Even though I planned to avoid a chronological approach to the Tahrir Diaries, I had to dedicate a post to the events of the 28th, and it is by no means a short one. Starting next entry, I will talk about the different aspects of the revolution, regardless of timing and sequence of events.
January the 28th was the day we Egyptians had to go through a complete media blackout for the first time. Texting and internet access had diminished from the night before. By 6am all telecommunication services had been cut off, and we were left completely in the dark. That’s why I’ll try to relive the sequence of events of the Friday of Anger.
Since the demonstrations on the 25th, it was clear that little can be left for the last minute. We were all aware of the complete media blackout which we were in for. In the build up, documents like this pdf were circulating to help everyone prepare. Even though the inevitable feeling of optimism overshadowed all emotions, I was still nervous and wasn’t sure what to expect. My friends and I had agreed to meet at my neighborhood’s Anas Ebn Malek square at 11:30 to walk over to the Mostafa Mahmoud mosque by noon.
The march to Galaa square
It was obvious from the very beginning that the huge majority of the crowd occupying the Mostafa Mahmoud square had little or no interest in prayer. In fact, before everyone had finished saying ‘al salamu 3aleiko wa ra7mato Allah’ a middle-aged man in the back row had already burst in passion ‘al sha3b, yoreed, esqat el nezam’ and in no-time the demonstrators piled up and it was one strong voice coming out of a growing group.
The Central Security Forces had already surrounded the block, but the mere double-file cordon was no threat to the people who were very serious about fighting for democracy. First we moved towards el Batal Ahmed street, but the defense was too thick, so we spilled over to a narrow side street to go around them. But then before we got through, people had managed to find a path into Gameat el Dewal st and we all followed. At that point, I had already lost count and I couldn’t see the end of the crowd.
We marched together through el Batal Ahmed street until we got to Dokki bridge. I had never seen so many Egyptians take the streets before then, and the overall confidence had skyrocketed. At one point, I couldn’t see neither the beginning nor the end of the demonstrators, which meant we were over 20,000 people taking part (numbers only belittled by the million-man marches at Tahrir square later). It was a smooth walk until we approached Galaa square and bridge – that’s when the fit hit the shan.
Even pop corn has longer delays than this. Those CSF soldiers must’ve packed a small economy’s worth of tear gas bombs in hope of dispersing the protesters and ending the demonstration from our end. We held strong. It must’ve been a solid hour’s worth of attacks in the form of thousands of tear gas bombs in all directions.
I ran into a side street and ended up stranded with a small group in a building’s entrance. That’s where I ran into and joined forces with friends Rowan el Shimi (also check out her new blog) and Mona Abdel Aziz.
That stage of Friday’s demonstrations witnessed true Egyptian unity. Vinegar bottles were being tossed around, water was constantly shared (always accompanied with the strict “don’t rub your eyes with it!”), supplies of chopped onions were of no shortage, and the unofficial sponsor Pepsi was circulating like it was festival. It was a clear ‘us against them’ situation where the people’s drive was much more powerful than security forces’ orders.
As we regrouped inside the building’s entrance, we took turns in scouting Galaa square to see if the situation had somewhat improved. We also had a mini-debate on the best way forward, and voted to keep trying returning to the square, and keeping it peaceful.
We eventually overcame Galaa square and managed to enter Zamalek were the front line was now at the Opera metro station. It was only a matter of time before we pushed the security forces back to Kasr el Nil bridge.
The long and hard battle at Kasr el Nil bridge
Probably the most strategic win for us against the security forces, and from our side of the city, the most difficult. This battle needed two subsequent attacks and about four hours to be won.
For the first time that day, the CSF made a smart strategic decision by giving up the bridge from Opera square and falling dip into the bridge itself. This meant that while we were superior in numbers, that advantage was lost as soon as we funneled into a bottleneck and only a small portion were confronting the forces at a time (with thousands behind not being utilized).
I’m not the type that throws himself in the front line, I usually hang back a bit and have an exit plan at hand. At this particular point however, I was at the front rows with thousands packed behind me, meaning an easy exit was not an option. It was at that point that I found Ali Azmy (also started an impressive new blog) and Mohamed el Quessny.
