This first question that comes to mind when you’re about to take part in a revolution is: What does one wear to a revolution?
That’s of course in addition to some other equally important questions …will I be seen? Will I be in that one picture that best captures the spirit of the revolution and will that picture spread like fire across print and electronic media? What happens if I want to pee? Will I meet someone? Wouldn’t it be awesome if I got arrested? (because try as you might to deny it, there is no better story to repeatedly tell for years than one which starts with “when I got arrested…”)?
Then of course there’s the set of lesser important questions: why am I really here? Are there others that feel the same way? Things aren’t really that bad, are they? When did things get so bad? Why can’t those people up there in their balconies see that they must come down and join us? Do people really deserve their rulers? And if they do, don’t they also deserve a chance to bring them down?
Things aren’t really that bad, are they? When did things get so bad?
With these questions I set out on my revolution on Tuesday, 25 January 2011. Skeptical, cynical and ready to throw my best “seriously, what were you thinking?” look at all those pseudo activists and activist wannabes out there who actually thought their facebook invitation would gather enough masses to even get the government to flinch. I left home carrying nothing but my camera and my smugness, like the human rights elitist that I am, only to prove those naive fools wrong, repeatedly telling myself that I was NOT out to join the protests, only to take some mental notes of the “cute attempt”. Plus, I figured if I were to be a cynic, then I should at least make sure I was there before posting my most sarcastic facebook status line to date and to at least give some legitimacy to all my revolution-centered jokes. And more importantly, I did not want to criticize the revolution for the wrong reasons, especially not after reading some guy’s “أنا قاعد في بيتنا يوم 25 يناير..وأنت؟” (I’m staying home on January 25th, what about you?) note on how having a facebook account, or owning a blackberry, and wanting to push for social change are mutually exclusive (?!).
But for more informed reasons, the only rev·o·lu·tion I was expecting to see that day was (c (1): a progressive motion of a body around an axis so that any line of the body parallel to the axis returns to its initial position while remaining parallel to the axis in transit and usually at a constant distance from it), or any other randomly picked dictionary definition of the word.
But that’s not only why I left home that day. There was of course that part of me that wanted to be proven wrong. Not believing that something could happen is one thing, and wanting it to happen is a totally different thing. What I do for a living gives me some immunity to any false accusations that I choose sitting “جنب الحيطة” (and not do anything) over taking action. I believe in roles and, judging from a number of certain recent events, have little faith in some forms of action. Accordingly, I left home that day with very little expectations, determined not to take part in what I had already decided was a failure.
These were my thoughts and intentions. Here is what actually happened:
Two layers, of not so loosely fitting pants, layers of light sweaters…nothing too low, and comfortable boots. That’s what I wore for the revolution. Nothing that gives way to sexual harassment or a chance to have your clothes pulled off…that’s if of course you were taking part in the protests, which I wasn’t, but nonetheless I stuck to the customary attire. By the end of the day, and following a few trips back to my place (conveniently located at the center of the revolution), and after it became apparent we were staying long into the night, I was so heavily covered that the only way anyone could undress me was if they cut through the layers with a saw!
I started walking with a friend towards El-Tahrir, shortly before the revolution was scheduled to spontaneously start, taking in our surroundings and watching the security forces assemble all across the square and wust el-balad. We strolled next to three of the higher ranking officials and just for the fun of it I stopped and asked, in my sweetest voice “هو حضرتك فيه ايه الي بيحصل؟” (Sir, what’s happening here?) to which he replied “أصل انهارده عيد الشرطة واحنا مترصصين كده عشان الناس تعدي تدينا ورد” (It’s the Police Day today, we’re standing here next to each other because people are giving us roses) at which I smiled and said “كل سنة وانتو طيبين” (Happy holidays then) and walked away. Many years from now, if they were to make a movie about that day, fictional or otherwise, that should be the opening scene.
We strolled next to three of the higher ranking officials and just for the fun of it I stopped and asked, in my sweetest voice “هو حضرتك فيه ايه الي بيحصل؟” (Sir, what’s happening here?) to which he replied “أصل انهارده عيد الشرطة واحنا مترصصين كده عشان الناس تعدي تدينا ورد” (It’s the Police Day today, we’re standing here next to each other because people are giving us roses) at which I smiled and said “كل سنة وانتو طيبين” (Happy holidays then) and walked away.
A couple of blocks later we started hearing the protesters…we joined them on the 26thof July street…hundreds of them walking alongside the cars…people of all ages and all walks of life, families, students, some calling for reform, some against التوريث, (the inheritance of power) some simply for food, and some for the total fall of the system. I had not yet, in my head, joined the revolution (it wasn’t until hours into the day that I realized I was already part of it)…scouting, taking pictures, smiling at the awesomeness of what I was witnessing.
