The events of Jan.
25, 2011, may have come as a shock, even to those who participated. But it was
no overnight phenomenon -- more like the sudden flowering of seeds patiently
planted over years and years.
"I was shocked. Everyone
was. I don't believe anyone who says they knew it would be like that. I had an
ear-to-ear smile on the whole day," said Wael Khalil, who had been working for revolution
among socialist activists for the past 20 years. "I think of it like concentric
circles. It started with a small circle of activists. Kefaya [a coalition founded in 2004 to protest President Hosni Mubarak's hold on power] expanded the
circle, the 2005 elections expanded the circle. Khaled Saeed [a young Egyptian man
whose violent death, at the hands of Egypt's security forces, became a
rallying cry for protesters] was huge."
Nobody was quite sure
just what to expect that day. A group of young activists, depending heavily on
social media, had announced a day of mass protests, partially in honor of the
successful Tunisian revolution 11 days earlier. Jan. 25, a Tuesday, was
mischievously chosen because it was also a national holiday: Police Day. The
holiday commemorates the 1952 struggle of the Ismailia police force against the
occupying British. In the minds of the activists, it became a focal point for an
outraged condemnation of the behavior of police and the Interior Ministry in
Mohamed Adel, a
spokesman for the April 6 movement, one of the youth movements that had pressed
for change in Egypt for years, told a local newspaper, "Egypt's police have
become [criminals] who don't care about protecting the people, unlike the
heroes of 1952."
There was, among some
quarters, a certain satisfaction in turning Police Day on its head. As Nora
Shalaby, an archeologist and passionate social media activist put it in a tweet
around noon on Jan. 25:
really satisfying to c Egyptian police officers working & anxious on their
day off #jan25
It wasn't the first,
or even the tenth, day of mass national protests called for in the previous few
years. But this one felt a little different going in. The wounds of Khaled
Saeed and the mass insult of the parliamentary elections were still fresh in
the public psyche. A growing number of citizens had simply ceased to care
about the potential consequences of political action. A politically
desensitized population was being re-politicized by their unacceptable
realities. The old Egyptian saying of "walk next to the wall" -- mind your
business, feed your family, and don't get involved in matters of governance
above your station -- was becoming irrelevant; minding your own business
in Egypt in 2011 still wouldn't protect you from economic insecurity,
institutionalized corruption, nepotistic hiring practices, or a predatory
I was originally
scheduled to travel to Dubai on Jan. 25; my wife, Rola, was already there
waiting for me. Hearing all the rumblings and mindful of Tunisia, I decided to
delay the trip by a day or so, just to see what happened. By the end of the
day, it was clear that I wasn't going anywhere. It was still way too early to
predict where all this was going, but something unprecedented was happening.
called for crowds to gather outside the Interior Ministry, near Tahrir Square.
On the surface, that seemed like a tactical mistake. Gathering in the tightly
confined urban space of Lazoghly Square would enable the Central Security
troops to practice their well-honed tactics of
bottling up protest groups with overwhelming numbers. Anyone gathering in
Lazoghly would be easily surrounded, and anyone seeking to join the protest in
progress would be just as easily prevented from approaching.
The Interior Ministry
plan turned out to be a clever ruse; at about 10:30 in the morning, the word
went out through Twitter and Facebook about a whole new set of gathering points
and contact numbers. The turnout exceeded all expectations; from the start, it
was clear that this was, the largest demonstration Egypt had
witnessed in years. I spent the day moving throughout downtown Cairo, trying to
keep track of a dizzying set of fast-moving events.
Throughout the day,
different groups of protesters flowed organically through downtown Cairo, many
of them meeting little resistance. There was a carnival atmosphere, and
protesters saluted each other and joined forces, moving through the city with
no set plan -- only an unspoken understanding that something new was happening
and that they would all eventually meet in Tahrir.
The black-clad riot
troops of Central Security dutifully deployed in their usual overwhelming waves.
But for the first time in recent memory, the troops seemed potentially
outnumbered by the protesters, who simply pushed through their ranks. The
Central Security cadres looked strikingly unprepared and completely miserable; they
weren't used to a fair fight.
The security troops
also seemed to be operating under orders, at first, to deploy a soft touch. Perhaps
out of concern over how the Tunisian uprising had captured imaginations across
the Middle East, authorities seemed concerned to avoid a major public
crackdown. At the beginning of the day, the Central
Security forces deployed without their usual batons and riot shields, locking
arms to form a human barrier to pen in demonstrators. That tactic quickly
proved to be almost comically ineffective.
The first real
physical confrontations I witnessed were outside the Supreme Court downtown --
a common flash point since it sits adjacent to the Lawyers Syndicate and Journalists
Syndicate, both longtime nerve centers for protests and activism. The
two neighboring professional syndicates are symbolic of how opposition politics
worked for years under Mubarak. Both, in their time, served as hotbeds of
government opposition; but they also clearly demonstrate how Mubarak's forces would
allow limited "steam vent" protests to express public frustration without
actually threatening to change anything.
