I am asked to write about the recent events in Egypt, and my account will be personal whatever else it is. I saw people die, I saw their killers, I saw commentators – some of them close acquaintances or colleagues – lie about it through their teeth. Inevitably, it will be a tiny portion of what I believe will be the main epic of the Egyptian people for decades to come.
As a journalist I have worked for the most powerful pro-government press establishment in Egypt for nearly 12 years. The position has provided a level of social protection against abuses constantly witnessed on the streets; it has acted as a financial and political buffer, replacing citizenship in a society where citizenship grants few if any rights.By restricting my contribution to cultural and intellectual topics and working in English, at the same time, I have managed to avoid direct involvement in the wholesale distortion, misinformation and sheer incompetence that has made up so much of what went for balance and objectivity on the pages of publications printed by this institution, especially since a new team of chief editors were summarily appointed by the Shura Council in the summer of 2005.
Like many Egyptians, until I saw thousands upon thousands of demonstrators gathered in Maidan at-Tahrir on 25 January – saw that they were neither Islamists nor negligible – and totally identified with them – I was largely sceptical about Egypt having much capacity for true dissent. It is something of a media cliche by now to point out that the opposition was already half oppressed, half co-opted, powerless against the airtight alliance of cannibalistic capitalism and corrupt governance. Even the “banned” Muslim Brothers, of whom I am no supporter, were criminally ousted from parliament during the last elections and had since considered taking to the streets in protest.
Then again, no one suspected that the People’s Assembly was ever a representative body anyway (the same is true of the Press Syndicate, membership of which requires an official position at a government-approved institution by law, and provides little beyond installment plans for the purchase of cars and apartments or reduced-price vacations). Among writers – and in the last six years I have been as much a writer in Arabic as a journalist in English – there remained a sense of relief that (since the people failed repeatedly to show revolutionary oomph) the government, if it did nothing else, could at least keep “the Islamist threat” at bay. As much as western regimes, the traditional intelligentsia was for the longest time duped by fear of theocracy; and to this day protesters and their supporters are emphatically rejecting Khamenei’s blessings.
NDP thugs were known to exist long before they attempted to disband protesters on donkey- and camel-back last Wednesday (2 Feb) – the night on which allegedly sincere and peaceful supporters of Mubarak managed somehow to bombard protesters with tear gas (as well as stones and Molotov cocktails), while snipers stationed on the roofs of the highest buildings waited for the cover of darkness to commit murder in cold blood – but few outside the Muslim Brotherhood felt they had enough of a stake in the electoral process to object to the thugs’ presence. People knew they had the protection of the police, and no one dreamed they could ever be deployed against peaceful protesters on such a scale – partly because no one dreamed there would ever be peaceful protesters on such a scale. Since 25 January other threats have been held up to Tahrir as well: the threat of chaos, the criminal threat, the constitutional-emptiness threat, the foreign-agenda threat. BS! I have not lost touch with the protests since 25 January and I am grateful that I have lived to witness them.
Egypt’s security apparatus is among the largest and best funded institutions of terror in the world today. It has practised torture, extortion and murder systematically for as long as anyone remembers; and I am grateful that I have lived to see it defeated, humiliated and exposed – and to have contributed, however little, to that glory.
Tuesday, 25 Jan. Maidan, the Egyptian word for “square” or “circle” – as opposed to the Syrian-Lebanese word saha, for example – originally means arena or battle front; and during the last week of January many of those to whom Maidan at-Tahrir becomes a home or a second home, partly inspired by the lyrics to a well-known song from the 1970s by the oppositional composer-singer Sheikh Imam Eissa, will start referring to the principal hub of modern Cairo simply as the Maidan: “The brave man is brave, the coward is cowardly/Come on, brave man, let us go into the arena.” In the space of a fortnight the spot at which thousands of younger Egyptians have gathered, contrary to all expectations, will have turned irrevocably into a place of memory, a historical site. Passing the square or hearing about it, people start to wonder whether “this is real”; they are already joining in. Faces and voices are incredulous, but it is true: for once at a political event the number of demonstrators is actually greater than the number of Central Security troops restricting their movement and ready to subdue them by force; for once a political event is taking place in the open, in a central space, lasting all day and well into the night. Of course, by Saturday 29 Jan, Tahrir will have turned into a maidan in every sense possible.
Central Security is a branch of the military placed at the disposal of the Ministry of Interior for purposes roughly equivalent to those of the riot police. Best known for their unthinking violence, they tend to be army conscripts from working-class provincial backgrounds (less legally, army conscripts in the form of guards are also routinely employed in the service of police officer’s families, buying groceries for the madam and using the state-owned police vans popularly known as el box to transport the children to school); directed by loyal commanders, Central Security do what they are told; and along with legal complications regarding the right to peaceful protest, emergency law (which in practise allows any member of the police to arrest and indefinitely detain any member of the public), and possible intervention from the notorious (plainclothes, highly skilled and practically autonomous) State Security, they have been a sufficient disincentive up to this point. Yet none of it stops people, thousands and tens of thousands, from flocking to Tahrir now – all of it in response to a seemingly stray Internet call for solidarity and anger?
