The demonstration in Tahrir Square on Tuesday 25th January which provided the spark for the current nationwide uprising saw a few thousand demonstrators confronting a police force well-armed for riot control. Many demonstrators were intent on peaceful protest, but there were also some willing to engage the police in a fight. The police, in turn, showed a terrible lack of discipline. At times, I saw more rocks being thrown by police officers at demonstrators than vice-versa, alongside repeated volleys of gas grenades and thunder-crackers. The demonstrators’ target was the National Assembly (Majlis al-Sha’ab), and at one point, they had forced the police to retreat to the gates of the Assembly building. They lacked the force of numbers, however, and the police succeeded in asserting a degree of control by nightfall. Hundreds of demonstrators remained in the Square overnight. Indeed, they were not finally repelled until the early hours of Thursday morning.
As news spread of the relative success of the demonstrators’ action and angered by the incompetence and toughness of the police response, preparations were already underway for a major demonstration. Activists circulated text messages on mobile phones on Tuesday evening, calling for a major turn-out on Friday 28th, after the noon prayers.
When I walked across Tahrir Square at 1pm on Friday, this large area was unusually quiet, emptied of cars and people. Upwards of 1,000 police stood guarding the various approach roads. Dozens of police prisoner wagons were parked, awaiting the arrest of demonstrators. The Qasr el-Nil Bridge was similarly deserted, though the police were getting ready for the expected arrival of the demonstrators heading towards Tahrir Square.
As the marching crowds approached the bridge on the Gezira side, they were met almost immediately by volleys of gas grenades. At first, the police aimed the grenades into the air; later, I saw them firing grenades and grape shot directly at the demonstrators. As the afternoon progressed, the police resorted to military tactics of ‘attack and retreat’. This most assuredly inflamed the crowds, as well as causing panic and stampedes. Hundreds suffered respiratory problems from the gas; I saw dozens wounded by grape shot and by rocks thrown back by the police. Several cafes beside the Nile became makeshift treatment centres.
The police directed the most intense fire during a one-hour period at the thousands of demonstrators corralled into Tahrir Street in front of the Cairo Opera. What had started as a demonstration had become a battle. The demonstrators had no weapons other than what they had picked up in the road in the shape of rocks and other projectiles. As the clash intensified, I saw demonstrators ripping down with bare hands the iron railings of the garden opposite the Opera, both to extract the injured and for others to join their colleagues in the fight. Despite the most awful punishment, the demonstrators kept coming in waves, their fearlessness breath-taking. Later, I would learn that Reem had been walking with these same crowds towards Tahrir Square.
A lone armoured personnel carrier of the Egyptian Army appeared towards 4.30pm, coming from the side road beside the Sofitel Hotel. Demonstrators jumped onto the vehicle. A soldier lifted his rifle, and for a split second, it looked as though the situation was about to get a lot worse. In a testament to the Army’s training and discipline, the soldier did not fire, and the crowds cheered him and his colleagues as they proceeded towards Qasr el-Nil Bridge.
By 5.30pm, the police had retreated from Qasr el-Nil Bridge towards Tahrir Square. As they did, the masses of demonstrators edged forward, breaking out along the Corniche, as the police battled to hold them from Tahrir Square. Soon, we could see smoke billowing from the ruling party’s headquarters in front of the Cairo Museum. Half a dozen police vehicles which were marooned amid the incoming tide of demonstrators were soon in flames.
I peeled off in the other direction, intending to walk up the side street in front of the Semiramis Hotel towards Tahrir Square. All of a sudden, a small group of policemen charged down the street, firing yet more gas grenades directly at the crowds. In the panic, a group of 30 people banged on the locked doors of the hotel, calling on staff to allow demonstrators and the injured to enter. At that moment, whom should I see beside me in the group but Reem (each of us having set off separately)! After some deliberation, the hotel security permitted us to enter.
As night fell, we could see fighting continuing in the streets around the Semiramis. Steadily, the Army asserted control in the roads around Tahrir Square, more by force of presence than by confrontation with the demonstrators. A curfew was imposed, and we became trapped in the hotel. To their enormous credit, the staff of the Semiramis rose to the challenge of their many unplanned guests. They handed out sandwiches and burgers, and we were given a room on the fourteenth floor, overlooking Tahrir Square. For all the temporary comfort of our surroundings, it was a fitful night, interrupted by the continuing sound of explosions in nearby streets.
By morning, the hotel had organized themselves supremely, their staff having worked non-stop through the night. Breakfast was laid on for the 1,000 or so guests, both those paying and those trapped overnight. We set off home mid-morning, walking back the mile and a half to Dukki. The streets were quiet, with the debris of the clashes the previous day all around. As we arrived back at our place of stay, we were greeted warmly and with relief by our friends in the neighbourhood.
On Saturday evening, a well-known Egyptian television presenter walked down our street, calling for the men of our street to come down and organize their own security teams, under the euphemism of ‘popular committees’. Word spread of renegade members of the police, attacking people and looting property. Everyone became preoccupied with concern about looters, or in the word of the moment, the ‘baltagis’. In the following days, these concerns were hyped by the official radio stations, with almost non-stop discussions over reports of looting and attacks by the ‘baltagis’.
After the Friday riots, the police disappeared totally from view. All the local guards and security personnel outside the embassies and banks of Dukki vanished. By night, the local men took over the tasks of traffic control and checking any car or person moving.
