This weekend I was invited to participate in a panel at the Swedish Embassy in Cairo. I gladly accepted to join the discussion with the #YLVP people, and equally important; going to Cairo is something I never decline, especially since #jan25.
Next week the elections are coming up in Egypt, and this has led not only to campaigns, but more importantly, protests to make sure this was an election of the people (and not of the military). During my stay in Cairo these protest turned out to be quite a violent at times, with more
than 700 injured and one dead in Cairo, one in Alexandria around 2000 injured and 11 dead. As I heard that protests were going on at the Tahrir Square, I decided to go there as much as I could, to see how they would unfold.
My observations are probably a bit rough and naive, as they are missing out on the subtle details for which more context is needed. Even though I have visited the square many times before, this was my first time since the revolution started. So typing down my unorganized experiences is as much for the ‘archive’, as it is an experience to share.
So, this Friday I arrived, and I immediately left my bags in the hotel room and started walking to the Tahrir Square, which for so long had been on my mind, with its frozen images from the AlJazeera webcast somewhere in the back of my mind. When I arrived, around the time when the sun had just set, the square appeared to me as a vibrant platform for political pre-election campaigns. There were many soundsystems, and had I known arabic, I would probably have stayed to listen to the many speakers. It was the perfect Greek Agora (but much better), where lots of people gathered in peaceful but critical political debate. There was not a single security force officer in sight (even though I later spotted them near the Hilton hotel in their minivans).
Around the square you could buy Egyptian flags, T-shirts with revolutionary motifs, and grilled corn cobs. I sat down, had some tea, and walked around all the streets and corners of the square. I headed back home in the night, and fell asleep very comfortably, happy to have seen Cairo and its new political atmosphere up close.
The next day (Saturday) I returned to Tahrir in the morning. On Twitter people were saying that the police had moved in, to clear out tents and move away the remaining protesters. When I arrived, a crowd had assembled in the corner of the square near the American University, blocking traffic at times and chanting loudly. The security forces (which shouldn’t be confused with the police or the army) were everywhere, and probably outnumbered the people protesting. They all wore black uniforms, with heavy boots, a bullet proof vest, a helmet, a shield and a black long stick as primary equipment. When they moved around, they were always following orders, and they seemed almost to arrange themselves according to the ancient principles of the phalanx.
The Tahrir Square is an interesting place. Basically you have one large roundabout in the middle, and then connecting streets in all directions. The security forces had lined up in the giant circular spot in the middle of the square, where cars were passing by as normal. The crowd then started to move around this inner circle. When they had turned half a cycle they stopped and stood face to face with the security forces. I stood on the opposite side of the street, watching from a distance. I hadn’t brought any camera because I feel a bit uncomfortable taking pictures, unless you have a specific mission of documenting something.
Standing face to face with the security forces, the protesters then suddenly advanced, and in a few seconds the men dressed in black were thrown off the square; however, only to return half a minute later, with their sticks and shields. I moved a little closer, to one of the concrete slabs near the middle circle. On the one hand, the atmosphere had changed slightly; there were imminent clashes going on in the middle of the square, but looking back in the streets, people seemed barely to notice what was happening. Or, they were used to it.
But everything started to shift very rapidly. The protesters and the police pushed each other back and forth, and at one moment I had to move close to a parked car as protesters and security forces came running right at me, in a line of flight towards some connecting street, or into another crowd. I stayed for a while, but then I had to leave to prepare my presentation at the Swedish embassy. As I came back to the hotel, I instantly turned to Twitter, to see what had happened next. Then I read about the tear gas and the rubber bullets. And the many injured. The protests at Tahrir was the major topic for the whole night with the #YLVP people.
I woke up this morning (Sunday), and right after breakfast me and Gustav, with whom I had been in the panel talk with the previous night, walked from Zamalek to Tahrir. Now, a third scene had opened on the square. The security forces were gone and the people had taken over the square. They had even arranged road blocks to get into the area, but when we showed our (Swedish) passports, there were no problems getting in. The streets near the roundabout were covered in ashes, and paper tissues. A few people were sleeping, or rather – trying to sleep. Some were wounded, most likely by rubber bullets and sticks, and everyone was probably quite exhausted from holdig the square all night.
Instantly my nose and eyes started running. Even though nobody fired tear gas on the actual square then, the gas had somehow found a permanent place in the streets. I started coughing and I had to buy paper tissues. The bitter taste of it was still in my mouth hours later. A man came up to us and started talking. He showed us the empty shells, which were used for the tear gas. They were made in the US, and only a hundred meters down the street you could see that white smoke in the front line of the protests that were still going on. The man also showed me the rubber bullets, and greeted us welcome to Egypt.
The square had turned out to a real community that solved traffic redirection, security controls, field medics and various logistics. Except for the taste of tear gas, the square was once again a pleasant place, without provocative security forces.
Even though my three visits to the Tahrir Square during this weekend were quite short, it was like three different squares each time I went there. And all three of them made me feel and see so many different things. The first night, I was so happy to see tens of thousands of people talking politics, living the revolution. The second day, I got caught up in the adrenaline-pumping turmoil of the clashes, and it was probably for the better that I couldn’t stay until things really became chaotic. The third day I was fascinated with the occupation of the square, and simultaneously angry with the security forces and their tear gas and rubber bullets (which by now seem to have turned into live ammo).
It was very important for me to see the ongoing revolution in its physical presence, rather than from the interfaces of the Internet. In the next post I will go in to this distinction from a philosophical perspective. Nevertheless, the memories from Tahrir will be on my mind for a very long time.
The violence seems to have escalated even more now, as I publish these brief notes. It makes me very sad that unarmed people are facing even worse weapons…