Revolutionary Moments in Tahrir Square

by Mona Abaza, American University of Cairo

I happened to be in Cairo when the catalytic demonstration of the 25th of January occurred. I did not participate in the first demonstrations. It has been many years since I had been politically active. I have to confess that the violence and brutality, witnessed in numerous previous demonstrations, were certainly the main reasons that kept me away from the street.

From the first day, the police were ruthless with the demonstrators. Friends who were active in demonstrations from day one recalled the violence. Rubber bullets, spraying water and massive teargas bombs were thrown at the protesters. The city was burning. The offensive and the miasma of teargas were to be felt for several days in the city. On the 25th of January three people were reported dead along with a considerable number of wounded.

Mubarak had paralyzed the trains nationwide. This unintelligent controlling measure did not stop the angry people from pouring into the city. Indeed, the public visibility of the people grew every day in the streets after the 25th of January. The demonstrations obstinately continued. Day after day, people increasingly occupied all the streets of Cairo. They were all heading towards the Square. The city was collapsing with attacks on police stations. Thugs were all over and looting was going on in various quarters. The more the police forces became violent, the more determined protesters became and the more they gained visibility in the streets. The cities of Alexandria, Suez, Port Said, Mansura and Mahalla al Kubra were all experiencing the same massive human insurgency of angry protesters. In Cairo, demonstrations departed from Shubra, from Mattariya, Bulaq, Dokki, Mohandessin Nasr City and Heliopolis and they clogged the main bridges of the Six of October and Kasr al-Nil bridge. Brutal confrontations were recorded. Anger against the brutality of the regime was mounting as was the determination to resist. This time things will be different, it was said. Protesters lost their fear, they resisted through barricading themselves, through praying communally while confronting the columns of black police, and by throwing stones when they were attacked. They did not fear the green police vans that ran into them. Then the police forces started to retreat out of fear – they could not deal with the growing fearlessness of the moving compact army of bodies. They ran away from the powerful but pacifist crowds. Suddenly all policemen disappeared. Cairenes woke up one morning and found the entire city without one single policeman. The army then entered the city with their tanks.

Many like me, who were not political activists and who were afraid of the violence perpetrated in crushing the protesters, decided finally to march to the square. Middle-class mothers descended onto the streets. My friends’ sons and daughters experienced a metamorphosis in their lives. These youngsters, who led their parents to the street, had been protesting since day one. They found their new selves in the life of the Square. Several youngsters were proud of their newly discovered skills in street fighting.

Then the spectacular first one-million-demonstration turned into a historic moment that mesmerized the Egyptians themselves. It was the euphoria of the newly discovered freedom and the collective longing for dignity. Words fail me to describe how more than some 2 million people marched peacefully and in an orderly manner towards one main space: the Tahrir Square. The organization was spectacular. A clear sense of order was masterminded by the young protesters to penetrate and then move through the square in a peaceful way. It was most remarkable. The people were amazing in their care for each other so that nothing would go wrong. The square was encircled by army tanks and soldiers, who checked the IDs to make sure that no thugs of the regime would get in, and no weapons could be used inside the square. At checkpoints, men and women were segregated so as to be controlled by ‘popular committees’ consisting of highly disciplined anti-Mubarak groups of young men and women. Bags and wallets were checked. Knives, scissors and potentially dangerous tools were confiscated. Control checkpoints multiplied since the thugs of the regime were a constant threat. Then there was the careful orchestration of the way people circulated around the square.

The Carnage of 2nd of February
The second of February will remain an unforgettable date for both my daughter and myself. The night before, Mubarak had made his second speech on television in an obvious evil and threatening tone. He persisted that he would not give up his throne. It looked like his wrath would soon descend on the disobedient nation. On the second of February, in the afternoon, we went to the Tahrir Square with two of my friends and my daughter with the intention of meeting other friends and of staying there for a while. My friend Samia proposed that we pay a visit to our common friend Pierre who owns two magnificent large flats on the ninth and tenth floor overviewing the square and the angles of Talaat Harb and Bab al-Luq street. Around 4 pm, the attacks by the armed thugs of the regime coming from the direction of the Egyptian Museum started. We saw many severely wounded men carried by groups of men leaving the square from the checkpoints that were guarded by the demonstrators and the army tanks. Many were shot in their head and the eyes. The ‘battle of the camels’ had already started, but luckily the protesters managed to arrest the thugs who entered the Square with camels and horses. By then my two friends had opted to return back to the island of Zamalek where we are all staying. I remained with my daughter, thinking that it was too risky to walk back with her. I was already panicking after having seen so many wounded people.