You might recall the images that first made it to TV a couple of days after Angry Friday, which included the prayer on Kasr el Nil bridge and the water truck spraying at us? That’s when Azmy and Quessny joined the prayer, and I was watching their backs (or practicing atheism – whichever version we want to tell our kids). So I was on the first row after the protesters who were on the ground praying. As soon as prayer was over, rubber bullets, pellets off shotguns (some of which injured Azmy in his right leg), and tear gas pop corn was back in action.
Behind the front lines of the security forces were two green vans that carried the tear gas shooters. Their problem was that soldiers retreated faster than they could back up, meaning sometimes they would find themselves amidst the first rows of demonstrators. Those vans are well protected, and there’s no way to break the glass and reach the drivers. However, with sheer determination, one of the young boys took a big risk and managed to jump on top of the left van and place all of his weight on the cover where the tear gas shooter popped up from. You could clearly see the soldier trying to force the door open, but the young man held tight. This was key as it reduced the tear gas being shot at us significantly.
Another young man attempted to replicate the heroic actions with the right van. This time, the soldier shot tear gas bombs directly at the people around him, and by the time the demonstrator got close, the soldier pulled out a self-defense spray and pushed him off the top of the van. While not as successful as his counterpart on the left, it did buy us some time to advance.
During the entire time, all tear gas bombs shot at us were thrown in the Nile, and every once in a while back at the soldiers.
By the time we reached three quarters of the way through the bridge, The CSF soldiers waiting on the other side added to the ones confronting us on the bridge, and the attack was too much to handle for those who have been on the receiving end from the start of the bridge. So we retreated. There were moments of worry as there was a potential stampede due to tiresome and a couple of tear gas bombs that we failed to clear.
I was back by the Opera with the injured Azmy and we ran into Hatem and then Oscar there. People were generally exhausted with dozens injured around us. A few doctors (including a young foreign lady) were randomly roaming the Opera street looking for injuries to cure. It was truly inspirational.
For us it was a short break, and an unintentional wait for reinforcements.
The second offensive at the Kasr el Nil battle
While recovering, energetic crowds approached from Galaa square – The Haram and Giza people are here! Thousands upon thousands of young demonstrators who were held up in Giza and Haram arrived at around the same time and stood out with their fresh banners and incredibly uplifting energy. Now the ‘not-so-tough’ Mohandeseen and co demonstrators can make way for these men – they mean business.
As a good friend I left Azmy behind (well, I lost him in the crowd, but he wasn’t going to move forward anyway), and made my way back to the bridge. A couple of deep sniffs of that beautiful American tear gas wore me off and I side-stepped into a garden on the Nile with an entrance right by the start of the bridge.
I sat alone for a bit and shot the following clip:
From that point and for about 3-4 hours, I was completely alone. Perhaps a chance to absorb everything myself and not get carried away with friends and surroundings. As soon as we had occupied the entire bridge, I got up and joined the queue to push forward towards the Tahrir square.
Evening at Tahrir square
Definitely the highlight of the revolution so far. Crossing the Kasr el Nil bridge and walking towards Tahrir in that context is something very few experience in their lifetimes. Some bombs and bullets at the end of the bridge from the retreated security forces standing at the edge of the square itself ruined a romantic comedy that I was developing with the square, but I managed to do so shortly after anyway.
The war drums were rolling, Intercontinental’s roof caught fire from the bombs, thousands were joining from the TV building’s side, it was getting dark, and we were gradually gaining grounds. For me the walk from the bridge to the actual square was overwhelmingly emotional. I broke into tears as I was approaching the square, and starting hugging strangers around me and sharing smiles. We had done it, Tahrir square is falling to the people where it belongs.
For a period of two or three hours, there was little progress on the Ministry of Interior front, mostly because as the headquarters of Egypt’s Central Security Forces, they were fighting for survival in full force. I roamed the area and walked over to the National Democratic Party’s headquarters by the Nile to find it in flames. It was beautiful.
Later that night I bumped into Hossam el Hamalawy (his blog) and we greeted each other with a passionate hug that expressed our disbelief at the revolutionary events. For so long we’ve all been fighting (in different ways) for the revolution, and Tahrir square is where many of us meet. He told me how he had started a march from his native Medinet Nasr and marched towards the square, fighting in 3 different battles as well, the biggest of which was at Ramses sq entering towards Tahrir and downtown. We hung out by the Mogamma3 building going back and forth with the CSF soldiers defending the ministries’ building and house of parliament.
