In the first of a two-part diary, Wiam El-Tamami writes from Cairo about the violence that continues to engulf Egypt.
Monday 28 November
I woke up in a rage about the elections. A violent, sputtering rage, bordering on revulsion. I felt like a dog that had been fed a teething toy to stop his howling about a wide-open wound.
I couldn’t get the sign out of my mind, raised by an old man in Tahrir: ‘If Tantawi can’t accept my sowt in a vast square, will he accept it in a ballot box?’ The word for ‘voice’ and ‘vote’ is the same. And here we were, on the first morning of an election that may well be rigged, for a parliament that is likely to be powerless, under a regime that is ushering us forward into this farce to distract from the fact that it had spent the past week killing, maiming and brutalizing those who had spoken out against it. All while the blood spilled was still warm.
I raged, and raged, and remembered last Monday.
Monday 21 November
We walked into an alleyway of shops selling industrial safety equipment. We chose one at random; the man knew why we were there. He showed us the gas masks, black plastic with side filters and an orange snout. We asked to see the safety goggles too. My friend Chitra wondered idly whether helmets might not also be a good idea. Mahmoud, a writer, haggled over a big box full of gas masks and goggles, telling the man with a grin that it was his patriotic duty to give us a good price.
We headed towards Tahrir. We’d been this way hundreds of times before, but this time was different. Nervousness crackled between us. A big pack of emergency medical supplies rounded my back like a hump. The sky was overcast, the streets leading up to the square virtually empty. It felt like those eighteen days back in January and February. I didn’t know what to call them now: ‘revolution’ faltered and fell off my lips.
I was last here three days earlier, on Friday. We’d come out in force to protest military rule. In the nine months since Mubarak was overthrown, thousands of people – including artist and activist friends – have been thrown in jail, subjected to torture and sexual assault, sentenced en masse before military tribunals. Maspero, the name of the monolithic television building on the Nile, now collocates with massacre, and the indelible image of tanks mowing down unarmed protesters. State media has been used to whip the general public up into a frenzy against the ongoing strikes and protests – against the very revolution – which was blamed for the rise in crime and a crumbling economy. Just like Mubarak, the military junta was blowing magic sleep-dust into people’s ears, that soporific promise of stability: iss-tiq-raar, iss-tiq-raar, iss-tiq-raar.
We went out on Friday, and then we went home. A small group of people – most of whom had been injured in the revolution’s early days, and had yet to see any change – decided to stay in Tahrir. On Saturday morning Central Security forces, Egypt’s riot police, violently stormed the sit-in.
Saturday 19 November
I watched the events on Saturday from afar. The square was under attack, and hundreds more people streamed in to defend it. I’d been in most of the protests since 25January. I’d marched and chanted, translated testimonials and delivered supplies, posted news and tried to get the word out as best I could. But I had always managed, through a mixture of fear and luck, to veer out of the way of violence. I was not in that core group of activists who had spoken out long before speaking out became widespread, who for years had led small, seemingly futile demonstrations, and who were often the first to head out whenever there was trouble, who put themselves in harm’s way and called on others to do the same. And I was certainly not the young man who had stood in front of an armoured vehicle to stop it or the hundreds of others who stood on the front lines, facing the bullets with bare chests. I admired the courage of the former camp, envied their unwavering belief. As for the latter, I could not relate to them at all. What did it take to step out onto that brink of self-sacrifice? The word heroism doesn’t mean much to me. What does is human life: our small, rugged, dirt-beneath-nails existence. I don’t believe in dying for a cause, I said to myself, I believe in living for one.
Malek was in that band of activists. I’d met him briefly two summers earlier, over a dinner table packed with friends and glasses. On Friday I saw him with some of my friends at the downtown restaurant everyone heads to for a break during protests. He was wearing yellow, leaning against the table, looking lion-like as always. I talked books with a mutual friend. On Saturday Malek lost his right eye to a birdshot pellet.
Sunday 20 November
By Sunday, I felt depleted. I wanted to hear nothing more of Tahrir, to blank it out for today, this all-consuming thing that had taken over our lives for the past ten months. Petulantly, I wished I was elsewhere, that the choices I had to make today were limited to what I would eat, where I would go with friends, what word to put before which. But Tahrir is unavoidable. My sister called me from Dubai, paused for a beat after my ‘hello’ to listen to my quiet surroundings and said, ‘Obviously you’re not there.’