Around 5:30 pm a large crowd of the thugs of the regime came from Talaat Harb Street heading towards the square. They threw Molotov cocktails. They were shooting live fire towards the protesters and they were burning anything that was in their way. In particular, they set fire to cars, which they would then turn upside down. One could clearly see that the army tanks did nothing to stop the burning of cars or the fighting of thugs. The anti-Mubarak protestors could only defend themselves by barricading the checkpoints with some metal shields that were collected from the construction field of the former Hilton hotel, which was under renovation. Their only weapon was to collect stones and throw them. The streets were in total chaos and many were wounded. That night, it was reported that four were killed and hundreds wounded. From what we saw, it was clear that the death toll must have been much higher than reported.  Luckily, the thugs were pushed back and they failed to enter the square.

We spent the night in Pierre’s flat. Pierre was busy putting the hundreds of photos that were taken from his balcony on all possible Facebook accounts available. It was the first day Internet had been restored after some five days of blocking its use. Pierre’s charming decadent, Belle Époque flat was turned into a large shelter. Several beds and blankets were on the floor.

The two large flats on top of the square were transformed into hosting lots of people coming and going. There were several French, Italian, American and Egyptian reporters, also photographers; several mothers whose sons and daughters were in the square and the many young and old demonstrators who took refuge when things became nasty downstairs. Some of the protesters I met happened to be my former students at the American University. I was delighted and yet truly frightened for them in the way that they had turned into determined fighters. One of my best female students had been camping in the square for four days and looked completely exhausted. Other protesters turned out to be the sons and daughters of my friends. There were also friends of the demonstrators who did not know anyone in the flat but they were still welcomed. As violence escalated during the night, the number of visiting protesters increased (we were probably some 50 or 60 people). A few protesters were wounded in their faces, hands and legs.

A television set was broadcasting continually in a separate room. We kept on coming and going through this room. Some were lying asleep in front of the TV, being utterly exhausted. We were all trying frantically to alternate between two main things: to move around the three large balconies and follow what was going on the Tahrir Square and the two side streets of Talaat Harb and Bab al-Louq. Then we would run back inside to follow the news on TV, in order to discover the direction of the next attack of the thugs. Al Jazeera channel was the reference point to locate what was really going on beyond the square. We could not see the attacks coming from the Museum of Antiquities, neither could we see the thugs who were attacking the protesters from the Six of October bridge with petrol bombs, but we saw them instead on TV. We also saw on TV how the thugs set fire to the trees on the Square, which made us all panic at the thought of a possible bigger fire that might catch the surrounding buildings. The TV screen was our only guide in detecting the danger. But there was a common feeling amongst all of us in the flat. Our hatred of Mubarak had no limits. We all had the same idea: tonight’s carnage was exactly one day after Mubarak’s refusal to step down. If he remains one more week, the damage will be beyond imagination. His egomaniacal madness had no limits.

Most, if not all of us, had our mobiles on (the curfew, or blackout on the mobile phones had been lifted). All the mothers were phoning their sons and daughters in the Square. They were describing the images they were seeing on TV to the ones in the Square. Some mothers were begging those down there to come up. The reporters were phoning their colleagues stranded or possibly lost in the skirmishes on the other side of the Square.

The square, on the other hand, was packed with people who kept on revolving around the center the whole night until dawn. Women and children were camping in the middle of the square. Some loudspeakers, located near the Omar Makram mosque were playing religious slogans, other loudspeakers were playing patriotic songs from the sixties. At a certain point, very late at night, the protesters began rhythmical drumming on their metal shields. These different sounds showed how well organized the protesters were. The orchestrated cacophony was meant to keep them awake and warn them about the direction of any forthcoming danger. There was something apocalyptic about all this noise, especially if we add the constant hovering overhead of the helicopters.

