The Egyptian Revolution through the eyes of a 22-year-old who suddenly found herself part of an uprising that toppled a 30-year-old dictatorship
It’s 25 February, two weeks since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster by events anticipated by no one, least of all Egypt’s former president. Cairo’s Tahrir Square, with its tree-lined avenues and open spaces flanked by buildings, is anything but deserted. It’s a Friday, the day of the weekly protest meeting. Hands rise in unison, Egyptian flags are waved, and slogans rend the air: “Down with Mubarak and His Forty Thieves!”
No one here is in a mood to quit the revolution until all Mubarak loyalists in government go. Right in front of a wooden podium on a footpath, the army has parked an armoured personnel carrier equipped with a machine gun. It’s an obvious warning, but it is soon surrounded by protestors. A preacher climbs the armoured carrier and leads the soldiers in prayer for Libya. Aida el Kashef, slim, short, with cropped hair and funky pink spectacles, stands in the middle of Tahrir Square where there is a circular traffic island with plants on it. She looks away. “It’s not over,” she says.
A year ago, Aida had jokingly promised her friend Alaa that she would run through the streets naked if Mubarak resigned. She was 22, and had never known anything but the Mubarak regime. Year 2011 had ushered in the country’s 30th glorious year under the dictator. “Nothing will change, I thought,” says Aida. “Just you live your life.”
Something changed on 25 January. From her window, she watched the young and old march together. She’d seen protests before: by journalists’ guilds, lawyers’ guilds, teachers’ guilds, marching against occupational gripes, censorship, abrogation of legal processes, delays in pay. But they were never more than a few hundred strong. When Facebook calls went around for fed-up Egyptians to rise against Mubarak, she hadn’t taken them seriously. She was “half-sceptical, half-hopeful.”
And now she looked again. It was the day declared on Facebook. The street was in spate. Hundreds? No. Nearly a thousand, shouting, “Alshoab yarit eskat alnzaan (The people wish to change the government).”
“Midan Tahrir! They’re going to Midan Tahrir! ” she thought. The destination of the angry Cairenes was the town square in central Cairo named after the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, which had forced Britain to grant Egypt independence. And so it was that Aida found her feet sweeping her into the street, into the crowd. It was the day that Egypt now calls Revolution Day. Aida didn’t know it then, but the Egyptian Revolution had begun.
Ahead of her, there were slim youngsters dressed like wannabe hiphop artistes, there were middle-aged people who had taken leave of their regular jobs, there were folk in traditional Egyptian robes, and there were women, veiled and not. They were rallying together, all of them, not from any one party or group, their chants gaining in passion as much as rhythm by the minute. Aida’s heart by now was thumping like a drum.
After a 4 km march, they reached Tahrir Square. Swarming with demonstrators, it was chaotic, charismatic, cathartic. The impassioned speeches, the screams, the hand-waves, the tumult—and more tumult. Aida joined in, shouting slogans and tweeting in-between. Suddenly, she sensed a hubbub. The police had arrived. First came the water cannons, but they only got to frontline protestors. Aida was within, at the heart of the crowd. What reached her was the tear-gas. It engulfed her, leaving her lungs burning and eyes watering. She bent low and scampered. But when the fumes dissipated, she returned to the Square and sought some water to drink and bathe her eyes with. “We didn’t know how to react,” Aida says. But they knew it was not a rout. They had taken it on the chin, stood their ground.
Aida returned home in downtown Cairo that evening. The next morning, she learnt that Tahrir was not the only protest site, it was the epicentre. “People marching in the street, that was a miracle in Egypt,” she says. Aida took to the streets again.
Crowd morale on 26 January was as high as ever, but there were fewer people than before. The previous night’s crackdown had dissuaded many. Still, Tahrir Square had groups of a few-score to a few hundred, unwilling to yield. It was the core of the agitation.
In the afternoon, they saw an armoured personnel carrier approaching. A wave of anxiety ruffled through the crowd. Then the infantrymen took aim, and rubber bullets came flying. People ran, some were hit and fell, crying, shouting, cursing. The ones at the back ran for cover to the buildings. Aida was among them. She found shelter in a building. The rubber bullets were ‘non-lethal’ as long as they hit arms and legs. But they hit heads and torsos too. Five died that day in Cairo and 13 in Suez. Medical-aid volunteers, mostly trained doctors among the protestors, attended to the injured. Egyptian citizens, who had almost idolised the army as their protector, lost faith in it that day. “It became clear to me that they were the enemy; after Mubarak, they must go,” Aida says. “But they had arms, and all we had was our wish for freedom.”
On 28 January, millions took to the streets again. The army was given charge of controlling the crowd. Snipers took position atop tall buildings overlooking the Square and along the October 6th Bridge spanning the Nile, and began shooting rubber bullets at protestors. The injury toll rose to 900. Aida was not at Tahrir that day; she had reckoned that the security forces would open fire. So she let prudence dictate her day; she joined a small demonstration in closeby Imbaba, a locality in Central Cairo. She also had a video camera now to document the protests. By this point, Aida had assessed her role in the revolution: “The crowds were organised; in the frontline were stone-throwers, then there were slogan-shouters, then medical-aid volunteers, food-providers, and then there were film-makers like me.”
In Tahrir, meanwhile, unified crowds braved rubber bullets, tear-gas and beatings. Come what may, they would not be cowed. After night fell on the Square, they claimed the Square as their own, settling in tents and passing bread-and-cheese along that had been provided by fellow citizens. That night, Aida returned to Tahrir, armed with blankets and extra layers of clothing, and sat down among the campers. She was outraged by the violence of the army. From then on to Mubarak’s resignation, she stayed the nights at Tahrir.