The initial demonstration was announced on the popular Facebook Page called “We Are All Khalid Said” (a reference to one young man who died in the process of being brutalised by a low-rank policeman on the streets of Alexandria, without charge, on 6 June 2010). It was started by a young man “of good family”, to translate the classist Egyptian expression ibn nass, well-off and internationally connected, a product of the global economy and the kind of sheltered upbringing that produces conscientious and well-meaning geeks. Born in 1980, Wael Ghoneim is Google’s Middle East marketing manager. (On Sunday he will be kidnapped by State Security and held, blindfolded, in secret confinement until the next Monday, when he made a powerful appearance on Egyptian satellite television.) For months the Page worked loosely in liaison with four online movements – April 6, Youth for Justice and Freedom, Hshd and the Popular Front for Freedom – as well as the El Baradei Campaign, the Muslim Brothers (who will keep an admirably low profile despite playing a very significant role in the survival of the Tahrir community) and the Democratic Front Party.
The demonstration was planned, with truly poetic irony, to coincide with Police Day, a national holiday commemorating a major act of heroism by Egyptian police troops besieged by British forces in Ismailia on the eve of the coup d’etat-turned-revolution of 1952. I am among the majority who think 25 January will come to nothing, but by evening I too have trouble holding back tears. There are clear signs of life in the long dead body of my true constituency – political participation by sheer force of right – and it is not driven by any (inevitably suspect) political programme. It is sincere, it is civilised, it is tidy, it is – and this too has mattered to me throughout – cool.
That evening I leave Tahrir around 11.30 pm. People are singing, bearing signs, lying in circles on the asphalt. They are predominantly young and secular. Even Central Security guards, with smiles on their faces, are humming the most popular slogan, adopted from the revolution in Tunisia: ash-sha’b yureed isqaat an-nidham (the people want to bring down the regime). A group of protesters surround one young man in what appears to be a standoff; they prevail on him to remove stones from his pockets. “Whoever throws a stone belongs with them,” I hear one of them say, referring to the security forces stationed at one entryway near by, “not us.”
Outside Tahrir the traffic proceeds normally; there is a sense of danger and excitement, the area surrounding the square is sealed off, but traffic proceeds more or less normally. I have barely arrived home when I find out that, desperate to disband protesters intent on spending the night in Tahrir, Central Security has attacked the demonstrators with tear gas, rubber and live pellets, canes and armoured trucks. A friend of mine ends up with 63 pellets lodged in his body; at least five friends of mine – two of them award-winning writers – are mercilessly beaten; in the next two days there will be numerous, more or less brief arrests, notably outside the Supreme Court near the Press and Lawyers syndicates. By 1 am the Maidan is more or less empty, and despite continuing demonstrations in the area and news of extremely violent confrontations in Suez – led by Alexandria and Cairo, the entire country is rising up – things appear to have quietened somewhat for the next two days. They are not over.
Tuesday 1 Feb, when a million people under protection of the army establish the virtually independent City of Tahrir – a fully functional and demographically varied community whose population at the time of writing has not dropped below 30,000 for a minute since Saturday 29 Jan – is still a long way off. At the time of writing pro-Mubarak demonstrations, announced repeatedly since then, have fizzled out to nothing after it transpired that they were invariably penetrated by criminal elements and police, directed not by popular will but by official and business interests. In times of need a decades-old dictatorship relies on the poverty, dependency and ignorance it has spent so much on cultivating – but lies can only go so far once the barrier of fear is broken. Already on Tuesday people who have been to the Maidan believe they are inhaling cleaner air, to the point where some of them are wondering whether it is because the numbers of vehicles in the area have significantly dropped.
Friday, 28 Jan. Of the many different fumes potent enough to induce a significant state change that I have experienced in my own body, I now have an additional one to give me flashbacks: tear gas. For someone who has never tried it, where a sufficient amount is inhaled, the effect is fiercely disorienting. Stinging sensations all over the face are accompanied by a temporary inability to breathe, and eyes – already clouding over – seem to reflect the death throes of the victim. Soda on the eyes and onion or vinegar soaked fabric on the nose: from that day I can count at least 30 young men crying out, standing or lying prone on their backs, wondering whether they were about to die. Solidarity among the demonstrators was instant and absolute; among the most touching remarks I heard exchanged in the entryways of residential buildings was, “Don’t panic, just don’t panic. It only lasts five minutes.”
