Cairo on the morning of January 25 felt like something of a ghost town. Few civilians were to be found on the streets, most stores were shuttered, and the typically heaving downtown was deserted. It was a national holiday, and in the central town square, named Tahrir, or Liberation, even cars were scarce, and parking spaces—always sparse—were in abundance. The only conspicuous presence was that of Egypt’s police and state security. Rows of their box-shaped olive-green trucks lined thoroughfares and narrow side-streets, in some cases blocking them off for miles. Beside them were battered cobalt blue trucks—the ones used to whisk away prisoners and detainees. Throughout the downtown area and in neighboring districts, police and informants (easily identified by their loitering presence, darting eyes, and frequent two-second phone calls) were gathered around the otherwise empty major arteries of the city. Hundreds of them. Many wore black cargo pants, bush jackets and clunky army boots. Many more were in plain clothes—standing on street corners, at calculated intervals on sidewalks, in building entrances, on bridges, and in the few cafes open on a day when almost everything was closed.
Youth activist groups had designated January 25 as “Freedom Revolution Day.” The uprising in Tunisia, which in four short weeks sent President Zine el-Abidine Ben-Ali packing, had been closely watched by Egyptian activists and opposition leaders. They included members of the once-popular Kifaya (Enough), the youth-based 6th of April Movement, Karama, The Popular Democratic Movement for Change (HASHD), the National Association for Change, founded by former IAEA Chief Mohamed ElBaradei, the Justice and Freedom Youth movement, and the Revolutionary Socialists. Last week, some thirty of these activists met in the decrepit headquarters of the Center for Socialist Studies in central Cairo to organize a mass demonstration against the repressive Egyptian regime.
Egyptians have many grievances, with sectarian strife, police brutality, inflation and skyrocketing prices, and the vicious clampdowns by the government on any dissent topping that list. In the lead-up to last November’s parliamentary elections, press freedoms were curbed and dozens of opposition members were jailed. The elections themselves were widely seen as a sham, yielding a sweeping victory for president Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party. Then, on the eve of the New Year, a suicide bombing outside a church in Alexandria left twenty-two people dead and eighty injured.
The activists’ plan for January 25 was to send tens of thousands of Egyptians into the streets, and to have them stay there until Mubarak gave in to demands: justice, freedom, citizen rights, and an end to his thirty-year rule. The organizers—comprised, largely, of public university graduates in their twenties—had called on Cairenes to gather at several locations across the city, prepared for nights in the streets and armed with cameras—to document any police brutality, which has come to be expected at any public protest here.
To lobby support, the activists used Twitter and Facebook, targeting above all the 60 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people who are under the age of 25. A rap song was made and circulated, a video plea by the mother of the slain activist Khaled Said recorded, and Facebook groups formed to encourage people to join the protest.
On the 25th, I had made a plan with a journalist friend to head out early and stop by several of the designated protest locations—the Supreme Court, Cairo University, the popular Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque, and Shubra—before deciding where to go. Admittedly, we were skeptical. Just weeks before, in a similar call for demonstrations in Egypt in solidarity with the Tunisian uprising, I had arrived at a downtown square to find it barricaded by 200 shielded riot police. Inside were only nine protesters holding up three small banners.
But this time was different. Our first stop, around noon, was the Supreme Court, on usually bustling Ramses Street in the city center. There, we found rows of riot police with their batons, the same roadblock of trucks, and metal rails cordoning off the patch of sidewalk that state security had assigned for protesters. The government’s strategy, as on previous occasions, was to surround protesters with both metal and human barricades, trapping them.
In the allocated spot of sidewalk, we found only a single man, who we recognized as the defense lawyer of Ayman Nour, the opposition party leader who was thrown in jail after running against Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections. “They’ve been civil with me so far,” he said of the officers present. “They even offered me a cup of tea.”
We stayed for a few minutes, watching the crowd gathering, spotting CNN’s Ben Wedeman and an entourage of foreign press. But tweets and text messages were coming through about escalating tensions in Shubra—a working class district in the center of the city known as a stronghold of the Coptic Christian community. The neighborhood was still reeling from the New Year’s eve attack on a church in Alexandria, to which it had close ties. My friend called another friend, Mohamed Waked, an anthropologist and seasoned activist. He would join us, along with his brother, Amr, an actor who appeared in the film Syriana.
In Shubra, we joined a marching procession of about one hundred people, mainly Muslims, who were moving slowly through narrow, muddy streets, led by activists chanting into a speaker: “Christian or Muslim it’s not important, similar poverty similar concerns! Hosni Mubarak, Hosni Mubarak, the plane is waiting, the plane is waiting. Saudi Arabia is not far!”
Within an hour, the group had grown. The hundred had become a thousand. Behind them, thirty plain-clothes thugs and state security followed, not saying a word, not indicating concern. The cohort decided to proceed to Tahrir Square, Cairo’s central square, where tension was mounting and processions of 2,000 activists were coming in from different directions. Through Twitter, the protesters had agreed that all marches should converge there.