Shortly after, I was reunited with Hazem Zohny, and we stuck together to the very end.
At around 10:30pm Hazem and I walked over to a kiosk in Zamalek to grab a quick snack and call our loved ones (from a landline). Needless to say, my mother’s reaction to my phone call was a rather dramatic one. Turns out she had been in close contact with the parents of every person I’ve come across in the revolution, and they were all helping each other freak out. By that time all of my friends had returned home, but my sister Nora Shalaby wasn’t back yet. Turns out she was at the other side of the long lasting battle by the Ministry of Interior (or more accurately, between the mogamma3 and the AUC campus). My mom got me worried a little, but I knew my sister wouldn’t get herself into too much trouble. As my mom insisted on me returning home, I told her that as soon as we’ve burnt down the parliament building, just like we did with the NDP headquarters, I’d be back home and tucked into bed.
The army’s arrival
‘Are you with us, or are you with them?’ Shouted the protesters.
As you’d expect, the soldiers driving the tanks that showed up all over downtown had no idea what they were going to do, nor how long before they are ordered to do something else. At that point it didn’t matter, the euphoric emotions spilling over made the entire situation seem like it was from a movie.
As the tanks approached, the predominantly young male crowd jumped all over them till the point of completely covering them. It was funny to see kids hanging on the actual tube coming out of the vehicles, and no one cared. The joy of witnessing war tanks in our downtown square was too much to let an opportunity like that one pass.
Amongst the tanks was a truck that looked like it was loaded with goods. A couple of kids jumped on to it while it was moving, and people ripped its cover off and found that it was packed with snack boxes! Within seconds the entire stock of what appeared to be food for the soldiers for the period to come was immediately taken and distributed to the hungry demonstrators who have been at it for a solid 12 hours by then. The truck was down to bare bones when we left it, and everyone was grabbing a much needed bite.
When one of the tanks made it to the other side of the square (by where the CSF soldiers were shooting from) and the shooting didn’t stop, many thought that the army was in fact collaborating with the ministry of interior as oppose to stopping its forces from attacking. At that point war was declared against them and 3 tanks were set on fire. Unfortunately, tanks aren’t flammable. However, that didn’t stop some as a group of young men managed to stuff the burning cloth down the narrow openings of the tank, forcing the smoke inside and therefore suffocating the driver and co-pilot. Within seconds both military soldiers took emergency exists and were immediately captured by the demonstrators, and dozens opened the tank and somehow fit themselves inside it.
Just as we thought things couldn’t get more bizarre, the now civilian-controlled tank, left stranded from the rest, actually moved a few meters! Thankfully for the future Egyptian generations, order was restored and the army took back the tank.
The following video captures the burning of the aforementioned tank. Notice the soldier as he escapes at the very last moment:
Matters eventually calmed down, and we reached peace with the army after the security forces cooled down their attack. In no time we were sitting on tanks, chatting and eating with the soldiers, and starting the trend of tanks’ photo shoots which eventually became the theme of the revolution.
At 2am, Hazem and I decided it was time to head home. After 14 consecutive hours of demonstrations, it was time to get some rest.
The long walk home
With everyone home and glued to their TVs, there were hardly any cars out in the streets. We walked over to Zamalek via the 6th of October bridge thinking we’d run into a taxi, but no dice. Hazem signed off at the 26th of July street, and I continued my walk back to Mohandeseen in about 45 minutes.
During that time I was all alone. There weren’t even strangers in the street to serve as temporary acquaintances that could help me vent out whatever feelings that have been accumulated over the course of that historic day. I was all alone and I had all the time in the world. That day marked a new era for Egypt – the day I could finally say I’ve helped make a difference in my country. The beginning of the end for the only government I’ve ever known.
As I was walking through the streets, exhausted, I felt a sense of ownership that I never knew even existed. This is my town, this is my country, these are my people, and we are the ones who own this place. No one can take that away from us, and this is only the beginning.
As Che Guevara once said, “el revolucionario verdadero está guiado por grandes sentimientos de amor” (a true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love). And no one loves Egypt as much as we Egyptians do.