years in advance when the time comes for the dance director to curate the future program. Aurélie Dupont, like Brigitte Lefèvre before her, likes to ask the star which ballet they prefer as their parting performance and which partners should accompany them.

These are intense moments sometimes experienced as mourning.

"There are some dancers who don't want to say goodbye because they don't like it, because the program doesn't suit them or because they don't feel fit enough," says Agnès Letestu. "I wanted to leave the Paris Opera with La Dame aux Camélias. I had talked to Brigitte Lefèvre about it. Except my farewell was scheduled before the ballet was programmed, so I had to find another one, but I did not agree. So I proposed to her to come back and dance it one month after I left the company, which was quite unusual."

Among the most requested works are the legendary ballets Giselle and L'Histoire de Manon. "The stars like to start with love stories that end badly. Everyone wants a ballet with real drama, in two or three acts, rather than a little pas de deux," says Aurélie Dupont. Dupont's first choice, La Dame aux Camélias, had already been scheduled two years earlier for the farewell of Agnès Letestu, so she settled on Manon. This work, heavy with meaning, was Dupont's big return to the stage after a serious knee injury in 1998, when she feared she could no longer dance.

Eleonora Abbagnato performing her final "adieux" at the Paris Opera

Like going to the guillotine

As for the brilliant Karl Paquette, it was with Cinderella — a ballet dear to his heart — that he retired at the Opéra Bastille, Paris' second opera house while many dancers prefer the old charm of the more famous Palais Garnier. "The story is funny, the ballet very narrative — one of the most beautiful successes of Nureyev. I loved the golden costume, the scenic effects, the finale of the grand pas de deux. The strongest moment was my entrance on stage in Act II to great applause, even as the musicians continued to play," he recalls.

These are intense moments sometimes experienced as mourning, like when Marie-Agnès Gillot cried heavily before her final step onto the stage. On that fateful day, Agnès Letestu says she felt a very special sensation, strengthening her senses, from her vision to her hearing. "Everything was multiplied tenfold," says Letestu who, a few months earlier, had the feeling of going to the guillotine. "I was very stressed four months before, I was afraid of hurting myself and not being able to dance, of not being up to it, of not enjoying every moment, of crying," says Aurélie Dupont, whose farewell was finally a calming moment. "I especially remember the applause, people were shouting, standing — it lasted more than 20 minutes. And this love is only for you."

I couldn't let myself be overwhelmed by emotion!

Nicolas Le Riche, now director of the Royal Ballet of Stockholm, evokes a "very strong feeling of corporation, of belonging to an institution that we celebrate at the same time." He was the only artist to bid farewell not to a ballet, but to a "special evening" of total freedom, mixing pieces like L'Après-midi d'un faune by Nijinsky and Béjart's Le Boléro. On stage, tributes were paid in his honor by prestigious guests such as singer Matthieu Chedid and actor Guillaume Gallienne.

"I found this repertoire, which transcended the ages, very moving. I received a magnificent note from Nijinsky's daughter. It's an evening where everyone is allowed to be moved and to live these emotions, except the person who is leaving. I couldn't let myself be overwhelmed by emotion, otherwise, I would have taken a step on stage and collapsed!" he recalls. How long did it take him to prepare such a spectacle? "I feel like answering in the manner of Coco Chanel, who made her hat in two scissor strokes. 'But it only took you two minutes?" says a disappointed customer. 'No, Madam, it took me a whole life," she replies. The same way I drew on all that I lived through," says the dancer.

Group photo of Paris Opera dancers in white tutus dancing in front of the Palais Garnier, with placards in protest of the French government's plan to overhaul retirement age

Paris Opera dancers perform in front of the Palais Garnier to protest the French government's plan to overhaul retirement age — Photo: Maxppp/ ZUMA

To each their own swan song

While Laëtitia Pujol hesitated a long time before making her farewell, hoping to leave discreetly, others end up with departure full of pomp and circumstance, sometimes to their surprise. "It's a moment you think about all the time without really thinking about it. I certainly wasn't looking forward to it and wanted something intimate. This was the opposite," says Karl Paquette. "The director of the Paris Opera at the time, Stéphane Lissner, wanted to leave on the symbolic day of December 31. "I was doubly pressured because the farewell was broadcast in the cinema, and each of my movements was immortalized. On the last day, you are in a particular state of conditioning because you are saying goodbye to 25 years of career and nearly 42 years of life. You have to protect yourself."

When the farewell came, it was a relief.

Only Benjamin Pech experienced his farewell, an evening in February 2016, as a liberation. And for good reason: "I had a hip injury in 2014. I was diagnosed with rapid degenerative arthritis. To remedy it, I needed a hip replacement. My farewell was scheduled for 2016, so I decided not to have the surgery and continue until then. For two years, I held on by dancing practically on one leg and had to turn to a repertoire that was no longer athletic but theatrical, with compositional roles that opened up other perspectives. Isn't a dancer above all someone who comes to deeply impact the spectator? When the farewell came, it was a relief," he says.

The star had chosen to dance alongside Sylviane, an 84-year-old spectator and one of his lifelong fans, who was present during rehearsals, but unfortunately became ill on the day of the performance. Pech took his leave on a program that included Le Parc by Preljocaj, the very piece that gave way to his injury: "I have come full circle."

Bidding farewell to the word "adieu"

Shortly after his or her performance, the future retiree must pass on their dressing room to another star, a moment that is "both very sophisticated and archaic. There are the great speeches, which say that this house will always be yours, but in reality, it becomes otherwise," says Brigitte Lefèvre. "You close the door, you leave and it's over," says Eleonora Abbagnato. But how do these artists project themselves into the future? "What is traumatic is that we are heavily drilled since we entered the dance school at 8 years old, with a professional outline where everything is already decided. How can you exist professionally when you have garnered such admiration, even fascination until now? At 42, most people are in the middle of their career, ours is coming to an end," says Benjamin Pech, who has become ballet master at the Opera of Rome, directed by Eleonora Abbagnato.

It is not a door that closes, but rather another door that opens.

While many stars go on to create or run a company, many experience a profound period of confusion. "I was secretly hoping that someone would call me for a position, that I could be of some value, but it didn't happen that way," explains Nicolas Le Riche. "I had already enrolled at Sciences Po for schooling [in management and leadership]. I had to create my own opportunities."

To remedy this uncertainty, Aurélie Dupont now offers support for company members, offering them a skills assessment and training beyond dance. In the future, Nicolas Le Riche would like the word "adieu" to be replaced by the idea of celebration. "It is not a door that closes, but rather another door that opens." Because under the gold of the Palais Garnier, the stars are eternal.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!