I thought to tell a journalist friend of our plan, and slowed down to make a phone call. In a second, my head tilted, glancing at the street behind me, I saw the attack: 300 shielded riot police stormed the crowd. Onlookers screamed. Police grabbed people by their necks, beat them, dragged some off, many of them kicking, some visibly bloody. Others found refuge in building stairwells, and some residents opened their doors for protesters to come in for cover. My friend and I ducked into a back street, eventually reuniting with Mohamed, whom we had lost amid the scramble to escape police.
We lingered, waiting for a car to come, trying to absorb what we had just witnessed. Mohamed looked around. He noted a group of informants with walkie-talkies down the street. “They’re trying to figure out our next move.” We laughed, and then regretted it, when a split-second later, four muscular men grabbed him from behind and ran off, taking him away, yelling at us to get out of the area fast. Despite the chaos, we somehow managed to hail a cab, headed for Tahrir.
By the time we arrived, Tahrir Square was filling up again with protesters, about 15,000 of them. Young men in their twenties with football-themed hoodies and Puma sneakers were everywhere. Young women too—some of them veiled, many of them not. Fathers with young children on their shoulders and by their sides filled the square’s grassy center. I spotted Al-Ghad party leader Ayman Nour, and the outspoken newspaper editor Ibrahim Eissa, who was fired last year for being too critical of the regime. Hala El Koussy, the well-known artist, was there too, and I noticed Amr Shalakany, a law professor at the American University in Cairo, carrying an Egyptian flag. Someone pointed to the novelist Alaa El Aswaany, in the distance. I could just about make him out through the crowds, wearing a burgundy scarf. Some members of the Muslim Brotherhood were also in attendance, spotted by a journalist friend who had interviewed them in recent weeks. They were there as independents, since the group’s leaders had decided it would not participate in the protests.
The streets were strewn with rocks and other debris from earlier scuffles with police. I was told that protesters and riot police had clashed, and that the police had already fired tear gas. We waited, expecting it to happen again. The chanting grew louder, and the crowd grew too. By 4:30 PM, I heard someone say that the last of the marching protesters had arrived in the square. News reports estimated that 20,000 to 40,000 people had gathered there. I debated this with journalists and friends: no one agreed on a figure.
Around the square, security forces began to move in. A bearded man in faded jeans and a faux suede jacket raised a speaker and called on the crowd to chant louder. A young man, about 19, climbed a pole and raised the Egyptian flag. A young girl in a pink sweater hoisted a banner, asking Mubarak to step down. She must have been about nine. She was smiling and seemed to think that this was a celebration. As the sun began to set, activists insisted that people remain here all night, or until Mubarak yields. They chanted for courage. “No one will die”.
For hours, this went on, chants interrupted by the firing of sporadic rounds of tear gas. Phone networks were cut and the light had dimmed. Reports were trickling in that there had been no mention of the protests on state TV, and that even Al-Jazeera coverage was sparse. No one seemed to be leaving. Small crowds tried to, but people cheered them back, telling them not to fear, to be one, to unite. Most of them stayed. By late in the evening rumors started to circulate that the Minister of the Interior had given orders for live ammunition to be used after 10 PM. In an uproar, the crowd shouted that they were still not scared, that nothing would move them except defeat of their ruler. They moved closer towards the police barricades, shouting into the air that the force of the citizens was stronger than any ammunition the police might use.
I had been close to the front of the crowd, facing the riot police. When I heard talk of live ammunition, I retreated back into the center of the square. I wondered if it might be time to leave, but others around weren’t flinching.
Close to 1 AM, we sensed something was about to happen. The number of riot police had increased, we noticed more shielded trucks in outlying side-streets, and the security barricade the police had erected seemed to be inching closer, closing in on the square. Suddenly, there were groups of thugs—strongmen in cotton shirts despite the cold—both moving among the protesters and in the surrounding streets. The riot police pulled down their masks.
The attack was ruthless. The police fired round after round of tear gas and began to strike protesters indiscriminately with their batons; the thugs, who were beating down on protesters—in some cases with metal chains and knives—seemed to have orders to kill. With the air thick with sulphur, people fell to the ground, many toppled by the sheer force of the security forces moving in. Water cannons smashed through the crowds.
Hours later, many of us were back home, checking our Twitter and Facebook feeds for news and wondering what would happen next. Would there be a curfew, would the president release a statement, would the state concede anything? What would tomorrow’s papers say? People joked that the ruling family had just landed at Heathrow, a hundred bags in tow. Ayman Nour tweeted that his son had been detained. Activists slammed Hilary Clinton’s remarks describing Egypt’s government as “stable and looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” A picture of an empty tear gas canister circulated, the zoom focusing in on ‘Made in USA’. Organizers circulated a message that the protests would continue, tomorrow, the next day, and Friday after midday prayers.
“Don’t forget,” tweeted one activist, “that in Tunisia it took a month. #Egypt is bigger, it will take more. #jan25, keep it alive.”
At the time of this writing, protests have begun again. I can hear the echo of sirens in the city, and I’ve been receiving tweets about what’s happening downtown, about arrests and “abductions.” Our friend Mohamed has not yet been released from the custody of state security. In all, 860 protesters were arrested throughout the country, and three people were killed. A journalist friend who is out covering the events posts on her Facebook page: “Cairo is under siege today. By the government’s thugs and security apparatus. Protests, kidnappings, beatings, arrests, tear gas. What the hell!”