This is a first hand eyewitness account from a friend of mine who is in Egypt right now.
25 Jan 11 – The Beginning
I had made up my mind not to go to Tahrir; I had hoped for the best for the protesters. Though the protest was legal, I had a great deal of trepidation about how events could unfold. Hosni Mubarak is well reputed to wield a heavy hand over his people. However a friend wanted to go. Out of concern for him I went. I thought I knew the streets downtown better and could navigate us out more easily. I was wrong.
The whole thing started with a few hundred protesters in the street in front of the police barricades. There were a lot police and plain clothes officers blocking both ends of one of the streets leading into Tahrir Square. But there were also a lot of people on the sidewalks taking pictures, remaining passive, doing nothing. However, the atmosphere was that of a standoff. The few protesters started marching, and the plainclothes barrier ceded way. A few stragglers like myself walked along at a distance behind. By the time we had gotten around the block, the crowd in the street was huge, and sidewalks had filled to capacity.
Feeling braver, my companion and I wandered from the sidewalk to the street. Over barriers we went as the streets of Tahrir are filled with protective barriers. People were chanting that they wanted change, wanted Mubarak to step down – a very bold statement to be uttered aloud nevermind shouted in Tahrir.
I don’t know how anyone else was feeling, but I was tense. I was tense the minute I left my house. I was tense when all was quiet, relatively speaking, in Tahrir. The protests were peaceful; no one was doing anything but vociferously speaking their mind. Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw the water. I quickly ran to my photo-taking companion to alert him to the water cannon. People were outraged when they saw it.
A couple young guys immediately started to mount it. One youth in a red t-shirt got on top. Then another guy came out of nowhere – I think the top of the cannon – and started pummeling the youth in red, who was taking a real beating. They rolled off the cannon and into the crowd. I couldn’t see what happened to them afterwards.
(A YouTube video that I later saw shows this struggle. Someone on his cell phone got the two falling to the ground. The youth in red, on his back being beaten, ended up on top when they rolled to the ground. He got up and fled. The other guy, on top once, definitely got the worst of the fall.)
People were very alarmed that the riot police were so hasty to break up a peaceful and legal demonstration. Some people in the street and on the green immediately knelt down in prayer. Altogether there must have been 20. Other people went through the crowd shouting that the protest despite all must be peaceful.
The scene became chaotic quickly. People started running. Some picked up rocks. Others signaled not too. And many exhorted peace, saying this must be a peaceful protest. The police moved in quickly. Batons went flying into the crowd. The protesters on the sidewalk rushed back and forth watching the mayhem in the streets. Police suddenly were everywhere. People started yelling to the people in the buildings. “Come down” became the cry against the violence in the streets.
We stayed for a little while going back and forth on the sidewalk. The atmosphere became frantic as riot police started mounting the sidewalks to push and beat protester and spectator alike. We made our way to the metro, but we were stopped by a man who said not to go in that direction because the authorities were taking photographs so that the secret police could round up and arrest everyone later. We decided to beat another path and headed in the opposite direction. I would much rather walk miles out of my way than get my name posted on that auspicious list.
We found our way past the police lines. And they were everywhere. We quickly came across another couple of lines at ease on the side of the main street leading to Tahrir Square from Shubra. Then another large mass of protesters came around the bend from Shubra. My friend, being in a state of heightened alarm, wanted to leave. Grabbing a cab to Mohandesine, we saw large pockets of protesters making there way to the main square, a very large group crossing 6th of October bridge.
26 – 27 Jan 11
Ongoing pockets of protests that we watched from television. Some violence. We had no idea that 25 January would be so profound. And we certainly had no idea what tomorrow would bring.
28 Jan 11- The Turning Point
Having gone by metro to Tahrir that Friday, I came up behind the police lines at the Orabi Station. In addition to police in riot gear, there were a lot of casually dressed thugs carrying huge sticks, pipes, knives, guns, and other things. I didn’t know who they were, or what side they were on. I found some other young women in jeans and wearing head scarfs who said they were going home to a place near Tahrir. They told me that the men were plainclothes police thugs.
Meanwhile the plainclothes people started menacing people in the street. I said I was lost in English so they left me alone. But they hurried people back into the underground, and one guy was hitting people with the side of this foot long knife. The people trapped on the stairs to the metro couldn’t go anywhere because someone had closed the gates at the bottom of the stairs.
A mother and her two daughters were trapped also in Orabi so I stayed with them. The two other women I had met were now holding big sticks. I don’t know if it was because we had all discovered our bravery or our fear. They went into the fray, and I stayed with this woman and her teenage daughters to make our way to Tahrir. I truly was lost, and I wasn’t going to leave a woman and two 13 year olds alone in these streets.