It was on Friday 28 January, with both internet connections and mobile phone lines completely cut off all across the country, that I set out to the site of the oldest mosque in Egypt in Misr Al-Qadima, Jami’ ‘Amr, where one of many demonstrations planned for this, Angry Friday (I would personally call it Liberation Friday, but that is not the point), was to set off after the weekly group prayers. There were four of us on the Metro, all writers. Before we arrived at Mar Girgis, the two women put on headscarves and separated from my friend and me. At the entrance we asked a young man where the women’s section was. “I don’t know,” he said, with a strange look in his eyes. “This is my first time here.”
That look, the desperate determination it expressed, the all but suicidal readiness to effect change it communicated silently across classes, cultural backgrounds, even political orientations, will no doubt remain among the most defining experiences of my life.
For close on half an hour we endured a Friday sermon in which we were prevailed on to avoid sedition and, where our just demands were not met on earth, wait for the reward in the hereafter. The ameen that follows each request at the end was all but inaudible when the imam mentioned the name of Mubarak. It was not clear whether calls for protest would be met in sufficient numbers here of all places, particularly in the absence of the ability to confirm them. I am secular, not a practising Muslim, but I performed my prayers devoutly and did all I could to reach out to God. No sooner had the prayers ended than the cheering sound of hundreds chanting in unison emerged from the deepest point in the mosque, with people elsewhere rushing to join the fast forming block of people that would exit the premises as one: Islamists, human rights activists, conscientious geeks. By the time we reached the main street we had lost our female companions, and Central Security were already firing peremptory tear gas. My friend and I ended up in isolation from intellectuals and activists; until we departed Misr Al-Qadima, we were among everyday working-class people for the most part, chanting the slogans adopted all across Egypt, avoiding Central Security violence and occasionally attempting to stay violent responses to it, sharing carbonated beverages with which we splashed our eyes to reduce the effect of the tear gas, sharing water, scarves, what food there was, and cigarettes, as well as helping the injured off the ground calling on the demonstrators not to scatter.
In Misr Al-Qadima I saw uneducated 15-year-old girls brave enough to face Central Security head on, shouting “Down with Mubarak”; I saw a mechanic nudge his friend: “Are you from South Africa, man? Why aren’t you joining in!” I saw elderly women patting the backs of demonstrators and muttering, “God grant you victory.” Then my friend and I, having stopped at a cafe where Al Jazeera was broadcasting reassuring news from all over the city, set out towards downtown. It was 2 pm.
The idea was to walk, through Ain Al-Seerah and Majra Al-‘Uyoun, to Qasr Al-‘Aini Street and whence to Tahrir, where we realised the main battle had already started and where State Security were deploying fire hoses in addition to everything else. Little did we know that the very simple business of traversing this thoroughfare on foot would take up the rest of the day and night. I will cite only two moments from that period of the day: the arrival at the Majra Al-‘Uyoun end of Qasr Al-‘Aini – where we converged with thousands arriving from Maadi – and the point at which, sitting next to me on the steps of one residential building, his face soaked, one little boy who could not have been older than five or six from the near-by neighbourhood of Sayed Zainab said, “I want to go home.” Replaced by others, people would take refuge in the side streets and the buildings, but they always came back out.
Hours and hours. Slogans, attempts to win over Central Security, squabbles with the neighbours. The sight of thousands of unarmed young men taking over the streets together, their heads raised, chanting to the balconies as they passed Enzell, enzell (“Come down, come down!”) and of people throwing apples and bottles of mineral water to them, of other young men taking of their pyjamas and rushing inside to join them: I will die proud of having been part of that sight.
By evening, while still firing pellets and tear gas, Central Security will have fled; some of them returned individually to hunt down stone-throwing protesters on the streets of Garden City one by one, their guns loaded with live ammunition. Violence had broken out after a white car with diplomatic plates ran down some 12 people while it drove past at 120 km per hour, reportedly killing four. Thankfully, before I took refuge in a friend’s house in Garden City, I managed to phone my mother to tell her I was alive and well; I did not tell her that people were being shot point blank while President Mubarak gave his first, vastly disappointing speech, speaking of “the safety and the security of Egypt’s youth”, the very people who were being killed in order for him to stay in power.
Later, not so much later, we will find out about the inexplicable and absolute disappearance of the police; most of us will take it as a sign of our victory in a battle we joined without arms. Friends were hosed down while praying on Qasr Al-Nil Bridge, beaten to death, run down by armoured cars. But in the end the Maidan had been completely occupied by the people – for the first time since 1952 there is a truly public space in Cairo, a space with a voice and a will. Equally importantly, the police were humiliatingly defeated. I believe I will always remember the cowardice and brutality of State Security, the hysteria and determination of my fellow Egyptians.
As a writer, as a journalist, Friday 28 January has given me back my public voice. It has confirmed to me the existence of a homeland and a people of which I am part. All I ask of the security apparatus at this point is that, if they are going to bomb us with tear-gas, they should at least use tear-gas that is not older than the expiry date inscribed on the cannisters.
Wednesday, 10 February, 2011