On Sunday 30th January, we returned to Tahrir Square to find a huge crowd demanding one thing: the end of President Mubarak and his regime. Some 20 tanks surrounded the entrances to the Square, but the soldiers just looked on, indicating security, but in a non-threatening way. The Egyptian Air Force presented a less friendly face: a helicopter hovered low over the crowd all day, so low that it seemed intended more to frighten people away from the Square than to allow security monitoring. More threatening still, and as the 3pm curfew approached, two F16s passed repeatedly over Tahrir Square. On several passes, the jets could not have been higher than 250 feet above the ground. It is difficult to view any president as having any claim to legitimacy, when he threatens his people with fighter jets.
I wondered what these pilots’ orders were, and if they had any received an order to fire, would they obey it? It seemed an absurd question, given that there were at least hundred thousand demonstrators, contingents of the Egyptian Army and the main buildings of the Egyptian state around the Square, but then did the high command really believe that scaring the masses would resolve anything?
The Armed Forces’ statement on Saturday night 29th January had been greeted with delight on the streets of Cairo. It included an assurance that they would not intervene with force against the people and that the claims of the demonstrators were legitimate. It looked like a body blow for Mubarak, who appeared only to have his presidential guard left to enforce his will on the street.
Sunday 30th January witnessed a still larger turn-out in Tahrir Square, with a mood of elation and excited anticipation. Gone was the fear which had stalked people hitherto. Many Egyptians raised their banners and their voices in open calls for Mubarak’s resignation.
Fuelled by their successes, the opposition groups called for a million strong demonstration of people power on Tuesday 1st February. And the call was answered by what must have been the largest public gathering in recent Egyptian history. It seemed that the new dawn had finally arrived and it was only a matter of time before the regime collapsed entirely. We came across many friends and their mood was nothing short of ecstatic. After hours of standing in the Square, we repaired to a café just away from Tahrir Square, to take a break from the crush of people covering every available space in, around and above Tahrir Square.
At the cafe, we met up with Dr Fathi al-Khamissi, professor of music at the Academy of Arts in Giza. A man with a distinction from the respected Tchaikovsky Institute in Moscow in classical western music and an unparalleled knowledge of classical Arabic music, Dr Khamissi has an almost unique command of both genres. Too brilliant and too independent for a regime built on party affiliation and mediocrity, Dr Fathi’s career is one of many which should have seen prizes and international recognition, but there is absolutely no doubting the adoration and respect afforded him by his students. The support and knowledge which he has given Reem in her current project on Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish have been massive.
When we arrived at the cafe, Dr Khamissi was leading a group of assembled musicians and singers in patriotic songs, many of them Sayyid Darwish numbers. The messages of Darwish’s songs about the 1919 Egyptian Revolt seemed as relevant today as then. A small crowd quickly built up around our table. It was decided to take our singing group back to Tahrir Square to re-join the masses. The sense of jubilation in the air was palpable. Egyptians were feeling much as Britons and others must have felt on VE (Victory in Europe) Day on 8 May 1945.We partied on into the evening, before beginning our walk home to Dukki.
President Mubarak gave a televised address late that night, Tuesday 1st February, in which he presented himself as the sole guarantor of stability and the demonstrators as the agents of chaos. Within minutes of his address, we heard reports of pro-Mubarak supporters threatening people in the street. On the way to his home beside the Pyramids, Dr Khamissi and the microbus he was in were stopped by thugs seeking a fight with people they suspected of having attended the demonstration in Tahrir Square. It was an entirely new development, suggesting that this was the beginning of the fight back by the pro-Mubarak camp.
What followed on Wednesday 2nd February in Tahrir Square was a continuation of this theme. Organised gangs of men broke into the Square, carrying pro-Mubarak banners and attacking the demonstrators. We had not seen Molotov cocktails or guns in any of the demonstrations hitherto, so the degree of organization and the level of the threat had escalated dramatically. Current reports on the BBC suggest that 5 people were killed and as many as 836 injured. Mubarak has yet to disown the violence used by his supporters or to distance himself from this thuggery.
The fact that the Army stood by and did nothing to prevent the armed intervention by pro-Mubarak supporters is a major blemish on their otherwise honourable record of conduct over the past week. How much further the Army is willing to go in destroying the goodwill which the Egyptian people have been showing towards it by not taking on violent pro-Mubarak elements, is a question much on people’s minds.
The mood on the street in Dukki remains very tense, with clashes developing often over misunderstandings and misjudgements rather than real threats. A shooting last night outside our villa was a case in point (though happily, the victim, who was a policeman in civilian clothes, was not seriously injured). Similarly, sparks flew in the street again this morning, although somehow the temper and aggression of the one hundred or so men was diffused. Despite all this, the warmth, support and protection afforded us by our neighbours is a blessing, and we both feel at ease.
If Mubarak had warned of the danger of ‘fitna’ or civil strife, it is those claiming to support him who seem to be trying very hard to make this a reality. We await with trepidation to see how things play out tomorrow Friday, when the much bigger crowds are expected to return to Tahrir Square demanding an immediate end to the current regime. This morning, Reem was singing one of Sayyid Darwish’s songs as she was feeding the bewildered cats in the garden. The song carries the poignant lyrics of the equally talented Badi’ Khayri:
“Those united by love for their homeland, should not let religion divide them”
For all the difficulties of the past week, we feel privileged to be witnesses to history. The Egyptian people deserve so much better, and the remarkable display of human courage and unity which we have seen gives hope of victory.
3 Feb 2011