So we stayed away from the crowds, but the police were omnipresent and very pushy. We were forbidden to go down Ramses, then allowed. On our way, we saw police were filling rifles, and I was deeply saddened that such weapons were going to be used against a nonviolent people in a nonviolent protest. It also demonstrated the difference between the unarmed civilian population and the police.
One small group of people in the doorway of a mosque exhorted us to stay in the doorway or to go into the safety of this “house of god.” I stayed because I just needed to feel a little safety. People, singletons, couple, and other small groups hurried along the streets, which seems benign except for the presence of the police and their arbitrary orders veraciously shouted out to the people . The message was clear: We were not allowed on the streets. No reasons were given.
Standing in the doorway we began to hear shots. The girls who were very frightened became more so. I assured them that the shots we were hearing were teargas canisters, nothing more, but really I had no idea. When continuing to move toward Tahrir, we began to hear the crowds and see plumes of teargas. Suddenly, we saw the crowds and teargas canisters being lit off indiscriminately in all directions.
We sought a seat over by the Ramsis bus station, near the Hilton, and watched the crowd. The subtle scent of teargas wafted over to us and irritated our noses. We saw the crowd change direction when stopped by the gas, bullets and police. The rallying cry was “over there,” signaling to other protesters, those caught in the gas and others, the direction to follow.
Then teargas canisters started falling in the scarcely populated area of the bus terminal, so we ran for safety toward the breezes of the Nile. More desperate people were headed toward us to escape the pervasive gas. We stopped to go into a public toilet so the girls could get a drink and calm down. When we came out, there were a lot more people in our area. Gas canisters were flying everywhere.
We got caught in a huge cloud of it, and we wrongly cowered in a corner. I had my scarf, which I had wet down in the bathroom, held against my face, and I was taking shallow breaths, but we were trapped. There were two cordons of fencing around this washroom oasis. We ran like rats from the corner we were in, but the choices were scaling a high fence or hedging through the gas to the egress. I dropped my scarf and scaled the fence, but I had to wait for my new-found sisters in the midst of this mayhem.
One girl jumped the fence and the other two went through the gas. We ran. There were street vendors on the corner from whom I bought tissues. My companion bought a soft drink of which she took sips and sprayed into the faces of her crying, gagging daughters. One vomited. I had the presence of mind not to breathe deeply, and my scarf helped a lot, but the affects of the gas were undeniable. My face, nostrils and eyes felt like they were on fire.
We happened upon an ambulance that were helping the people overcome by the riot police and their minions. The girls holed up there while the EMTs worked their magic. In the interim we saw a man fall from the bridge, and there was word another had died from teargas inundation. Everyone I saw had a face reddened from the gas, and some had open wounds.
So why was a foreign woman out on the streets of Cairo. I don’t really know. I told myself when leaving my home that there has to be a witness, a witness to the evil men do and to their goodness too. My companion Mona told me that I gave her courage. She told everyone that I was American, and I was brave enough to face down the minions of Mubarak, despite my telling her to shush. Because really, I was afraid too. I didn’t look into cameras, and I am certainly no hero, but people were genuinely welcoming to have me there beside them on the streets. Well, perhaps not the police.
Nonetheless, we sucked up a lot of teargas, despite being a relative distance from the pack. We waited for the girls to emerge from the ambulance, then walked over to the Nile. We wanted to walk along the corniche to make our way home, but riot police had cordoned off the main road, and we were afraid to walk by for fear of being gassed or worse, cudgeled.
Then throngs of teargas victims passed by, and we started giving out tissues to strangers. They had been teargassed by police up by the state television building. People who walked by were happy to see us giving them tissues. There was a genuine sense of brother- and sisterhood. We were helping each other against the mechanisms of thuggery. One poor, old man broke off a piece of his onion for me to offset the effects of teargas.
We sat on the corniche for a while trying to find a ride out of the battle zone. A stranger stopped to pick us up. He brought us through a small area ceded by the police lines and left us near the aqueducts, from which we could walk to the metro. On our walk, we started to see more people in the streets. Then appearing before us were throngs of people walking to Tahrir over the Malak Al Salah bridge. There were thousands. We were told that all of Dar Al Salam was going to Tahrir. People in the buildings overlooking the route were throwing down bottles of water to succor the masses heading toward the battleground.
People in the streets were cheering. Young boys saying they wanted to go. And young boys going. The crowd cheered us to go, but we said that we had been there for several hours already. After the crowd had passed we made our way again. We had gone only several steps before yet another crowd similar in mass had made its way on the bridge. I was amazed at the sheer mass of humanity, again. All this from one area in the southern suburbs of Cairo.
