Witnessing the Egyptian revolution

By Mourad Shalaby on October 26, 2011


It was nearing Christmas day, 2010. Feeling cold and gloomy in wintery Montreal, I decided to listen to my parents’ pleas and spend the holidays with them in Egypt, my country of origin. As a third-year Master’s student at McGill University, I had no more courses to attend, my only remaining academic duty being to finish my thesis. So I promptly booked a flight to Cairo, with the intention of spending a quiet and uneventful time with my family in Egypt. Little did I know that I was about to witness something historic and, well, revolutionary.

It all started when Mohamed Bouazizi, a struggling Tunisian street vendor in the small city of Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire on the 17th of December, 2010, in protest of the confiscation of his wheelbarrow cart of produce, his harassment and humiliation by local police and the local mayor’s refusal to meet him afterwards. Much like millions of people in the Arab world, Bouazizi was a poor, struggling and hard-working young man who was simply fed up with his hopelessly impoverished state and his helplessness in the face of local authorities’ corruption and cruelty. Bouazizi’s individual actions would reverberate in the entire Arab world, igniting the Arab spring revolutions of 2011.

Egypt is the most populated country in the Arab world, and is celebrated by all Arabs as a social and cultural hub. However, like Tunisians, Egyptians have been living in a climate of police brutality, widespread corruption and little socio-economic opportunity since most of them can remember. Inspired by Bouazizi’s ultimate sacrifice, Egyptian youth planned a “day of revolt” for Tuesday January 25, Police day in Egypt, a national holiday. Thousands of protesters gathered in Cairo and other cities throughout Egypt, clashing violently with the State’s brutal police apparatus. Most Egyptians, me included, did not really believe that this was a revolution in the making, à la tunisienne, given that in the past our country’s brutal riot police had always succeeded in terrorizing protesters and ending demonstrations. The following day, Moubarak’s regime kicked-in a nationwide internet shutdown, in an attempt to prevent Egyptian youth from mobilizing though social media outlets. At this point, I started to feel that something serious was about to begin. I was both excited and worried; excited at the prospect of witnessing and joining my fellow Egyptians protest against Mubarak and his regime’s 30 year rule of totalitarianism, corruption, injustice and general incompetence. But I was worried by a nagging feeling that the stability that all Egyptians enjoyed, and even took for granted, was about to be disrupted. Despite the internet shutdown, word quickly spread that major, unprecedented demonstrations were going to take place on Friday the 28th, after morning prayers. 

cairo-tahrir-square.jpgIt was at this point that I decided to join in with the revolutionaries. Curiosity had gotten the better of me, and I needed to see with my own eyes how Egyptian youth were going to confront the dreaded riot police in the center of Cairo. It wasn’t really my style to throw rocks and put myself in danger by physically facing up to the police, as was the case with many courageous Egyptians. Instead, I was to going to photograph the day’s events, given that photography had always been a great passion of mine. So on Friday morning, the 28th of January, my childhood friend Karim, a half-Egyptian, half-French law student, accompanied me to the center of Cairo. It was a very quiet and peaceful Friday morning, which is often the case in Egypt given that Friday is like a Sunday in the western world. But this morning seemed a bit too quiet, and for some reason the expression calm before the storm kept resonating in my head. The only thing that looked odd, and worrying, that morning was the noticeable mobilization of police forces in the streets, who were marching in military fashion towards the bridges of Zamalek Island that lead to Tahrir Square. The police had set up a security perimeter around the Square, forbidding anyone from entering the city’s heart. Karim and I planned to go to Zamalek, a bourgeois island near the center of Cairo, and cross the “Qasr-el-Nil (Palace of the Nile”) Bridge into Tahrir Square. But our amateurish and overly simple plan was easily foiled at the entrance of the bridge by a plain-clothed Mokhabarat, or state secret police, who rudely told us to get lost and to take the subway back home, while at the same time freely allowing westerners to cross the bridge. It is interesting to note that the many westerners and expats living in Cairo took a great interest in the revolution, and even though most of them were hurriedly flown out the country once the hostilities began, many were brave enough to stay put and, as reward, were able to witness a great and historic people’s revolution. So Karim and I decided to listen to the obnoxious officer’s orders and headed towards the nearest subway station. However, we were certainly not going home. Given that the police had shut down all the metro stations near Tahrir square, we decided to go to the closest one that was still open, hoping that we could reach the square from there by foot. However, as soon as we exited the station, we realized that thousands of other Cairenes had had the same idea as us, and the police had anticipated this. The security forces had devised a simple plan: keep the demonstrators away from Tahrir square and intimidate and disperse the crowds by using rubber bullets and teargas. As a result, Karim and I never actually reached the square that day, as we ended up following our fellow Egyptians around Cairo’s downtown streets and their picturesque, turn-of-the-century European architecture. The scenes were dramatic, chaotic and inspiring: Egyptian youth were braving the police perimeters, running, shouting and throwing whatever they could. People were carving up the sidewalk and breaking it into pieces, loading up on rock ammo and firing at the enemy. The streets of Cairo were filled with teargas fog, making people’s eyes red, teary and itchy. Every now and then, the police lines would charge at the protesters, making us all run in fear, but only temporarily. Egyptians stood together, helping the injured and encouraging each other to stand firm and hold their ground. I still vividly remember the inspiring image of the people living in the downtown apartment buildings throwing water, bread and other helpful provisions from their balconies, in support of their fellow Egyptians in the streets confronting our seemingly common enemy: the government. 

