Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Abridged Photo Album: January 25th in Cairo

To begin with a disclaimer, I want to make it clear that I am not a student of Egypt, I am not terribly knowledgeable about Egyptian history or politics, and most of what I know about Egypt comes from reading intermediate level passages about famous Egyptians in the Al-Kitaab series of Arabic books. It was pure coincidence that I was in Cairo on January 25, and I left early the next morning. During the hours I spent in the midst of the demonstration, I could never quite decide upon the proper behavior for an American tourist accidentally witnessing the beginning of a revolution.

After watching the initial march on Tahrir Square, which I posted video of last week, I went to meet a friend in another part of Cairo. We spent at least half an hour trying to find the central vein of the protest, as demonstrators marched through the streets of downtown Cairo back towards the square. Eventually, we managed to join the march, which was leaderless and at times split into sections and pushed in opposite directions by the police, who seemed to lack any clear strategy for dealing with the growing protest. The police would charge into the crowd, people would run in all directions, then the police would retreat and everyone would regroup.

As the police continued their assault on the lines of peaceful protesters, the atmosphere grew more frantic and lines of marchers began to head in different directions. My friend and I broke off from the demonstration completely, deciding that we would head to Tahrir Square alone, as that was where the crowd was eventually planning to converge. The streets we walked through were eerily empty of traffic, and shopkeepers rushed to lock their doors in anticipation of the crowd passing by. My friend's family was glued to the TV and repeatedly called him in a panic, as the television coverage was, we gleaned, exaggerated and sensationalistic, likely as part of an effort to scare people out of leaving their houses and joining the demonstration.

{Two employees watching and waiting in a shop on Muhammad Farid Street in Downtown Cairo}

When we reached Tahrir Square, it was empty of protesters but all entrances were blocked by riot police. I'd already discovered that secause I was a foreigner, it was easier for me to cross police lines, and my friend found that when walking with me and speaking English, he was able to "pass" as non-Egyptian, and thus was treated better by the riot police and the plainclothes thugs. The proprietor of a travel agency thought we were lost and scared, and offered to let us sit inside with the staff. When the march reached the square and demonstrators pushed through police lines, the travel agency owner was confused when my friend and I ran away from the store to get a better view, in spite of his efforts to push us inside to "safety."

Protesters began entering Tahrir Square by the Egyptian Museum (the coral building in the background right of the photo below). Riot police ran to where the protesters were coming in, and in the distance we saw a water canon being fired in the direction of the marchers.

As the demonstrators pushed past the soldiers and into the square, police attempted to drive a truck through the crowd, but the people pushed the truck back, and it was forced to retreat.

As riot police looked on, the demonstrators occupied the square.

Eventually the riot police retreated to the streets surrounding the square and formed lines barricading the demonstrators into the square. A friend explained that there were key government buildings on the streets surrounding the square, and the security forces likely decided to prioritize protecting those buildings. However, when the square was first overtaken by demonstrators, the police fought back with tear gas and water canons. My friend and I took refuge in the travel agency, whose owner and staff by this point was no longer sympathetic to us, but still allowed us in, along with some other American "bystanders." The owner shut and locked the doors, and we gathered around the glass windows to watch the pandemonium outside. People were running in every direction, one man was lying on the ground because he had been hit in the head, while others formed a circle around him and protected him until he was ready to stand. People came beating on the doors of the travel agency, beginning to be let in, and the owner unlocked the door for a few of them. They were women and men, young and middle aged, who had been tear gassed and were begging for water to rinse out their eyes and mouths. After recovering in the travel agency for a few minutes, they demanded that the door be unlocked so they could rejoin the protesters outside. The owner of the agency was irritated, but eventually relented. My friend and I stayed inside for a while longer, while he talked on the phone with his family and I tried to reach fellow Kevo student Liam, who I'd lost when the tear gas began going off.

When we went back outside, the police had retreated to guarding the entrances to the square, either to keep others from joining or to keep those who were already inside from leaving, it was unclear. The square was filled with people, some marching and chanting, others standing around talking to friends.

The sun began to set, and a group of protesters began performing their sunset prayers, while the rest of us circled around them to protect them from the looming threat of a police assault.

As darkness fell, the security forces hit the crowd with another round of tear gas. This time my friend and I could not immediately find a place to hide, and we finally ducked into an alleyway that turned out to be the entrance to a hostel. The effects we felt from the tear gas were very minor in comparison to the other people who joined us in the alley stairwell, and we found that chewing gum helped stave off the burning sensation. (Neither of us had thought to carry water, which now seems ridiculous.)

When we reentered the square, the group we had been standing with was dispersed completely.

However, people quickly regrouped.

With renewed momentum, chanting resumed, with many people climbing onto cars, electrical posts, or subway entrances to lead calls of "Al sha3b yureed isqat al-nizam," the most popular chant of the day and of the days and nights since. ("The people want to bring down the regime.)

Eventually my camera died, and I was starving, so my friend and I decided to see if we could cross the police lines to get some food, then cross them again to bring the food back into the square for our journalist companion, who was conducting interviews. We saw riot police and protesters waiting for food together in Koshery Tahrir, and we reentered the square without any problems. We sat on the ground and ate together, and a man came over and gave me a plastic bag for our garbage. I noticed that many people were picking up garbage around the square.

At 9:00, people began to settle in for the night. I saw people resting their heads on backpacks or rolling up scarves to use as pillows. I had to get a cab to the airport at midnight, so around 10 I decided to walk back to the hostel to prepare to leave. I walked the ten minutes or so alone, and the streets outside of the square, while more empty of traffic and people than normal, were not completely devoid of life. I actually stopped in a bakery to buy some sweets for the road. Before leaving the city, I called a friend who was still in the square and discovered that security forces had attacked the demonstration, which had become a sit-in, with tear gas, concussion grenades and water cannons to drive them from the square. No one knew what was going to happen; if momentum was going to die down, or if people were going to keep coming back and protesting.

It is odd to reflect on this moment two weeks later, after the number of people in Tahrir Square swelled to 2 million, after people pitched tents and set up field clinics, and after the regime attempted to crush the demonstration with its typical violence and psychological terror. Following the story in the US, I, along with many other international supporters of the Egyptian uprising, have grown frustrated and pessimistic. However, I keep in mind my reaction on the 25th as I was hiding in the travel agency, watching people who had just been tear gassed fight to return to the street: I was, and continue to be, overwhelmed by the bravery, passion and strength of the Egyptian people. This knowledge gives me hope that with time, the sha3b will bring down the regime.

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