Cairo: Day of Rage, Night of Revenge

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For reasons of safety, Newsnet Scotland has removed the author’s personal details

Cairo Tahrir square at night

Just after midnight on the 26th, Tahrir Square was fairly calm, almost jubilant. Tuesday’s Day of Rage – the biggest protest in Egypt since the late seventies – had brought between 15,000 and 20,000 to downtown Cairo’s main intersection. Now many were camped on the traffic roundabouts and by the kerbsides.

Free food was being handed out, blankets were on their way. Periodic chants still filled the air but the riot police kept their distance, lurking at the fringes of the square.

I’d been following the protests for the last ten hours, running alongside a snowballing crowd as it marched down from the National Museum just before 2pm, surging past the Arab League building and towards the Nile. As more joined and ran to keep up, the calls for change, for the fall of Mubarak, became louder, angrier, more impassioned.

At first riot police stayed on the sidelines, blocking major intersections to stop the crowd converging with the capital’s other marches. Periodically, they tried to split the group when it overextended, forming lines that forced protesters to charge through the gaps.

We crossed to the northern suburb of Shubra, passing under the raised highway and threading through narrow streets lined with small stalls and street sellers. The chants grew and we looped down and reformed outside the Ministry of Justice, security having already corralled a large group onto the steps.

Some continued east and stick-wielding police took the chance to block the road. Eventually protesters broke through and reformed, cheering, picking up further steam. At one square the crowd swarmed over a glossy metres-wide poster of President Mubarak, ripping it down and tearing it to pieces underfoot.

Then it was back towards Tahrir square and the nearby government buildings. Rumours came back of water cannon, of bloodletting. Jogging towards Tahrir with Hani, an Egyptian cafe-worker, I arrived at rapidly emptying streets and saw smoke a few hundred metres ahead. Egyptian youth, some with faces covered, were racing back towards us. Several were carried, heads bleeding, arms limp. ‘Take a look,’ implored one of their bearers. ‘This is Egypt. This is what this regime means.’

More loud thumps in the distance, more smoke and we began to taste rank, bitter tear gas. We covered our mouths and noses and ran closer to see advancing security forces. Already my eyes were streaming. ‘Here, water,’ shouted one young guy to me in Arabic. He splashed some from a bottle into my face, embraced me. ‘You are Egyptian?’ No. Another hug and he was gone.

An hour later we were in the square, security having pulled back. The atmosphere was in turns furious, then jubilant, almost carnivalesque. ‘The people want the fall of the regime’ was the loudest chant. Then the crowd turned its attention to spectators in the buildings overlooking the square: ‘Come down and join us’. Periodic bursts of tear gas and rushes by police lines forced retreats. Regrouped, everyone shared tissues and cigarettes.

Some started gathering broken slices of paving slab to hurl at police only to be held back by others, insisting on non-violence. ‘Don’t touch them! Don’t touch them!’ At each barricade, impassioned protesters talked to the men in black. ‘We are brothers. Join with us’. They met impassive stares. With muzzeins wailing in the distance, part of the square held early evening prayers. A small group of Christians knelt alongside dozens of Muslims using flattened cardboard boxes for prayer mats.

As a foreigner, I attracted younger protesters wanting to air their views. ‘The people have woken up, we won’t go back to sleep,’ said one. ‘Today changed everything. You will remember today forever.’ Rumours filtered through the crowd. Cellphone coverage was being cut, the internet seemed to have been shut down around 5pm. But we heard of arrests in Shubra, defiance in Mahalla, even larger crowds in Alexandria. ‘It started today,’ said a protester in his 50s with quiet determination. The night went on and the crowd grew as word spread through the capital.

Nearing midnight I returned to my hotel in a building very near the square. Chants were fainter now, people were bedding down, planning to protest again the next day. I found it difficult to sleep – an excess of caffeine, the tang of gas still in my throat. Nipping downstairs, I headed to the southwest of the square, planning to slip past the security cordon to a late-night supermarket near the American University. That was when it all kicked off. Soundbombs, the roar of the crowd, then the thump of canisters being fired. Hundreds turned and fled east. I sprinted back towards the hotel, a hissing tear gas can landing a metre to my right. Much denser than before, the gas was already causing people to retch and stagger.

I ran back to my building and climbed the stairwell. The four levels were becoming crammed with people trying to breathe. Many made it to the top floor where the air was clearer. Two women, one in late middle-age, were carried up to the small landing, coughing and spluttering. We shared tissues and water to wash our eyes. A child, no older than 12 or 13, stood gasping and furious beside me.

People started banging on doors, trying to find sanctuary. The receptionist of my hotel, too scared to let me in, signed through the wrought-iron barrier for me to wait. With nearly a hundred in the stairwell he’d be overwhelmed. Wood splintered downstairs as protesters forced upon a locked office and piled in. It was too late. Already we could hear the rushing, the thumping and yelling on the bottom floor. Then they were charging upwards in a furious blur – black-clad riot police swinging sticks, beating heads and backs, grabbing cowering figures and tossing them down the steps.

