April 28, 2011

January 25th: Memoires of a non revolutionary

I always adored my country but I was never involved in politics. I could see where Egypt was heading and I did not like it but I never thought I could do anything to change it. I went by,
minding my own business, trying to live by my own principales, succeeding at times and failing at others. Even when the revolution started, I knew something big was happening but had zero vision of where it was going. But I participated with what I could, not as a political leader or an activist but like many Egyptians. I didn't take the front lines but I was one of the millions that made it happen. There are many people who deserve a lot of recognition for this revolution and they should be writing their experiences. I will be just writing my own account of January 25th as a regular guy.

Before January 25th
I was feeling extremely disgruntled with life in Egypt. Even though, I belong to that small percentage that had a decent life under the Mubarak regime, I could feel that corruption was getting out of control. I suffered from the lack of planning from the government, from the tabloid media, from the traffic and the pollution, from the judiciary system, the hospitals, etc. even the books my daughter was studying at school got on my nerves. Still, I had no vision of change ever happening. I started thinking about my future and I less and less saw that it will be in Egypt.

In September 2010, I started feeling the discontent of many others on Facebook. I could see how everybody was complaining about or making fun of the government. The tone was growing louder and more defiant but still without any serious vision for change. I even wrote a poem about it at the time.

Then one day, I read the calls for January 25th protests…

January 25th
Woke up in the morning not decided whether to go to the protests or not.  I had never been in a protest before and had no idea what to expect. I was worried that if I went down, I would be one of a 100 or so people and I was definitely not the caliber that would take the front lines and get at the security forces.

I wasn't on Twitter before, so by 2 p.m. I made a Twitter account and spent a couple of hours trying to figure out how it works. Finally, the tweets started coming and decided that I want to go. Called my cousin and another relative of mine, both of them were in my same situation. Another friend joined us.

We went at around 6 or 7 p.m., it was dark. We walked across Zamalek and I remember being worried not knowing what we would find there. We chatted during the walk but I was checking Twitter ever few minutes. Mobiles were cut off starting from the Cairo Tower and Hotel El Borg.  

We crossed Kasr El Nil and found that the Central Security had blocked the entrance to the square.  The officers were not allowing anyone in. A youngish officer put on his good guy face but - as usual - ended up sounding extremely patronizing said: "we're not letting you in because we don't want you to get hurt". A few arguments later, we were in.

I had never seen anything like that before. There were probably 20'000 people in the square, some were sitting on the sidewalks, some were walking around and some were chanting. I saw a lot of familiar faces and we started talking to some people who told us stories from the morning. I gathered that the police tried in the early hours of the protest to stop them but then retracted. Most clashes happened in front of the Parliament house. One of my cousin's friends was telling us how he got hit by a rock thrown by the police. Huh? What? I couldn't understand how the police were throwing stones at the protesters. Police surely had better ways to deal with protesters other than stoning them. Little did I know then.

All the streets leading into the square were blocked by armored cars and Central Security forces. There were a few protesters that looked exhausted; they had spent the whole day in the march. I talked with one of them; he wanted a cigarette, so I gave him the whole pack. I was proud of him and ashamed of myself for not being there with them from the beginning. Then I bumped into friend, a European reporter who was covering the protests and he told me about how the police aggressed the protesters in front of the Parliament.

People were chanting "al sha3b yoreed iskat al nezam" and I joined for half an hour or so. We walked around the square. Then, some idiot threw a fire cracker. People started running but for some reason I didn't run as fast. I guess I wasn't as stressed as everybody else. There were some high ranking police officers who walked around the outer limits of the square but looked like they were not going to do much. 

We spent a few hours there. Some people were starting to talk about a sit-in. I wasn't sure that was the right thing to do. I could not imagine – at the time – what would a sit-in do. I was sure that whoever pledged to sleep in the square was going to do it. I just did not understand what that was going to achieve. We went home.