For years, you could
say pretty much anything you wanted outside either syndicate building, far more
than you ever could say in Tunisia, Syria, or Libya -- as long as you didn't try
to move from your spot. The Lawyers Syndicate, in particular, had a walled-in courtyard
with a front gate that served nicely as a natural choke point to keep protests
inside. At the Journalists Syndicate around the corner, protesters frequently
gathered on the wide steps of the building's entrance, where they would also be
surrounded by riot cops and penned in place. Most of the time, Central Security
forces were able to keep matters so effectively bottled up that traffic would
keep flowing past the buildings, with passing drivers barely noticing one more
It was a solid plan
and it worked for decades. But it was entirely built around the
concept of overwhelming security numbers -- that there would always be more
police than protesters. Jan. 25 was the first time I had ever
witnessed where the numbers weren't heavily in the government's favor.
"All day you had this
sense of euphoria," said Mohamed El Dahshan, who had returned to Egypt one day
earlier after helping monitor the referendum on independence for South Sudan.
"It was like, 'Fuck it, there's a lot of us!' No more getting cordoned by a
measly couple hundred Central Security people.... You would walk with people you
recognize, lose them, find some others, and walk and chant with them."
Across the river, on
the Giza side, the blogger Mahmoud Salem (who writes under the online moniker
of Sandmonkey) started his day outside
the Moustafa Mahmoud Mosque -- a central hub in the commercial district of Mohandessin.
At about 12:30 in the afternooon he was sitting inside Cilantro, an upscale coffee
shop across Arab League Street from the mosque, waiting for some friends to
arrive. Suddenly four police officers entered and started demanding IDs and
detaining all veiled women and bearded men -- basically anyone who looked like an
Islamist. The government clearly still thought the primary threat that day
would come from the fundamentalist ranks. "They left my group alone because we
looked like frou-frou upper-class Cilantro people," Salem said.
Eventually he ended
up in a 500-strong march that tried to cross the Nile and head toward
Tahrir. But Central Security had effectively cut the city in two, blocking multiple
bridges in the center of the city. Unable to cross the Galaa Bridge, Salem and
his group moved north to the October 6 Bridge, but found that also blocked by overwhelming
security numbers. In a moment of pure inspiration, Salem found a Nile-side
fisherman with a motorboat and gave him LE150 (about $25) on the spot to deliver
him and a few friends across the river and right up to the entrance to
"We called it the
Egyptian Freedom Flotilla," Salem said, laughing proudly. "There was even an
Egyptian flag on the side of the motorboat!"
Back at the Supreme
Court, after a bit of back-and-forth shoving, the crowds started to overwhelm
the police, who scrambled to keep up. For a while, it was almost playful; groups
of police and protesters would race to reach this or that intersection in time,
often running side-by-side and jostling for position. One group of marchers,
moving through the Boulaq area, seemed to make a point of recruiting as they
appealed to the sidewalk gawkers to join and chanted, "Raise your voice/he that
shouts won't die!" (It rhymes in Arabic.)
"Join us, you won't
go to jail," one young man shouted to a group of youths watching from the sidewalk.
"Don't be afraid. The fear is what keeps us from changing."
The dominant chant,
the first time I'd heard it in years of covering Egyptian protests, was a direct
import from Tunisia: "The people demand the fall of the
Even among those who
didn't join in, there seemed to be a high degree of emotional support for the
marchers. A chubby young mother carrying a wriggling toddler gave the
protesters a thumbs-up. Down the block, a grandmother gleefully clapped and
chanted along. In a powerful moment, a 300-strong group of protestors
came across another, larger, group of demonstrators marching the opposite
direction along the Corniche near Tahrir Square. The two groups embraced amid
raucous cheers and started marching together.
The sight of
Tunisians driving the similarly entrenched Ben Ali from power had unblocked
something in the psyches of the protesters. Now that they knew it was possible,
people couldn't wait to get on with their own liberation.
There was also, it
must be noted, a certain level of brotherly Arab competitiveness on display. Egyptians
have always prided themselves on being the cultural and political leaders of
the Arab world -- even in the last few decades when that boast began to ring
rather hollow. The sight of the Tunisians (the Tunisians, of all people!) accomplishing
what Egyptians couldn't do had rekindled that semi-dormant sense of Egyptian
competitive pride -- as if liberation was some sort of African Cup match.
Salem, frames the matter rather indelicately as "the small penis theory" of
Middle Eastern politics. "Machismo played a big part of it," he insists.
"Egyptians looked at Tunisia and said, ‘Wait that's possible? And you're just
fucking Tunisia! We're Egypt!'"
expressed similar sentiments in more delicate terms. "Tunisia has encouraged a
lot of people. I was one of those people who never got into politics," said one
woman in her mid-fifties who declined to give her name.