29, 30, 31 Jan. 11
The protesters in Tahrir held their ground. Again, and amid the uncertainty of whether they would persevere against the numbers the regime would turn out tomorrow.
1 Feb. 11
We took the metro to Saad Zaghloul because the ones nearest to Tahrir were closed. It was a short walk and a lot of people were out so we felt very safe. Before going into the square, our things were searched. I didn’t have ID, so I was patted down by an apologetic female protester. The protesters were assisting the army with security in the square. Everyone was helpful, cordial and welcoming. There were smiles all around, despite the intensity of the situation.
Entering the square, we found it to be a microcosm of the perfect society: people were singing, sharing, welcoming, even cleaning up the streets, something the government seemed unable or unwilling to do. People shared their food, took pictures, brought their young children out. The young helped the old, the rich brought bread for the poor, and everyone shared what they had brought.
There were all sorts of signs. “Democracy for Dummies: The people say; you obey.” “Get Out Mubarak.” “Power to the People.” “Thank you Tunisia.” “Hi Mom.” Others had brought their materials and waited for inspiration to prepare their posters.
We stayed for hours, walking around, resting, singing, talking, taking pictures, having my picture taken by dozens of strangers. People were so kind and so happy to see us out. They assured us we were safe and reminded us of the perennial hospitality of the Egyptian people. Mostly they were ecstatic that we supported them in their struggle for democracy. And we do.
On our way out, we were reminded of the toll taken by the few for the many in this ennobling pursuit. We met a man whose brother was killed on Friday. The brother had been out in the Friday protests, but he was found in a morgue with a gunshot in his head and another in his chest. Fourteen others were found in a similar state. I understand that many of the fatalies in the morgues have been gun shot wounds or disfigurement of the skulls.
On our way out over the Kasr El Aini bridge in the mid afternoon, there were still masses pouring into Tahrir. It has been said over 8 million marched that day. I was proud to be among them. I always will be.
2 Feb. 11
It started off well. I had shut off the television for a while because I was feeling sensory overload and went out to get some things. I returned, elated to have Internet and felt that normalcy was around the corner. Later in the afternoon, I turned on the television to horrifying images of peaceful protesters besieged in Tahrir.
It was a terrible night. I was so frightened. Well there’s an understatement. I had been frightened those days before because I know what the state apparatus is capable of, and I know of some of the atrocities that they have committed.
This time it was worse. I was so worried about those good souls in the square. Those that took my picture, shook my hand, gave me food and drink. And now look. I wanted to run into the streets and yell come down, look what they are doing to your brothers and sisters. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat.
3 Feb. 11
The protesters are still there. And the press. Hope is still there. In fact it’s so much so that we know whatever happens, that the protesters have won.
4 Feb. 11
Many rumors have been circling. Rounding up of foreigners off the streets of Maadi for their own good. One woman was moving to a safer place from her flat downtown to Maadi. Her neighbors brought her to the police because she was carrying blankets, for the protesters they thought. She was questioned and let go. We’ve heard that journalists are being rounded up and brought to various police stations. Until today’s rumors, we have felt rather safe. Now whenever I hear a vehicle, I go to the window, wondering if anyone has come to round us up.
Maadi has been an oasis of calm. When the prisoners were being let go in other places, the military went into the Tora prison area to place snipers for anyone foolhardy enough to scale the wall. Tora prison is on the outskirts of Maadi, which has been cordoned off to protect its foreign population. That protection seems so tenuous today.
No doubt, we will do what we have been doing for the past couple of days, watch TV, Twitter, FB, and the online print news. With curfew and the rumors about foreigners being rounded up, going out, even for milk, seems an unwholesome proposition.
I tried packing last night. That was a disaster. I took out some of my favorite clothes, and it took hours. It was a halfhearted attempt. What am I packing for a week, a month, a year? Many foreigners, including myself, see this as home, and they are staying. Many people would suffer if we went.
My maid was attacked in her house when the police abandoned the streets. The looters took her money, all her furniture, and abducted her daughter. When the looters learned that the little girl’s father had died, they realized they had no one to blackmail. They took her jewelry and left her on the side of the road. The girl, though only nine, had the presence of mind to get to a phone and call her aunt. Her mother had to be admitted into the hospital for protecting her daughter. They are well now.
It is now the end of the day here. And what a day it has been. The protests again were a success with millions of people turning out across the country. There was no violence. The Pro-Democracy Protesters will get what they want, of this I have little doubt.
I thank my friends for their support and the world’s support for Egypt. The Egyptians couldn’t have done it without you.
This piece was submitted by Nazeeruddin Ikram and written by anonymous friend of his who lives in Egypt. _ Name withheld for safety.