January 26th
I woke up at 5 in the morning. Checked my Twitter and learned that the police at 2:30 attacked the protesters. I saw the videos on YouTube and the scene made me furious. Obviously, I knew very little about protesting and I had assumed that if things were peaceful until I left at midnight that the police would not try to end the sit-in. I realize now how naïve I was then.

The footage from the police attack made me extremely angry. I was there and I saw the people. Everybody there was peaceful, middle class, educated. The complete opposite of a crowd that would instigate violence. I could have been sleeping there.

The whole morning I was extremely angry. At around noon I read on Twitter that there was a protest happening in front of the Journalists' syndicate. That was a few blocks from my office. I called a friend of mine whose office is in the same building and we walked over there. At the intersection of Talaat Harb and Abdel Khalek Tharwat we looked and saw a protest in front of the syndicate, surrounded by a line of Central Security forces blocking the street while another group was protesting outside of the police line. As we were walking towards the protest, protesters standing outside the line started running. I couldn't understand why they were running. I couldn't hear any gun shots or tear gas but saw a 100 civilians running towards us. We didn't move.

As it turned out, half of the people running towards us were security people in plain clothes. They grabbed a few of the protesters and started beating them. We were shooting footage of that as it happened and tried to send it to a friend to upload it on YouTube.

The attack by the plain clothed officers didn't stop the protest, within a few minutes it had gained momentum again and we joined. We walked through Abdel Khalek Tharwat, then Mohamed Farid St. but the videos that we were sending did not upload from the mobiles so we went back to the office and uploaded them. It was 3:00 p.m. A couple of friends said they would join us and we would go down and join any of the protests. There were marches erupting all over downtown that day.

At around 6:00 a few friends gathered in my office. A couple of them had just come from El Galaa St. and they said that it was hell over there; lots of tear gas, burning car tires and garbage boxes on fire. The police were brutally trying to disperse protesters and were being very generous with tear gas. There was 7 or 8 of us so we walked out of the office and headed towards Galaa St.. We met a couple of friends in Talaat Harb and they joined us.

When we got to Ramsis St. the scene was extremely intimidating. Central Security personnel carriers were lined up between Ma3rouf and 26 Yolio Streets. Groups of 40 – 50 Central Security soldiers were walking around with their batons and targeted any group exceeding 3 people. As we tried to make our way to Galaa St. a group of them came running towards us and took 3 of us. They pushed them around for a couple of minutes and let us go, just to find another group of those soldiers running towards us. We crossed the street back towards Champolion St. and more of them came. The bastards were all over the place.

We started walking back towards downtown hoping we can find another way through Abdel Moneim Riad square and back into Ramsis, but the groups of Central Security were all over the side streets. It was futile. So, we walked to Tahrir and found over 5000 Soldiers and high ranking officers deployed all over the square. There were also hundreds of plain clothed security officers in groups of 30's roaming Tahrir or sitting on the sidewalks. There was no way a protest would start here. I checked my Twitter and it didn't seem that any other protests were going on at that time. It was around midnight.

I walked home that day thinking about what I saw. There was another side to Egypt that I wasn't aware of. The scenes in Ramsis St. and earlier in front of the syndicate were not of the police but of hooligans. This was not an organization enforcing the law those were criminals. They looked like criminals, dressed like criminals and had the human right concepts of criminals. As I walked I replayed the pictures in my head and I felt angrier than I did in the morning. I recalled the statements by Habib El Adly saying that he will not allow protests and in my mind I was going "son of a bitch".
Next Friday is the day.

January 28th
The evening before, my wife and I drove our daughter to my wife's cousin so that we could join the protests. We had invited a couple of friends to dinner and while we sat there chatting, I was boiling with anger. I checked Twitter every few minutes. A friend of mine was circulating an email with all the places to meet and I did the same. Our friends left and we went on the computer, Twitter and Facebook were not working. They were still functioning on phones.

We woke up at 9, had breakfast. I called a friend of mine who had moved to Europe a few months before and whom I knew would have wanted to be here. He had participated in many protests before and was totally in tune with what was going on in Egypt at the time. He didn't answer and that was the last international call I could make from my phone.  