Downtown, a few yards
away from where demonstrators were clashing with riot police outside the
Supreme Court, a young protester seemed to capture the brotherly competitiveness
best. "The Tunisians have become better than us. They're real men," Ahmed Eid
Eid was a classic
profile of young Egyptian frustration. An educated middle-class youth, he saw
no hope and no future for himself under the current system. Despite holding a
law school degree, he was still unemployed after graduating four years earlier.
In Egyptian social mathematics, this also meant he was still living with his
parents with virtually no hope of ever getting married (which probably meant no
hope of ever having sex) and actually starting his life.
"We've been silent and gone hungry for a long
time," Eid said. "If we continue like this, we will change things, we just have
protesters jostled with riot police outside the Supreme Court downtown, on a deserted
stretch of 26 July Street, a young family walked arm in arm down the middle of the
street gleefully chanting, "Down with Hosni Mubarak!"
It became apparent
that something different was happening here than the usual semi-annual bursts
of public frustration. The anger and the desire for change had metastasized. Whatever
anyone says about the Egyptian revolution, it wasn't just "the youth" that
brought Mubarak down. The youth led the way, for sure, often showing courage
that their elders had long since surrendered. But from the very start it
encompassed people of all ages, including innumerable two- and
three-generation families, all adding to the protest lines.
One woman in her mid-forties, who declined to give her name, said she had never before gotten
involved in politics. But on Jan. 25 she came out with her two teenage
sons, "to show them that it's possible to demonstrate peacefully for change."
At about three in the
afternoon, the crowds converged on Tahrir Square, the massive public space on
the edge of downtown that's the traditional heart of the city. The protesters filled
up more than half the square; that's when the riot police started hauling out
the heavier tactics -- including baton charges, water cannons, and tear gas. In
a surreal interlude, at the Talaat Harb Street entrance to Tahrir Square, there
was a mass of protesters and Central Security cadres -- all gagging on the same
tear gas. Despite the violence on display, the day contained its share of dark
comedy: the now-desperate Egyptian riot police were throwing
rocks back at protesters.
A tense standoff
reigned for hours. Several times, the riot police scattered the crowd with
choking tear-gas volleys, but the protesters kept regrouping and coming back
for more. In the midst of confl ict, there were numerous moments of détente and
even sympathy between the two warring sides. Many of the Central Security
soldiers and commanders seemed to understand the frustrations of the
protesters, and many of the protestors seemed to understand that the Central
Security was the most immediate threat -- but not the real problem.
Mohab Wahby, a young development specialist, recalls a rather civil negotiation with a Central
Security officer who told him, "I understand your anger, but what can I do?
These are my orders."
As news of the
clashes spread, the various protest groups began converging on Tahrir to provide
reinforcements. Just before 4:00 P.M. just as the police were potentially starting
to turn the tide, a thousand-strong march rushed in from the direction of Abdin
with a huge roar, adding fresh numbers and momentum to the protesters.
approached, "The discussion became, 'Do we stay or not?' People were saying, 'If we leave, we'll never take the square again.' Then people started getting blankets
and food," said El Dahshan.
Fresh bodies began
flocking to the square, having heard the news of its occupation by protesters.
Someone brought a microphone and speaker system and the speeches began. Political
and cultural leaders like Alaa Al Aswany, author of The Yacoubian Building,
started appearing on the scene and determination hardened around the idea of an
managed to hold onto Tahrir for about nine hours that day. At about one in the
morning, when the crowds had thinned a bit, police violently cleared the square
using volleys of tear gas and baton charges. "We were really getting into sleep
mode, and then suddenly here comes the cavalry," El Dahshan said. He and others
fled through the side streets of downtown with Central Security
chasing them and throwing rocks.
As he was catching
his breath and regrouping with friends outside the famed downtown café called
Horreya, El Dahshan witnessed something that made him realize the battle wasn't
going to be won that day. "Around two A.M., I saw a police paddy wagon stop and
drop off about a dozen guys in civilian clothes with sticks," he said. "I didn't
stick around for long after that."
As they were being
run out of Tahrir, one group of protesters made a brief, disastrous attempt to
invade the grounds of the NDP headquarters, which are tucked away behind the
Egyptian Museum at the northern edge of the square. They were overrun by police
and savagely beaten, said Wahby, who witnessed the scene from above on
the October 6 Bridge.
The day ended in
defeat for the protesters, but the turnout had already surprised all sides and
officially taken Mubarak's regime into uncharted waters. "By the end of that
night, I naïvely thought we had already won and that Mubarak was gone," Wahby
recalled. "You went home and you were thinking, 'I'm coming back tomorrow no
the initiative was on their side, called for Friday, Jan. 28, to be a massive
"Day of Rage" protest. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians would take part
across the country, thwarting the Mubarak regime's last-ditch attempt to quell
the protests through shutting down Internet and mobile phone services. Pamphlets
widely distributed among protesters the following day clearly conveyed that
sense of unprecedented confidence and momentum.
"We have started an
uprising with the will of the people, the people who have suffered for 30 years under oppression, injustice, and poverty," read the Arabic language text.
"Egyptians have proven today that they are capable of taking freedom by force
and destroying despotism."
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images