Determination and optimism mingle in Tahrir Square

Looking ahead to the first anniversary of the Arab Spring, Egyptians hope to finish in 2012 what the

"2011 ended honestly," says Khalid Abdalla, a 31 year-old British-Egyptian filmmaker and activist, about the New Year's Eve celebrations on Tahrir Square. "It felt balanced: an appreciation of what we have achieved over the year and what there is still to fight for, a sense of mourning over the cost."

The price Egyptians paid for the last year of revolution is astonishing. 2011 saw almost 2,000 protesters killed and 12,000 face illegal military trials, as well as a loss of 32 per cent of Egypt's tourist trade and an estimated $10 billion dollars of the country's money.

The revolutionaries are still pushing for the changes they demanded back in January. The government is no rush. Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzouri even said in a press conference last week, "for a country that was silent for 60 years, why are we pressing ourselves over five or six months?"

As Egypt moves into 2012, emergency law is still in place, there is no president, no constitution and the military, led by Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), is in power. There has been no reform of the police force, whose brutal behaviour towards civilians sparked the revolution. Little legislation has changed.

The ongoing elections, which saw violence, vote-buying, stolen ballot papers and illegal campaigning, will produce a parliament with no legislative powers that is overseen by the SCAF. Judging by the electoral results so far, this will also be a predominantly Islamist People's Assembly, even though no party was allowed to have a religious basis.

The military continue to authorise increasingly violent crackdowns. During the closing months of 2011 they used live ammunition, brutal beatings, sexual assault, tear gas and rocks against civilians in battles which stretched over five days. In November they resorted to walling protesters into Tahrir using concrete blocks to build barricades on its surrounding streets.

Even though Mubarak and a handful of his cronies are facing trial, the financial and political infrastructure of the regime is still very much in place. But yet they feel hope, people said during the New Year's Eve celebrations on Tahrir Square.

"I believe it's a duty to be optimistic," says Khalid, who has been documenting the revolution since January.

"It was very uplifting," adds Ghada Shahbender, from the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights who was also on the square that night. She likened the gathering to the initial 18 days of revolution: "It was the first fully festive assembly in Tahrir since 18th February, a week after Mubarak stepped down."

The square was lit up with candles and fireworks. Christians and Muslims gathered around protest tents on the central roundabout wearing homemade party hats. Families held posters of their loved ones lost in the year's numerous battles. Balloons in the Egyptian flag colours were released into the night sky.

Revolutionary singers such as Ramy Essam, who was imprisoned and tortured in March 2011, sang against the military, Coptic hymns came from a nearby church and a Sufi singer performed for the crowds.

Muddled with these messages of hope was the quiet acknowledgement that this year is sure to be harder.

"We will have a bigger fight than last year. We have a long way to go, " admits Amani, 54, a Christian researcher who also celebrated New Year on the square. She talked about the 9 October Copt-led demonstration at Maspero where the army killed 27 Christian and Muslim protesters. "The religious 'differences' are all politics. The government wants us to be divided. We will win."

"The military are not backing down," agrees Omar, 42, a musician and producer, "They have regularly escalated events and have repeatedly antagonized otherwise peaceful demonstrators."

It is clear when you talk to protesters they are mentally preparing to lose their lives in 2012. There will be more blood, many say.

"They will attack us but we will keep fighting," explains Ramy Essam, who has been nicknamed the singer of the revolution, "What I hope is people will go to the streets in January, stay and make a sit-in in every square in Egypt until change happens."

Although the international media focuses on these squares, last week's riot-police raids on nongovernmental organisations illustrated there are many frontlines of this revolution.

"The authorities try to stop our work because these organisations have succeeded in winning in court against the ruling military council," explains Khalid Ali, a prominent lawyer and director of Egyptian Centre for Economical and Social Rights, who fears further attacks.

"We speak about their crimes so they want to shut us up" adds Ghada.

The Internet has been another battleground this year. Bloggers like Maikel Nabil and Alaa Abd el Fattah have been imprisoned for the blog posts they write. Even the aged military council got involved by issuing communiqués via its Facebook page.

"Citizen journalism is also going to be increasingly vital as people recognise it as a tool of civil engagement," explains Khalid who is part of a media collective Mosireen. Mosireen collects and compiles footage from protests and disseminates the short clips via the Internet, which often end up in the traditional media.

Their YouTube Channel became the second most watched channel in the whole of Egypt following their continual stream of new videos documenting human rights abuses by the security forces.

This sparked a decentralised movement called Kazeboon. Meaning 'liars' in Arabic, in the last few weeks, it has seen groups spontaneously erect screens in streets and on squares and play these clips, all over Egypt. Kazeboon has become so popular it spread internationally; people are organizing screenings in New York, Paris and London.

The protesters face a lot of criticism that they are marginalised, divided and leaderless. Omar disagrees, adding the movement's strength is because "it's always been led, not by a person but by very basic, very simple precepts... Freedom, Liberty, Social Justice."

"We never had the 'majority' nor, and I say this with some ambivalence, have we needed them," he continues, "one per cent of Cairo would give you 200,000 people in Tahrir. If even 5% of Egyptians come down on the 25th of January the SCAF would realise their clock is ticking."

The anniversary is looming on the horizon and everyone is gearing up for it. Despite frustratingly slow change, when you look back to pre-revolution Egypt the people are bolder. If you look at the 18 days, you see maturity, especially on Tahrir. The last year seems to have been a process of self-education about what it means to go through a period of social change.

"What is crucial for me is my sense of time has shifted - no one really knows whether you will inherit what you are fighting for or whether you're fighting for a future generation. Everything is uncertain," explains Khalid, "But we all know the 25th of January is coming. That is really the New Year."

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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