I called Hala, who was. She said she was sitting in front of the Mugamma building, where people came to rest from the fighting. Her voice sounded deflated. I was glad to hear there were still safe spots in the square. This is what they don’t tell you on the news – about the pockets of normalcy that always exist, persist – and I, having been a watcher for over a day now, had forgotten.
At 3 p.m., I grudgingly decided to go. Fear and inertia would keep their grip on me for two more hours, inhaling a constant stream of news on Facebook and Twitter. Suddenly I was up, and I could not remember how I got there. In the words of Derrida: the moment of decision is madness. I began to pull on clothes: thick jeans, running shoes, warm hoodie, scarf. I wrote down a list of the medical supplies needed and was debating whether to take vinegar or coke, our trusty anti-tear-gas aides, when I got a call from a friend I had been to many a demonstration with.
‘Where are you?’ she demanded.
‘Home, heading over now . . . ’
‘Stay where you are!’ she said, her voice rising. ‘The army has stormed the square and is shooting live fire!’
‘Are you . . . sure?’ I heard myself mumbling, my heart gone cold.
‘Stay where you are!’ she repeated, as though I hadn’t heard. She was shouting now. ‘THE ARMY HAS STORMED THE SQUARE AND IS SHOOTING LIVE FIRE!’
I called Hala. It rang twice. She answered, her voice mangled.
‘I’m choking on my own tears . . . we’re safe . . . we ran, found a place . . . choking . . . can’t speak . . .’
Tahrir is empty. They streak across it, setting it ablaze: the tents, a lone motorcycle, the new banner proclaiming The People Want a Civilian Ruling Council. The square is on fire, many small fires. Slowly, people regroup in the downtown alleyways, amidst vicious street fighting, and make their way back to their midan. More and more join them as the night wears on. If they had let a few dozen people stay in the central garden of the square, none of this would have happened. Now Tahrir was filled with thousands, who used the iron railings to bang out a ragged beat to their chants against the military and police, amidst the incessant wail of ambulance sirens.
Reports on Twitter were of more than thirty corpses in Zeinhom morgue, many of them dead from live bullets to the head and heart. The families were being pressured to sign releases claiming other causes of death, in exchange for their children’s bodies.
I called Hani at night. I knew he had been with Hala earlier, and I assumed she meant him too when she said ‘we’re safe’. His phone was switched off. My roommate came home and told me that two of our friends were now in Mohammad Mahmoud, where most of the fighting was taking place, throwing rocks. I had spent the eighteen days with them both, and could not imagine two people less likely to be engaged in what now amounted to trench warfare. One was all bark and no bite, who ran at the sight of his own shadow; the other was like a small Buddha: calm, implacable. I texted Hani, trying to imagine where in the square he would’ve been. A man with love and integrity, a patriot, an engineer, an eternal optimist. I could not imagine him milling about the inside of the square while others were being injured and killed, but I had never seen him display the sort of single-minded ferocity it must take to be on Mohammad Mahmoud.
I tried him again. It rang, finally. He picked up. His voice was soft, calm, happy. Relief. ‘They broke me,’ he said in Egyptian. ‘Emotionally, psychologically . . . ?’ I half-joked, dreading the answer. ‘The military police . . . they split my head open . . . and my arm went up to protect it . . .’ I heard ‘a lot of blood’, I heard ‘ambulance’ and ‘stitches’ and ‘bruises’ and even as he reassured me that he was going to be fine, that miraculously there was nothing broken and no internal bleeding, I felt unutterably bewildered. I couldn’t bring myself to speak. I got it then. This good man. This good man who had stood up for what he believed was right, in the streets of his own city. Viciously beaten, narrowly escaping a worse fate. A small child in me, sad and disbelieving, widened its eyes, asking a question that had never been quite so specific before. Why would anyone want to hurt Hani?
Monday 21 November
We walked into Tahrir carrying gas masks and medical supplies. The atmosphere was tense, people’s faces grim. The field hospital had to be evacuated last night from its spot just off Mohammad Mahmoud, after it was directly hit with volley after volley of tear gas. Two passages had now been cleared through the crowds, demarcated by waist-high lengths of rope and guarded by young men, along which motorbikes zipped, ferrying the injured from the front lines to two tents inside the square that now acted as makeshift hospitals.
We met Hani. His head and right arm were bandaged, and his back clearly smarted whenever anyone would touch it, but he was in good spirits. ‘It’s a lot more crowded than yesterday. They’re just provoking more and more people to come out.’
