As bullets flew and she fled across Tahrir Square one night last October, 99 per cent of Menna Essam’s brain was occupied with the urgent business of staying alive. But a tiny portion of that brain couldn’t help but notice that there was a young man running beside her, tall and gangly with high cheekbones and rectangular steel-framed glasses – and that he seemed to be noticing her, too.
Twenty-four people died that day, in what is known as the Maspero Massacre, when troops drove over and shot at a flood of protesters outside the headquarters of the Egyptian radio and television headquarters. It was a turning point in the collapse of the military regime that had attempted to hijack Egypt’s democratic revolution.
And it was the beginning of a love affair: Ms. Essam and that gangly young man, Mohammed Magdie, both 25, will register their engagement next spring, and plan to wed in defiance of her aunts, who think it is ill-fated for her to fall in love with a man she met as people died around her.
The young people of Egypt spearheaded a startling revolution over the past 20 months, ousting first the 30-year-old regime of Hosni Mubarak and then the generals who tried to succeed him. It made for heady times, and in the intensity of that whirlwind that swept the narrow streets off the square called Liberation, a great many romances blossomed.
Now a certain calm has settled over the country, grass and flowers have been replanted in Tahrir and a spate of engagements are being announced as the revolution’s young lovers begin to build their lives in the new country they have wrought.
Mr. Magdie and Ms. Essam knew each other before that day at Maspero, the way that young Egyptians of a certain economic and political stripe all know each other these days: from Twitter. But they had never properly spoken before they caught their breath in an alley off the square. Then Mr. Magdie escorted her on the subway to her home in the suburbs, hours out of his way on the subway.
“I really felt something,” says Ms. Essam, who has a fine-boned heart-shaped face and heaps of curly black hair. “And, I mean, I’m not the kind of person who feels things like that.” She paused, glanced at her smiling beau, and added, “God. This sounds cheesy.” He grinned.
The two began to talk on the phone, and then to date. Then one day last November, as young people took to the streets again against the military rulers, Ms. Essam rounded a corner, carrying supplies to the front lines, and saw Mr. Magdie, limp and being carried between two running friends. He had been shot.
He recovered, but their relationship barely survived. She followed him to a field hospital, and was mortified when he ignored her. (Mr. Magdie, as it turns out, had lost his glasses in the melee and didn’t know she was there most of the time.) She broke it off. Six months later, he called her and demanded they meet. “I told her that I love her,” he says. She rolls her eyes, almost managing to hide her own pleasure. She held out for two days. They have been inseparable since.
Their formal engagement has been delayed by cold, hard economics – the big retail chain where he works in marketing cut staff salaries in half, in the sharp economic contraction that accompanied the revolution, and his family business is struggling as well. She works with a women’s rights group, but he wants his finances in order before they wed.
Ms. Essam is confident their relationship will last, even as the adrenalin of their first months fades. “You’re fighting for something you believe in and he’s into it as much as you are,” she said. “Now we have many things in common … and I always feel like he’s got my back.”
Many of the Tahrir couples are unlikely, unexpectedly united by the drama of their days in Tahrir.
Acupuncturist Mayssa Sultan, 39, an Egyptian who grew up abroad, was working in Brooklyn as the revolution began. For nine months she agonized, watching it online, before deciding she had to quit her job and head to Cairo. At the first meeting of organizers she attended, she noticed a self-possessed fellow, Ahmed Salama, across the room. They saw each other again at a march, and within a matter of weeks, he had asked her to marry him.
“The first time I met her and we spoke about the revolution and our vision and our dream for our country – it’s something I can’t describe, but I felt it in my heart,” said Mr. Salama, 33, who works for a United Arab Emirates development company and is a volunteer in the National Association for Change. His leadership in that political group thrust him to some prominence in Tahrir and, he acknowledges, “I met a lot of girls.” When he fell so hard for Ms. Sultan, no one could quite believe it – “even me.”
And she says she was “freaking out.” But then she found herself beside him as the military opened fire last November: “And he’s shielding me with his body and saying it’s no big deal. ... There is intensity there. we’re not only fighting for ideals, we’re fighting for our lives.”
Their parents are startled but thrilled at their romance, she added, and they will marry soon.
Ramy Ghanem, 35, first laid eyes on Shaima El-Elaimy when she lay asleep in a row of exhausted demonstrators in a mosque-cum-hospital off Tahrir Square in the first days of the revolution. He saw her again in a crowd of protesters; they started talking, and he exchanged numbers with the tall, almond-eyed conference translator, who is also 35.
That evening a soldier cousin tipped her off that the troops in the square had orders to shoot to kill, she says – and since she knew Mr. Ghanem was going back, she called to warn him. They stayed up all night talking.
On Feb. 1, the first mass mobilization of the revolution, they marched together, and that night they slept side by side on the sidewalk in Tahrir. An elderly imam laid a blanket over them. She moved into a tent in the square; he climbed in one day and proposed. Startled, she sent him out again. “For me it was a bit too early.” But she said yes the next day.
Mr. Ghanem, a lawyer now working to end military trials of civilians, confesses to being something of a womanizer before he met his fiancée. “I didn’t want commitment, I loved my freedom. But, I saw her and I did something different from anything I did with any other girl in my whole life,” he says, still sounding a bit astonished. “I only thought that we were going to change the country, not that I was going to change – but I’m a completely different person.”
They married on July 17, 2011, one of the first weddings of the revolution – and when half their friends couldn’t leave Tahrir square to get to the wedding hall, the newlyweds went to Tahrir, white dress and all.
Ms. El-Elaimy, absentmindedly twisting the thick gold band on her ring finger, has no qualms about her choice. “Everything got stripped away. We were sleeping on the ground. You saw people dying in front of you – it just put things in perspective.”