I met with a few friends after prayer and we walked to 6 Octobar bridge to the exit by the NDP building. Right there was about 1000 people standing, all familiar faces. We couldn't walk down as the Security forces were blocking the exit. Every now and then a group of us would try to walk down and we'd get hit by tear gas. It was the first time for me. A friend had given me a mask which turned out to be completely useless. Then a woman was walking around offering Vinegar and onions. I took some and kept them in the useless mask. They worked like magic.

As we were standing there, I'd hear some people shouting "Allahu Akbar, Bulak is here", I would look towards the TV building and see 20'000 people marching. Then another shout would come "Allahu Akbar, Shobra is here". From where we were standing all I could see was columns of smoke coming from Galaa street signaling the march from Shobra. The columns of smoke started in Ramsis Square and every now and then a new column would rise to sky indicating the Shobra march coming closer. When they reached Abdel Moneim Riad, there were maybe 40'000 of them.

A couple of times I lead the chants as we were walking down the exit to try and get to Tahrir. Damn!!! That felt good. But the fact that we were calling "Selmeya" didn't matter much to the police; they maintained their generosity with the tear gas.

At around 3:00 we saw the confrontation building up at Kasr El Nil bridge. From where we were we could see 30'000 or more people marching forward while the police forces were retracting. We decided to go down and walk to Kasr El Nil and join the protest there. By El Borg hotel we found thousands coming running to us: "they are shooting at us". A new march started from there, went through Zamalek, Hassan Sabry St., 26 Yolio and up 15 Mayo bridge. Security forces had blocked the bridge there too and were starting their ritual of hammering us with their tear gas.

None of the protesters on 15 Mayo wanted to break the police line. We were all protesting for the day, just wanting to be heard. So, a couple of us walked to the officer in charge and tried to reach an agreement that we would make the protesters sit on the ground 50 meters away from the police line. That seemed to work and I was back at the line asking people to sit down. As we formed the first few lines the bastards started shooting tear gas again at us, this time in ridiculous amounts. One of the security forces was shooting the tear gas horizontally; I barely evaded a canister that was coming straight into my face. When I stood up there was so much gas around me I couldn't tell which direction I should go. I started running knowing that I will either end-up with the protesters, the security forces or flying off the bridge. I always heard of people suffocating from tear gas, but that was the first time for me. The feeling is further complicated by the panic and the running.

All of a sudden at 5:00 or 5:30, the police started escalating, without any reason (at least we didn't know any at the time). They bombarded us with tear gas and started shooting pallets. We retracted down to 26 Yolio and got the news that the army was ordered in and a curfew has been set at 6:00. Being a curfew veteran from 1986, when you weren't even allowed to open your window, I headed home.

The feeling that I had at that moment was that of victory. I knew that we had broken the police and that right there and then the regime had admitted that this was not just another protest. I had no idea what was going to happen next but I was already proud. This was the most alive I felt in a long time.

When I got home, my wife was pale. We had no means of communicating and judging by the footage on Al Jazeerah, anything could've happened to me. We stayed glued to the TV. For the first hour, I kept switching from the state channel to Al Jazeerah and couldn't understand what was going on. How come state TV is showing footage of 6 Octobar with nothing on it while Al Jazeerah is showing some serious shit going on? My mind refused to believe that this is how stupid our government was. I seriously could not accept the idea that this is where they were.

From our window we could hear the gun shots in Tahrir and could see the fire in the NDP. The next morning we were supposed to go and get our daughter. I tried to force myself to sleep but failed miserably.

To be continued

1 comment:

  1. "When I stood up there was so much gas around me I couldn't tell which direction I should go. I started running knowing that I will either end-up with the protesters, the security forces or flying off the bridge." That should be quotable and used by everone who was on Kasr El Nil Bridge then. So visual, alsmost brought me back to the teargas stained revolution days. Now should I thank you or damn you? :p Nice piece, continue plz.