I eyed the direction of the fighting nervously. Every so often people would break into a run, charging towards us. Hani stayed put, calling with wide arms for people not to run, not to panic. He said it was just the kids at the end of Mohammad Mahmoud running from a new tear gas bomb. He was already an old hand at this new square.
Sunset was approaching: dawn and dusk were their favourite times to strike.
‘If they do come in again, which way do we run?’
‘That way.’ He nodded towards Kasr el-Nil Bridge, not missing a beat.
He added that there was no way they would storm the square again today, not with this many people, not with yesterday’s big media scandal, from which they were still trying to recover. I wasn’t so sure. I wouldn’t put anything past them. They did everything with a crude impunity that was either lunacy or utter stupidity. Or perhaps it was a twisted, Machiavellian genius: their actions were so bumblingly blatant that the general public did not believe the worst could possibly be true of their beloved armed forces.
We went to eat at the usual place, and Hani ordered his usual, and as usual I teased him about his predictability, all of which was reassuring. A waiter we knew, with a straight solemn back and a skinny wolfishness, had small dark holes in his face. Pellets; we’d learned to recognize them by now. I couldn’t imagine him out of his straightlaced black-and-white uniform. I tried to imagine him throwing rocks.
Hani told us how it had happened. He was in Mohammad Mahmoud, close to the square. The vehicle shooting tear gas suddenly surged forward towards them, firing bombs in quick succession. They turned to run, and found a rush of people running towards them from the opposite direction. In a perfectly coordinated move, military police had charged the square from the opposite side. They were caught in this two-armed pincer, a heap of bodies, sticks raining blows, a thousand scenarios rushing through his head as the blood gushed: is this it? The moment I get arrested, get killed? He heard one of the officers say, ‘This is so you won’t come back to Tahrir, you –’ and suddenly something broke and they ran for their lives. After being rushed to the hospital and his wounds taken care of, he was determined to come straight back to the square – if only in defiance of that officer’s words, his blows – but a friend held him back. He returned in the morning.
We went back to the square, meeting Hala along the way. She told us of the stampede when the army attacked, how she and a couple of other girls managed to burrow into the side streets, begging several people in the neighbourhood to let them in as soldiers crawled through the streets searching for protestors. Finally a couple of gas station attendants called them over and unlocked a tiny storeroom for them to hide in. After forty-five minutes in there they started to gasp from a fresh round of tear gas and had to come out, finally finding their way through the back alleys to a friend’s house and temporary safety.
Abdalla joined us, this ambling beanstalk of a boy-man, from his station deep into Mohammad Mahmoud, on the very forefront of the fighting. He still had his toothy grin. He also had pellet holes in his face from Saturday and a bandage on the back of his head where he caught a rock on Sunday.
‘Friendly fire,’ he joked. ‘Those kids don’t know how to throw. But actually, they’re getting seriously good at all this. They know how to pick up a tear gas canister the moment it lands and hurl it right back, how to stand upwind of the smoke and give your back to birdshot.’
We were hanging out by one of the entrances to the square, the mouth of Kasr el-Nil bridge. The mood was far lighter now. Night had fallen, the square was crowded with people and the usual motley crew of sellers with their carts – grilled corn, roasted sweet potato, pumpkin seeds with their white salt-coats – and, though fighting still continued on Mohammad Mahmoud, a direct attack on the square felt less and less likely.
Abdalla got a call, and stood up. ‘The slingshots have arrived,’ he announced with a grin. ‘Time to go try them out.’
Two horse-drawn carriages, of the elaborate gilded types that ferry canoodling lovers along the Nile, drew up in front of us. A group of young men materialized to offload its cargo – dozens of sandbags – and carried them into the square. A little while later, four men passed by carrying a huge tangle of barbed wire. More and more people were pouring in, many carrying supplies for the hospital and sit-in. I saw a group of young women I knew, their expressions grim, carrying thick woollen blankets and boxes full of juice and milk cartons. They looked like they had just got up from in front of their television or computer screens. They looked just the way I must have looked in the morning, when I arrived, before the square had worked its magic on me. Tahrir felt the way it had back in those eighteen wintery days of January–February. Though we’d come here many times in the interim, something was distinctly different this time. Our revolution had been revived.
Read the second and final part of Egyptian Diary here.
Photo by Gigi Ibrahim.