Home > Cairo > Egyptian Protests, 25th of January (Round II)

Egyptian Protests, 25th of January (Round II)

Yesterday was both an incredible day for self-determination and human rights in Egypt, as well as a gut-wrenching reality check about the distances which need to be traveled in order to bring equal opportunity and universal human rights to this country.  The picture below captures a sense of these dual realities, but doesn’t even begin to do yesterday’s protests justice.  I spent much of the past 24 hours shadowing the protesters throughout the city and in Tahrir Square, the eventual center of the protests; this is the story of yesterday’s protests as I saw them.

Around 1:30pm, my friends and I arrived at Midaan Tahrir in Downtown Cairo to witness an overwhelming show of force on the part of the Egyptian Special Police.  For demonstrations which were allegedly planned to begin at 2:00pm, the police had set up road blocks and barricades around a number of side streets and important buildings in the area early in the morning, hoping to contain and direct any potential protesters.   Riot shields, batons, police vehicles with power hoses – the whole 9 – were in force.

At 1:45 we saw our first group of protesters, maybe 200 strong, come into Tahrir Square from one of the larger roads the leads into it.  Constant chants, posters and clapping was about as intense as it got at this point.  The police tried to block the group in, maneuvering around them in well-formed lines, but the leaders of the group managed to pick up on the police strategy and get their people past the attempt at constraint.

They exited the Square from the side opposite their entrance, along the Corniche at Asr al-Nile Bridge, and proceeded to walk along the Nile, all the way chanting, clapping and waving signs — and all the while followed by hundreds of Egyptian Special Police.  Hesitant to get stuck in a situation we didn’t entirely understand and couldn’t control, my friends and I followed from behind the police line, trying to sneak a peak of the protesters’ movements whenever a park bench or newspaper box presented the opportunity to get a better view.

In this part of the city there are a number of consecutive bridges connecting the island of Zamalek to it’s surroundings, such as Tahrir.  By the time I reached the next bridge, maybe half-a-mile from where the protesters had first started walking along the Corniche, the number of protesters had doubled.  Another, independent group of protesters had joined with them.  This may be a good point to segeway into an explanation of how these demonstrations were organized.

Simply put, there was no organization.  People used Facebook and Twitter to spread the word and encourage people to attend, but aside from the location and starting time, details were dealt with as they arose on the ground.  Groups from around the city began marching and protesting on their own accord and along their own routes without any central direction or leadership.  The one thing all the Egyptians I spoke to seemed to know, however, was t0 “get to Tahrir, get to Tahrir” eventually.  Those in parts of the city miles from Tahrir had their own large-scale demonstrations, but everyone within a reasonable distance was aiming for the Square.

As the group I was following joined with the other, it became apparent that Tahrir was probably the end goal.  The protesters turned from the Corniche, cutting a sharp right back into the heart of the city, growing in numbers as they marched and gaining enthusiasm as their numbers grew.  I watched much of this from the bridge above, trying my best to remain an aloof observer, but as the bridge ran out, my friends and I realized that in order to follow the demonstration we would have to go down to ground level.  From the ground, the excitement and enthusiasm was even more amazing; we could literally feel it heavy in the air around us.

At this point, the protesters arrived at an appellate courthouse which offered one of the most interesting experiences of the day.  There, on the front steps of the courthouse when we arrived, were a number of demonstrators chanting in opposition to the group we had been following.  Allegedly hired by government forces, these people stood around many government buildings in the city chanting their support for the current government.  It has to be said though, their numbers weren’t anything compared to those of the protesters we had been following or would see throughout the day.

An interesting thing occurred as the numbers grew around the appellate court and the contrasts between the protesters, the police, and the pro-government demonstrators became more apparent.  As the call to prayer (the 5 times a day Muslim call to worship) was heard, many of the protesters left that area.  The ones who stayed went silent and began to pray.  I’ll be posting a powerful picture of ten or so men praying with the police encircling them in just a few moments.  The picture definitely speaks more than my words can.

Having lost the crowd for the moment while focusing on those praying, we had to put some of our haphazard Arabic to use doing a little catch up work.  After a few minutes of conversation with people in the street, we came to the conclusion that the group we had been following had taken their protest back in the direction of Tahrir with obvious enthusiasm.

As we went back that way on our own, taking what we thought was a quicker route than the protesters had taken, we were struck by how normal life away from the protests seemed to be.  Shops were open, people were eating in restaurants, and children were talking and laughing with each other along the way.   If 6,000 protesters in Tahrir can create the type of shock they did yesterday, you have to wonder what would happen in Cairo if these people going about their daily lives only a few blocks away hadn’t been so afraid, or so disenfranchised, that they didn’t participate.

