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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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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