‘Tahir Square, let’s go there,’ we told ourselves over a round of beer in Hurrea, a thirties-era bar with a large open floor plan, decked with smudged mirrors and limp stationary fans. It was January 25th, Egypt’s National Police Day – the first night of the protests that would become a revolution.
We proceeded to Tahir Square, the city’s heart-chamber, from which wide colonial roads radiate out into downtown Cairo. Large green-painted trucks filled the kerb-sides, and all along the pavements lolled riot police with helmets, shields and batons. Their numbers thickened as we reached the square – a staggering show of force, outnumbering the protesters which we now glimpsed in the centre, waving signboards and chanting feverishly. Many of them were of student age; word had it there was some grievance about rising tuition fees, of all things.
In unison they derided the elderly despot, their president of thirty years Hosni Mubarak, who keeps his grey hairs at bay with liberal coatings of black hair dye, just as he was known to keep his political opponents down with energetic campaigns of violent intimidation, electoral fraud, and torture, among other displays of manly virility becoming of an Arab dictator. Inspired by the recent revolution in Tunisia, many were prepared to brave overnight stays in the police ‘special room’ in a concerted demonstration of popular will – unprecedented in a country where protests are illegal, owing to ‘emergency laws’ that have been in place ever since the assassination of the former president, Anwar El Sadat, in 1981.
The riot police for their part appeared relaxed, even bored, presiding over the protest like a patient mother keeping watch over the boisterous birthday party of her five year old son to make sure no one gets hit with Lego. Many were nonchalantly tucking into packets of crisps. Yet what struck me most was their youth; some looked scarcely over sixteen. There was a grim irony in witnessing these boy-police, drawn largely from the ranks of the urban poor, being ranged against a crowd whose centre was comprised of middle-class, well-educated student activists, presumably fighting in the former’s best interests.
We soon left Tahir Square, for food and further bottles of cheap Egyptian beer. During our meal in a brightly lit ‘family’ restaurant, we were approached by a young Egyptian man in international student costume: grubby jeans, Converse trainers, and a t-shirt with writing on it. In graceful tones and immaculate English, he regaled us with the efforts of his comrades at the nearby protest, ‘fighting against the police because they oppress us’. And would we three Britishers like to join them in this noble cause, in a demonstration of international student solidarity? ‘If white people are present, the police won’t be violent; they don’t want a fuss,’ he claimed as the indispensible contribution we would make to this nascent revolution. We nodded a great deal and stated our enthusiasm and sympathy towards their cause. But we declined the opportunity to be human shields, doubting that the niceties of international diplomacy would be foremost in the minds of teenage riot police during a stampede. The young man thanked us for our time and returned to his table, there to talk with his friends about the moral cowardice of the imperialist races, or the motif of the voyeur in the films of David Lynch.
We returned to the protest to find it bigger and louder. The police had grown visibly edgy, and were no longer munching on multi-flavoured crisps. They had begun to restrict numbers entering the square, and officers with over-sized coats were strutting around shouting orders. Something was about to happen; we braced ourselves and readied our cameras, like the shallow tourists we were. Soon enough trails of smoke fell in smooth arcs over the crowd; their ranks collapsed immediately, and protesters ran screaming and flailing into the outer streets. A tear-gas barrage was underway. The square was now a swirling, foggy chaos. Suddenly a line of riot police surged into the square, in a stampede to oust those that remained. Frightened protesters continued to pour past us as we stood on the square’s edge, pondering our proximity to numerous guttering tear-gas shells.
The protesters regrouped and began to march the wide pavements of central Cairo, chanting anti-Mubarak slogans and waving whatever signboards remained legible. The police fell into phalanx formations in the manner of ancient Pharaonic warriors, and began stamping and chanting and heaving – an exercise which immediately brought to mind the fearsome ‘haka’ dance performed by the New Zealand All Blacks before rugby games. But thankfully they fell merely to blocking off certain roads. With remarkable composure they faced down the jeering and gesticulating of protestors who brushed up against them. (The police weren’t quite the ‘violent brutes’ described in Western broadsheet news stories.) We witnessed one elderly man with a white moustache and grey suit, shrieking heated invective and flapping his arms at a line of riot police hiding meekly behind their shields. He was clearly having the time of his life.
We retired eventually to our dingy room with its leaking tap, and stationed ourselves on the balcony with glasses of the gin we had bought on the Easy Jet flight mixed with Sprite. A thick line of protesters continued to coil itself around the main arteries of downtown, and lines of riot police stood in ghostly, watchful lines across junctions and roads, keeping their silent vigil well into the night. Cairo wouldn’t burn just yet, so we went to sleep.
by Ben Dunant