Cornered, just myself and an Egyptian were left outside the hotel door. Taal! Taal! – they roared. Come. The Egyptian – shaken, trembling – slowly descended and they fell upon him. I shouted I was a foreigner, that I stayed at the hotel.

Two thick-set men advanced to the final landing. They slapped me hard in the face and pinned my arms, ushering me down the stairs past other riot police who started raining blows. One, runtish, almost grinning, followed a step behind, kicking my back and thighs. He swung a baton, crashing it down on my left shoulder.

We were frogmarched out onto the street, guards and plainclothes security lashing out. A stocky man in a brown leather jacket raced towards me, bellowing. His fist pounded my back, the top of my head. My arms still bound by two security, he grabbed my hair, yanked my face upwards and socked me hard on the jaw. Again, I shouted I was a foreigner, a tourist. ‘Fuck foreigners,’ he screamed.

Round the corner from Tahrir, I was bundled up the steps into the back of a dark green prison truck. Several dozen Egyptians were already there, some wailing, clinging their stomaches, their heads and limbs. Others tried to comfort and calm them. I was asked something in Arabic and couldn’t answer. ‘You’re a foreigner?’ he said in English. ‘They take foreigners too?’. A few final captives were tossed in to the tiny cell. The temperature was rising, combining with the tear gas to make breathing difficult.

We steamed off in a short convoy, horns blaring. The only light came through six tiny, meshed windows, perhaps a foot and a half across. Many crowded around, trying to see where we were being taken, already talking into mobile phones which the security hadn’t had time or inclination to confiscate. One man, thin, mid-thirties, propped himself against the small portal in the door, gasping, moaning and reciting Koranic verse. When the truck made a quick stop or a sharp turn, we were thrown across the cell, landing in a heap.

Rumours started to spread about where we were going. Anxious glances through the windows. Talk of Ismailia – another city – or even the desert. Several had seen the inside of a prison van before. For others, maybe the majority, it was the first time. A man in his thirties with glasses, curly hair and a bleeding nose turned to me. ‘You will probably be ok.’ As a foreigner, if I had ID, I would most likely be released. Yes, but you? ‘Us? That’s different. They will let you go but you have to tell others where we are. That’s your responsibility.’ They feared the worst – a trip to a secret prison, indefinite detention.

Buildings had fallen away and we were on a highway. Then a screeching halt that flung us all across the cabin. A U-turn and then a turn-off into a security compound, passing under lifted barriers. Some kind of barracks. A few passengers stammered fearfully. ‘It’s nothing,’ said one, comfortingly. ‘It’s no big thing.’ A half-hour there, hearing shouting and clanking in the distance then the truck restarted and drove back to the highway.

Everyone who could speak English – and there were plenty – had something to say. ‘I’m so sorry for this,’ said one. Sorry? Sorry for what? For a system you are trying to change? ‘They kicked our asses for 30 years,’ he said, the Americanism standing out. ‘We let them do this to us.’

But no, they weren’t letting it happen. With a foreign passport and embassy, I was shielded from all but a few slaps and kicks. For them there was no recourse, only the threat of years of detention, beatings and torture. Yet still they were dignified, defiant. A younger man asked me to sit next to him on the narrow metal bench that lined the walls. Short, intense and brave, his eyes still damp from the tear gas, he grimaced. ‘They are animals. But we will win. Eventually we will win.’

We were back in the city. Messages had come through that passengers from other trucks had been released. Someone recognised a landmark in Medinat Nasser, eastern Cairo. Two hours of being crammed together had calmed us – that had probably been the intention. We passed checkpoints into the ‘security academy’ at Jebel Ahmar and drew to a halt in front of low cinderblock buildings.

There was banging on the door and a demand for a headcount: ’38 plus foreigner’. An order to line up against the wall, something of a feat in a three metre long cabin containing over three dozen people. A police officer came aboard, talked quietly but firmly and shone a torch in our faces, at our shoes. One by one, we showed ID and gave our names to a red-haired Egyptian with a clipboard. Finally, we were ordered out, clanking down the van’s steps and walking single file towards the police building.

Inside a bare, filthy locker room we lined up a table and our names were taken again. I was pushed to the end until they found an English-speaking senior officer, bald and blue-eyed. I told how I was picked up. Told of my beating. Told them who I was going to report it to. His eyebrows lifted in mild surprise, perhaps at the weakness of the threat. But he was polite and knew to treat a foreigner carefully. Even the Egyptian prisoners, in this room at least, were shown a little courtesy.

After processing they made us sit on the fetid floor in the back of the room, dividing some into smaller groups who were taken away one by one. After an hour leaning against a wall, I was summoned to another room where two senior officers sat. ‘We are letting you go,’ they said. Ok, I replied, waiting for an apology that never came. They put me in the back of another prison truck, this time with two police, the main cell compartment sitting open. They drove to the edge of the training school by the ring road and dumped me.

It was about 5.30am and the day of rage was over. A new one, of course, was just beginning.