The several mothers who spent the night at Pierre’s waited for their daughters and sons who were in the square to come up. As we watched the news unfold in the late night, many of us were in tears. One mother was talking on her mobile phone begging her daughter to give up protesting. I glued myself to my daughter and thought that I wished that all this would be over.

Contagion
In writing these reflections, my daughter became my main guide in remembering the succession of the events of the night of the 2 of February. Both of us seemed to have experienced a similar problem. We both suffered from an unconscious vagueness in our attempts to evoke the memory. We became both convinced that much of it had to do with the tension of the situation and the constant shifting between trying to observe the Square and following the continuous flow of the TV images. My daughter described the night at Pierre’s as a surrealist moment. One thing is evident: the pervasive television images have effectively colonized our memory and consequently reified reality.

Had Adorno and Horkheimer witnessed the role of Al Jazeera in the Egyptian revolution, they would certainly have given a second thought to their prophecy regarding the ‘culture industry’ and the banalizing effect of television. Clearly, the revolution would not have been as successful had there not been satellite channels which exposed the flagrant discrepancies between propaganda and reality, and the ridiculous lies of the state television propaganda. Satellite channels gained even more significance when Facebook, mobile phones and the Internet were blocked by the regime.

For the coming years, academic research agendas will be kept busy studying the unprecedented role of Al Jazeera in the making of Arab revolutions. The revolution’s great victory was Al Jazeera’s too. The journalists made no attempt to disguise their subjectivity and their support for the street. Their habile movement and clever anticipation of the ransacking of their offices and the escalating witch-hunting they underwent, only enhanced their heroic image.

The contagious rebellious spirit that ran through Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Oman mesmerized the world. It simply exposed the power and velocity of image transmission through the medium of the television. There was clearly a common denominator in the protesting slogans and the demands that spread like fire through the Arab world. Arab revolts evolved around broad issues: dignity, recognition, injustice, blatant corruption and despotism.

It is a fact that the Egyptians have been famed for their wit and their lightness of being, through which this revolution succeeded in seducing large publics in the West. For sure, it was a bloody revolution, but that was not it. Time and again, commentators did not cease to repeat that the Square reinvented itself as a magnet for counterculture and popular artistic imagination, for wonderful ironic musicians and dancers. The famed Egyptian sardonic nokta (the joke) and the most amazing improvised public performances discovered their heyday in the square.

The children of the revolution taught the West a lesson on the beloved notions of cosmopolitanism and democracy. The application of these two claims have been denied for so long to the Global South under the infantilizing excuse that it lacked maturity. These values once again proved to be no longer exclusive to the West. When the Egyptian 68 movement came finally to the streets, it coincided with a national debate about genetic degeneration of races and the integration of Turks in Germany by a parochial Sarrazin. (For a discussion of the Sarrazin affair, see Helma Lutz, “From Cosmopolitanism to Public Sociology,” Global Dialogue 1/3.)

It might be premature to compare the Egyptian revolution to the Russian and Chinese revolutions. But what makes the Egyptian case fascinating is that the Internet, Facebook, mobile phones, and twitters turned out to be vital tools in transmitting information in the quickest possible way. This revealed how a controversial technology – often negatively assessed as being a product of an affluent consumer culture and consumerist lifestyles – was evidently used here for insurgence against the iron curtains of the clinically mad Arab despots. But technology here was only a medium; it was certainly not the message. The medium was all about velocity, and the message was genuinely what was going in the street. Manuel Castells was right in pointing to the role of cyberspace in creating new parameters of a network society. He speaks of a new informational language and new codes. Many who saw Tahrir Square were mesmerized by the cleverness of the young protesters of the 6th of April movement who created the most effective and yet the shortest, concise ever, anti-Mubarak slogans. These concise slogans were the main means that rallied thousands if not millions of supporters. Some slogans consisted of one simple word like “irhal” (leave), and “baatel” (illegitimate). Was this the effect of the codified and abbreviated language of electronic communication, as Castells prophesized? There is no real answer to that.

Egypt, Volume 1, Issue 4

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