White puffs of flavored shisha smoke float between patrons sitting in red plastic chairs at Cairo’s Downtown Café. It was here on cold winter nights, dressed in coats and warm sweaters, that activists planned the demonstrations that would startle the nation and the world.
The April 6 Youth Movement—one of a handful of movements that propelled the Arab Spring—met for months at Downtown Café. They talked about what to do if they were arrested while protesting and how to make homemade armor to shield against beatings by police. Planning crested on January 23, 2011, two days before the rest of the world knew of the group’s grand plans. That day, four members mapped out marching routes for protests. Those protests sparked an 18-day uprising that toppled a 30-year regime and ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak.
A popular meeting spot for activist groups like April 6, Downtown Café is among countless gritty, glowing tea shops peppering streets across Cairo’s bustling core. The affordable, open-air venues have long been as vital to intellectual discourse among the reform-minded as cups of sugared tea are to hospitality in the region. Café culture is fundamental to Cairo’s rich history.
Speaking inside his own café, a short walk from the April 6 haunt, Aley Dakroury remembers the days just before the 2011 revolt when police raided the streets of Borsa, home to Cairo’s stock exchange and more than a dozen cafés. Security forces prevented café owners like Dakroury from filling the typically bustling pedestrian boulevards with tables and chairs. He says the secret police had tipped off local security forces that this street was a popular gathering place for groups grumbling about Mubarak’s government. In fact, Dakroury says, state security spies often posed as patrons. Later, with the revolt in full swing, demonstrators sometimes escaped the nighttime cold of nearby Tahrir Square by sleeping inside Borsa’s cafés.
Historical figures, however, looked elsewhere for the comforts of cigarette smoke and steaming tea. Near Tahrir on a street named Talaat Harb, Café Riche still stands, one of the few icons of a bygone era that retain their authentic character. Café Riche was built in 1908—after World War I but before the Ottoman Empire fell—and became a popular meeting place for early revolutionaries and then for intellectuals.
Downstairs, in an old-fashioned saloon, sits a printing press said to have published anti-British pamphlets during Egypt’s 1919 revolt. That same year, an attempted assassination against then-Prime Minister Youssef Wahba Pasha was carried out in front of the café.Antique telephones and radios collect dust in corners here. And behind a beach pine wood bar, a wooden panel pivots in circles; legend says that, during raids, reformists would escape through the opening into a network of underground tunnels.
Black and white portraits adorn the café’s white walls, capturing regulars who once busied the place—among which are a slew of leftists, writers, and intellectuals who frequented Riche in the 1950s and 60s. In those days, men didn’t seek revolution but craved societal reform. Today, a protester or two from a demonstration or march that might pass down Talaat Harb Street can occasionally be seen coming and going through the front doors.
Literary, intellectual, and politically infused gatherings are not a new phenomenon in the region, yet the fora have changed. The tradition of meeting to share ideas dates back 5,000 years, when it was an activity for the privileged. Later, in 9th-century Iraq, several centuries after the birth of Islam, this type of talk emerged among the middle class and blossomed in places like Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus. The notion of these meetings, known as mujalaset, grew common in pre-revolutionary France, where they were popularized as “salons”, after the name of the room in private homes where they were held.
Today’s revolutionaries gather in more modern but modest cafés. Once frequented primarily by men, downtown Cairo’s cafés are open to anyone, drawing patrons with their warmth and often low cost of coffee and tea—a critical feature in a society where 40 percent of people live on less than USD 2 a day. They attract the young and old, the quiet and giddy, and aren’t foreign to long card games filling dull afternoons.
While many now seek public meeting points, some government critics, such as esteemed writer Alaa Al Aswany, continue the tradition of hosting salons to speak about the need for reform. Private venues are, perhaps, safer than alfresco cafés. During the days of Mubarak’s 30-year rule, Aswany was forced from a coffee house for encouraging critical discourse. Other activists have faced similar circumstances, some arrested from tea shops before being detained by security forces in the years preceding the 2011 revolution.
On a recent evening, more than a year after the 2011 revolt. Amal Sharaf, co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, sat in one of Downtown Café’s plastic red chairs well into the bustling night. Bright, fluorescent lights illuminated the place, and patrons sat largely uninterrupted, barring street beggars pleading for money.
“Those were the best days of my life,” Sharaf quietly said, slowly lighting her cigarette. She listened to beeping horns from the street, smelling a breeze mixed with shisha and remembering the day she sat in a similar chair and planned a revolution.