The Army had effectively lost the face-off, although Mubarak was refusing to quit. He had put the titular head of the opposition, Mohamed El-Baradei, under house arrest. Aida, like countless others, was tweeting it all in Arabic and English. Mobile and internet services seemed severed, but some Twitter posts were getting through. Aida made two new friends among the women camping there—the installation artist Hala el Koussy and gender activist Kholoud Bidak. United by a shared fear of how bloody it might all turn out, they talked through much of the night—about anything at all, from periods to prospects of democracy. Among other things, Aida learnt that Kholoud was homosexual, and didn’t feel the slightest sense of unease among the protestors.
On the fifth day of the revolution, 29 January, Aida heard that Mubarak had reshuffled his government, only to appoint the intelligence chief as his deputy president and former Air Force Chief Ahmed Shafiq as prime minister. She and the crowds responded with slogans like, “We are prepared to draft a new Dastoor (constitution) with our blood!” and “Don’t reshuffle ministers, baby—go!” The protestors also cleaned up Tahrir that day. They swept off food remnants, cigarette butts, broken sticks and scraps of paper.
Elsewhere in Cairo, and in cities such as Fayoum, people were guarding their neighbourhoods from looters, several hundred of whom were rumoured to be escaped prisoners. Some suspected Mubarak was letting looters have a field day just to scare people back into his arms. If so, it wasn’t working. People were erecting checkposts themselves and scanning the IDs of passersby. The army sent mass SMSes asking everyone to ‘stand up to looters and traitors and protect their families and belongings.’ Some looters were apprehended and handed over. The protests thinned out after dark, as people returned home to safeguard their belongings. Aida stayed at Tahrir.
The following evening, on 30 January, Aida watched El-Baradei address euphoric throngs at Tahrir. He appeared resolute. Arabs, he said, could change their rulers. Meanwhile, the protestors were giving it back to the army. At the frontline, as Aida saw, they were throwing stones and lobbing tear-gas cans back at clusters of uniformed soldiers. Some had brought along Molotov cocktails, their use evident in the shells of burnt army vehicles. This was the dark side of the revolution. If there were peaceful protestors like Aida, there were also thugs and vigilantes with bottle bombs and knives. A few even had AK-47s.
Food was scant, and fuel was available only at state-owned filling stations. Banks were shut, ATMs vandalised.
Air force jets flew over Tahrir. Television channel Al Jazeera was kicked out of Egypt. Protestors were unconvinced that El-Baradei’s release from house arrest was a sign of Mubarak’s departure. They were right. But on 31 January, day seven, a ray of light appeared. The army issued a statement that it would not use force against protestors. Tahrir erupted in celebration. The united opposition called for a pan-Egyptian ‘million-man march’ to press their point home and oust Mubarak.
On 1 February, as millions marched, Mubarak appeared on TV pledging not to seek re-election as president in September’s polls. The news whirled around the Square, but Aida knew that the agitation would continue. “I thought, couldn’t the man see? The people wished him gone. They knew now was not the time to back out,” she says.
The Million-Man March was a prelude to the next day’s battle, now known as Bloody Wednesday. It was a day that Aida and countless others faced the prospect of unimaginable horrors in Tahrir. And this threat was not from the army, but fellow citizens; pro-Mubarak mobs—seen mostly as thugs on hire—turned up with iron bars, sticks and petrol bombs to lay siege to Tahrir Square. Then came a vicious attack. Molotov cocktails came hurled fast and thick, exploding in flames amid the scattering crowd. Aida had no idea where to go. Bullets were being fired now. She and the other women clustered together, screaming and hysterical. Aida recalls wailing loudly, tears streaming down her face. “All of us were thinking whether we would be raped. Was I to die here, bloodied and ripped open between my legs?”
Combatant protestors arrayed themselves by the edges of Tahrir, while non-combatants huddled in and around the circular island at the centre. The clashes, Aida could tell, were fierce. They left three people dead and over 600 injured, according to an official statement. After some time, army officers swept in, arresting several fighters. Both sides vowed to rejoin battle the next day.
That night, as Aida slept in Tahrir Square, life was being lived from anxious moment-to-moment. What was happening now? Were they coming? Would she die? Would she be raped? And yet, as dawn broke, she found herself tweeting: ‘Yesterday was a nightmare, but when the morning came and most of us were alive, heavenly dream, euphoria!’
The battle re-began soon enough. This time, however, it ended in a decisive victory for the protestors, who forced the pro-Mubarak mobs as well as the military to retreat. Tahrir Square had been held, with some captives and a few captured military horses to boot.
Aida had spent five days and nights in tents and around campfires at the Square, and now wondered if she’d ever go back to her regular life. Mubarak again appeared on TV that day, saying he wouldn’t step down because he was the only person who could keep Egypt away from anarchy. But it was too late for him. The revolution was past the point of no return. On the street, the army was arraying itself with the protestors, offering advice on possible flashpoints and assisting neighbourhood vigils.
From 4 February to 10 February, the protestors camped in Tahrir square. Around them, Cairo looked as if it had had enough. People resumed going to work. Mubarak was still in office. At Tahrir, Aida tweeted angrily, asking a friend to either join her or fuck off.
Finally, on 11 February came the big moment. Mubarak had resigned, Aida heard, and she hugged the women and men around in joyous response. But it was the frontline protestors who were overcome with catharsis. Many broke down, sobbing uncontrollably.
Aida and hundreds of others still visit Tahrir Square every Friday, and have vowed to continue until old ministers go and a democratic constitution is framed. “Besides,” Aida says, “The army is now in power. But we’ll kick them out too. The war has not ended.”