We were now heading back to El-Tahrir and forced, not physically, but as though by some invisible irresistible force, to move along with the masses. More familiar faces started showing up, all smiling, many belonging to people who’ve taken that same oath as I have not to take part in the protests. The force carried us further until we reached El-Kasr El-Ainy, right across from مجلس الشعب and the security forces started closing in. If asked when the exact moment I technically joined the protest was, it would be at that point where they were forming a human shield, threatening to leave out anyone who wasn’t fast enough to go through before it was complete. I exchanged a few glances with my company of three, and reached an unspoken agreement to honor our role as human rights activists and jump in…remembering as we did so the scene from الارهاب والكباب where the prime minister’s entourage urge him to answer to the calls for prayer as they were watching mogama el tahrir from the minerate telling him “يا باشا حيقولوا سعادة وزير الداخلية كان واقف فوق المدنة ساعة الصلاة و سمع الادان و منزلشي يصلي” (Basha, they’re going to say that His Excellency the Interior Minister was standing there at prayer time, and he didn’t go to pray)
We spent a little over an hour there, and saw what I believe was as much force as they used that day, tear bombs, water cannons, beatings and arrests. I managed to take some pictures until someone came up to me, just as we started hearing loud stomping steps, and firmly asked me not to take any more pictures…so serious was his tone that I immediately put my camera away, and almost mumbled “خدامتك يا باشا” (At your service, Basha). I look up to see where the sounds were coming from and I see hundreds of the meanest looking street bullies marching towards the protestors like Orcs out of a Lord of the Rings scene. One woman determined to document their arrival stood right in front of them, with her cell phone in her hand, and snapped a shot…seconds later she was beaten, and bitten, to let go of her phone, which to all of our surprise, she didn’t. Tens were arrested during that Orc raid while we were simply threatened to get the hell out of there “عشان شكلكو ولاد ناس و مش بتوع بهدلة” (because it looks like you’re from a good family and you don’t want to get slandered) …that to a human rights watch awardee and a human rights lawyer and activist and myself (granted, I do look like I am not the type who wants to be arrested).
We started moving again towards El-Tahrir and by that time we had gotten news that protesters there were hit by tear bombs and a friend of mine was stranded at some coffee place. The next hour was a series of trying to dodge stones being thrown back and forth between the protesters and the security forces, and trying to figure out what to do with our not-so-light baggage as we were finally hit by the realization of the magnitude of the event (which only goes to show how seriously we had originally taken our involvement in the day), and people swarming in by the thousands quickly and efficiently filling the square.
The hours that followed had more the feel of a music festival than that of a revolution, interrupted only once, as wouldn’t happen in a music festival, by a few tear bombs thrown here and there. Your first tear bomb experience is by no means a pleasant one, and I would like to hear that it gets better by time. The ever so romantic “مسيل للدموع” (tear dissolver) is by all means a misleading description…more like gas that screws up your respiratory system, itches like hell, creating mass panic and hysteria, and, incidentally, causes tears…
Your first tear bomb experience is by no means a pleasant one, and I would like to hear that it gets better by time.
Barring that, the rest of the day went on smoothly…people started relaxing…food started appearing out of nowhere…you’d occasionally hear cheering, as though for a football team scoring a goal, except it would be for the arrival of yet another flood of protesters. I vaguely remember heart-shaped orange balloons…friends were finding each other and gathering in small groups…you ran into people you haven’t seen in years…people you never thought you’d see in that context…you made new friends…people who were in the same 1 meter radius as you for more than 30 minutes automatically became your new best friends. By that point the crowd was strikingly heterogeneous, a young crowd, that I could put my finger on, but not quite sure where else that feeling came from. Any concerns over sexual harassment that day were completely unfounded…strolling down the square…between thousands of young men, I never felt more comfortable on the Egyptian street…girls were smoking on the street in down town Cairo for crying out loud! (arguably, and stereotypically, an Egyptian girl in the activist circle in Cairo is the same girl who’d smoke on the street, but still). There was a catchy spirit of solidarity and action around a common (unknown) cause…I was even lucky enough to find a bawab in one of the surrounding buildings who agreed to let me use the bathroom after asking me “انتي تبع الثورة؟” (Are you with the revolution?).
The wireless telephone networks were down, making communication very difficult…telephone batteries were dying anyway, and what was left in them was consumed by the surge of missed call alerts and sms’s you received when occasionally and briefly you caught some signal…worried parents…friends from all corners of the world thrilled by news of change…the hilariously untimely “مبروك كسبت نغمة موبايل جديدة…”(Congratulations, you’ve just won a new ring tone) …which seemed just as inappropriate as the non-Egyptian older couple who stopped to ask me directions to Taboula. When you’re caught up in a revolution it’s hard to imagine that the whole world hasn’t stopped in unity.
There was a catchy spirit of solidarity and action around a common (unknown) cause…I was even lucky enough to find a bawab in one of the surrounding buildings who agreed to let me use the bathroom after asking me “انتي تبع الثورة؟” (Are you with the revolution?).
Towards midnight, it was obvious that the security forces weren’t going to let us linger much longer…our numbers were relatively thinning, but there was no confusion that many…many were planning to stay through the morning. We decided it was time to go for a short tea-break (I’m not much of a tea-drinker, but every now and then, when there’s a revolution, I’d enjoy some), to gather our strength, knowing well though that there was no letting us stay her till morning. My new best friend at the time bought us some chips and munchies…refused to take money for them…we insisted that next revolution was “on us”. What happened next at the square we were not around for, but wish hadn’t happened. The crowds were dispersed in just a few minutes (insert here accounts of people who were actually there)…people were running into the streets surrounding El-Tahrir…we caught up with some of them there…miraculously, and against all my speculations, crowds of hundreds gathered again and started marching down the streets towards the heavily populated area of Shubra…until finally we were dispersed again by the security forces, and my small company decided to call it a night (3 am).
Walking back towards El-Tahrir…men were hard at work making sure that come day time, there will be no sign that just a few hours earlier, right at that spot…some 10,000 young Egyptians (estimates vary) were here…that they managed, against all odds, to bring attention that was threatening enough to cause the government to crackdown on social networks and to cause others, who did not take part that day, to realize the possibilities of collective action. If that is the one thing we managed to do that day, then this rev·o·lu·tion, (a : a sudden, radical, or complete change), is in effect…