Another sight I remember vividly was less inspiring and quite sad. Running from the charging police, Karim and I had stumbled into a small square in a very poor area of downtown Cairo. But instead of finding refuge and peace, we found a large police contingent that was armed with shotguns. One policeman started testing his shotgun, firing off a round in the air. As the deafening roar of the blast reverberated around the neighborhood, women started wailing and shouting, cursing at the policeman and urging God to punish him. The policeman felt ashamed and humiliated, and explained that it was not his fault, and that he was simply following orders. But his arguments did not matter to us, and it had become crystal-clear that the police had truly become the people’s enemy, not its protector. 

The skirmishes continued all day-long and the center of Cairo started to resemble a battlefield. Around sunset, a breaking point was reached. Out of nowhere, the police forces started abandoning their positions, albeit in a very organized and disciplined way. They were not fleeing from the people, but rather ‘regrouping’. They simply disappeared. The people celebrated their victory, and stormed the New Democratic Party offices, the headquarters of Mubarak’s ruling party. Hundreds of men looted and burnt this symbolic building, and smoke from the fire engulfed all of Central Cairo.  At this point, the police had completely vanished from the streets of Cairo, the center of the city was going up in smoke and cellular and internet lines had been cut off. There was an odd sense of chaos and fear coupled with victory and hope. It was a truly confusing day. 

That night, Karim and I found refuge at a friend’s place on the previously mentioned island of Zamalek. I immediately used his landline telephone to reassure my worry-stricken mother. After that, we walked back towards Tahrir Square, which had been “seized” by the protesters, with no police in sight. However, the Egyptian army had rolled their tanks into the square, much to the delight of most Egyptians, who venerate and adore the armed forces. The Egyptian military is held in high-esteem mostly because of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, when Egyptians forces successfully crossed the Suez Canal, destroying Israel’s Barlev line of defence in the then-occupied Sinai region.  While the police in Egypt is criticized for its corruption and cruelty, the army is viewed as a genuine and fair protector of the Egyptian people. That night, Egyptians happily climbed on top of the army’s tanks in Tahrir square, playfully joking with the soldiers and chanting “the people and the army are one”. When I went to bed that night, I had trouble sleeping, despite being exhausted from the day’s ordeals. It all felt so surreal, and from my friend’s bedroom in Zamalek I could still hear sporadic gunshots, shouting and other noises you’d never hear on a normal day in Mubarak’s excessively stable Egypt.           

As explained earlier, Zamalek is a posh island neighborhood, once exclusively inhabited by English colonialists. Today, the island is home to rich Egyptians and foreign embassies and residences. For this reason, Zamalek has always had a strong and visible police presence. But on the morning of the 29th of January, there were no policemen in sight. People slowly started to panic: long lines could be seen in front of supermarkets and gas stations, as Egyptians started to stock up and bunker up in their apartments. Worrying rumors started spreading that looting was taking place, and that millions of poor Egyptians living in the slums that surround the capital were planning to pour into the city and steal anything they could from the rich, benefiting from the absence of police and order. I hastily returned to my family’s apartment in Nasr City, a suburb some 30 kilometers away from the center. Nasr City is home to many commercial malls, including City Stars, one the biggest malls in all of the Middle East. My apartment building is actually situated right in front of this mall, and so I feared that my street could become a target of looters. I witnessed worrying images of the neighborhood’s inhabitants erecting makeshift walls and defenses in front of our buildings and arming themselves with sticks, rocks and whatever they could find. It seemed as though everyone was bracing for a major attack in our once stable and safe streets. 

I monitored the situation from my balcony in the 7th floor of my building. I was very worried, as were most Egyptians. It seemed that we were all waiting for the arrival of an impoverished and angry mob that would invade our streets and steal and loot everything from us and our neighborhood. And so we waited, patiently, anxiously. We could hear some strange, unfamiliar and worrying sounds in the background: gunshots, men yelling, screeching car tires, etc. However, bizarrely, and fortunately, our streets remained quiet and uneventful. The angry mob never came. It seemed that it was all just a big rumor. But suddenly, out of nowhere, we heard a loud roar not too far away. Something was approaching, something big, and so the worrying started again. But to our great surprise, and happiness, it was the army’s tanks that were rolling in. The army had taken over the city’s security in an attempt to fill the void left by the police, and elite army commandos had taken position in front of the City Stars mall. As the army rolled into the streets of Cairo, my neighborhood’s inhabitants victoriously chanted “Allah Akhbar” ( God is Great ) and “the army and the people are one !”. 

From then on, we all knew that our streets were secure. No looter would dare confront elite army commandos, equipped with night-vision goggles and sophisticated weaponry. Nonetheless, the neighborhood’s youth still insisted on setting up road-blocks and arming themselves, and I joined my neighbors every night with a pull-up bar as my weapon of choice.  I guess we all just wanted to have something to do, given that the revolution had disrupted work and school schedules. As a result, our streets were secured by both the army and bored local vigilantes, sometimes producing quite comical situations.  I remember one particularly funny memory of a police car driving through my street and going through a thorough inspection from the local vigilantes, as if the world had been turned completely upside down. The people were now policing the police, which could no longer be trusted after their violent behavior during the revolution. 

The last souvenir of my witnessing the revolution that I will share with you is a victorious and positive one. On the 11th of February, State media officially announced that Mubarak was finally stepping down, after 18 days of persistent protesting from Egyptians. Seconds later, Cairo, and all of the country I presume, had the biggest party in its history. Literally millions of Egyptians, including myself, poured into the center of Cairo to celebrate our greatest victory. Gigantic speakers mounted on downtown buildings were playing music from Dalida, the Egyptian musical icon of Italian and French descent. Egyptians of all genders, religions, socio-economic statuses and colors were celebrating our common national triumph. A few weeks later, I was back in Montreal, reflecting on a truly memorable, unique and life-changing episode of my life.



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