When we finally reached Tahrir, all “what ifs” were driven almost instantly from out minds.  We arrived to a square with nearly a thousand people in it, lining the streets and sidewalks as though in anticipation of some sort of parade, and there anticipation was warranted.  Within minutes of our arrival another independent group of protesters, this time at least 1,500-2,000 strong, came in from our right with more enthusiasm and excitement than anything we had yet seen.  To our left the riot police were blocking the side streets, 5 or 6 men deep, while directly across the square, covering the length of a 6 lane road, were more riot forces, 5 or 6 deep, backed by crowd control vehicles with high pressure hoses and officers with tear gas launchers.

This new crowd of protesters emboldened those already there and they joined together, marching directly up to the police forces baring their way.  The picture I posted last night was taken from atop a handrail alongside the street and shows exactly what I’m referring to.  It was here that we saw the first violence of the day.  As the crowd surged forward the police in the front lines used their batons to try to repel them.   Chants and cheers from the crowd, and yelled orders from officers to policemen flooded our hearing.  The protesters in the street turned to the hundreds of Egyptians on the sidewalk around us, previously only observers, imploring them to join in.  They did.  To our left and right, previously hesitant Egyptians were jumping over the rail separating the sidewalk from the street and joining their fellow citizens in protest.  It was extremely powerful to witness.

Not more than five minutes later, however, the police went to work with their first use of tear gas, firing over the crowd and onto the sidewalk about 20 feet from my friends and I.  Many of the protesters retreated, but those who remained, a significant number, only became more emotional and enraged.  As they tore down the road blocks the police had established earlier in the day, the organized chants of protest turned into individual cries of rage and frustration.  Many began to break pieces of concrete to throw at the police in front of them, but at this point they were still restrained by their fellow protesters.

This was the real beginning of the mayhem the developed in Tahrir yesterday. Following this first use of tear gas, the people retreated and regrouped time and again, each time getting closer and closer to the police, until their regrouping had led them straight into the ominous line you can see in the post below.  The police line broke and they were forced to fall back.  Then they regrouped and pushed forward again, trying to maintain the intersection.

The protesters responded in turn however, now using rocks and pieces of concrete they had pried from the sidewalk and broken into smaller pieces to drive the police back yet again.  One protester managed to take a tear gas gun from an officer, retreating back into the crowd and firing it into the police.

These back and forths lasted for the next few hours. As the first protesters drove the the riot police back nearly 3 blocks, those in the back began group chants again: “Houriyaa, Houriyaa, Houriyaa,” (“Freedom, Freedom, Freedom”) or “Al-Shab ureed iskart al-nizaam,” (“The Youth wants the regime to fall!).  With a little burst of comedy came the, “Hey Mubarak, the Saudi’s are waiting for you,” a reference to former Tunisian President Abidine ben Ali’s displacement in Saudi Arabia after being denied sanctuary by the French.

Eventually, the violence died down.  The use of a water cannon at the front of the protests and the police acquisition of movable high walls that protected them from flying objects allowed them to push back against the protesters. Without any means of either offense or defense, the protesters were forced to flee.  Hours later, the police reclaimed their original line, though by this time it was already dark.

This reassertion of control on the part of the police created an incredibly interesting number of peaceful hours in which my friends and I were able to witness the interesting dynamic between the protesters and police.  Chants and cheers remained enthusiastic, but became much less aggressive. Protesters walked directly up to the police line and began addressing the young soldiers, imploring them to join the demonstration.  I’ll post another picture in a few moments that highlights this relationship.

This particular police service, as I understand it, is compulsory in Egypt. The policemen on the front lines couldn’t have been more than 20 years old at the most, while many of them were probably closer to 16.  Largely kept in the dark by their superiors and taken from poorer and less educated parts of the country in the first place, I’m not entirely sure the average Special Police officer knew why he was there yesterday.  I also highly doubt from the actions and expressions I saw that many of them wanted to be there.

After a few hours of watching the now largely peaceful demonstrations, I returned home just before 9.  Upon hearing that the police had been given orders to forcibly evict the protesters from Tahrir Square later that night, a friend and I headed back out.  My next lengthy post will cover that much more violent part of the protest.

I will say this right now: I think the Egyptian police handled yesterday’s protests very, very well.  I was incredibly impressed with the police forces’ restraint and controlled use of force.  They were, of course, ordered to deploy. However, when they did, they did so with  control.  There was a sense of common national pride and frustration in the air last night, and when not pressured to act in a different manner the police and protesters seemed to even get along.  In Tahrir there was an interesting attitude of common respect present through it all.

Also, no matter what comes from these protests in the next few days, weeks or months, this has been a historic occurrence for Egypt.  This represents the first popular demonstration against Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 30 years and, after 30 years of silence, the Egypt people have shown that they finally have something important to say.

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Categories: Cairo
  1. January 28, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    Hey Tom,

    Saw that there is a full internet blockage in Egypt. You keep safe over there, ya hear? Keep in touch.

    AG

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