2011 was a year like no other, no one was expecting what was going to happen in just 25 days after celebrating the start of a new year.
It was pretty much business as usual at that time. Don’t get me wrong, politics, the economy and the overall atmosphere was a bit tense with more and more cases of police brutality concerning detainees and also arbitrary arrests. It was embedded in the culture that if you are, or know someone in the police force, you automatically have leeway with so many things.
Mubarak had been the president for over 30 years. I was born in 1985 and he was in power ever since. I always thought, how awesome it is in other countries that they have so many presidents or prime ministers and always rotating and handing over the responsibility of managing their countries.
With a new generation of Egyptians, young, ambitious and technologically savvy, it was hard to keep that genie inside a tiny lamp. Every other person had a smartphone in their hands, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter were becoming more popular than ever, and in a country that practices censorship on pretty much everything and freedom of speech isn’t something that we the Egyptian state was known for, an alternative outlet was found.
Social Media was the platform where articles, images and footage were shared freely with no control from the government to dictate what was acceptable and what wasn’t.
Before the first spark of the Egyptian Revolution, all eyes were locked on what was happening in Tunisia as that was the ignition that lit the whole Arab Spring in 2010. For the first time in years, people of the Arab countries felt that they have a choice and could control who leads their countries and they had a voice that demanded to be heard.
I do not intend to write another piece about the Arab Spring or the Egyptian Revolution, as there are hundreds if not thousands of articles written in the past decade about it, analysing and comparing Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain. I intend to simply tell my story as a young Egyptian who lived and witnessed a unique and life-changing event.
I remember seeing the protests forming as a response to the calls on Facebook in early January 2011 and watching the media coverage of many protests around the country and in every governorate (there are 27 governorates). The call was to organise peaceful demonstrations demanding a reformation of the Ministry of Interior and the protection of human rights, on the 25th of January 2011 (The annual Police Day).
Over three days, protests were increasing and everyone, including me, thought it will be like the usual protests and won’t exceed tens of young and enthusiastic Egyptians. And by the fourth day, Friday 28th of January, those numbers were only increasing. For the first time in our lives, we witnessed scenes we never thought would happen. Major streets around Cairo disappeared under the feet of thousands of Egyptians, flocking from every corner of the capital city and heading towards Tahrir (Liberation) Square, Downtown.
I woke up early that day, the first day of the weekend (Friday/Saturday) and got ready for Friday prayer with the plan of going afterwards to see what was the fuss about. I hid my camera under my puffy jacket so my parents won’t be worried that I am going there where I could be arrested as this was the normal thing to expect.
After I finished praying, I met my friend and neighbour and we walked together to the nearest main street where we knew there are some protests taking place. Immediately once we took that turn, our jaws dropped, those numbers were unprecedented except when there was a football match between our national team and Italy or Brazil for example.
Egyptians were everywhere. Young men and women. Older people as well. Wherever we went, cheers and support were streaming from balconies, waving the flag and smiling in jubilant support. What I loved was when I started hearing chants from the streets (Enzel meaning “come down“) calling those in their apartments to join us in our march.
At a certain point, we saw a group of police officers and military personnel barricading the street and preventing the march from continuing. After some people in the front line started talking with the commanding officer, it was agreed that we would continue to our destination (Tahrir square – about 6 km from my home) from a different route, which we did after taking that detour.
There was another barricade. But this time, there was no chance to come close to them as we saw the police carrying AK-47 rifles and weird-looking guns, that not long after we figured these were tear gas launchers. At that moment, I experienced my very first ever tear gas burn in my eyes, nose and throat. Others were coughing their lungs out.
At this stage, the anger was palpable. We stayed at that point for around 30 minutes trying to proceed and retreat several times until we decided to continue from a different route. Nothing was going to stop us from reaching our destination.
Crossing over Qasr Al Nil (Nile Palace) Bridge, we could see Tahrir square on the horizon. However, it looked different. With so many people in it, international news estimated that in Tahrir square alone there were about 2 million Egyptians. While all over Egypt, around 31 million flooded the streets to join in solidarity with the protestors.
By the late afternoon, we were at the last point before entering the square as there was a heavy presence of police launching gas canisters, left right and centre at us. As retaliation, some protestors started throwing rocks they found on the streets at them to stop. Between flying gas canisters and rocks, people passed out, some got injured and now what started as a march of hope and pride, turned to be anger and violence.
I can remember seeing a group of five people carrying someone who was injured and passed out to the nearby Novotel hotel, where I saw a chef helping by giving CPR to revive that fallen man.
All of a sudden, coming from our right, there came a military armoured combat vehicle. Despite the general perception of corruption and brutality in the police force, the army has always been closer to the heart of every Egyptian. I remember the cheers of happiness and tears and the looks on people’s faces that the army is here, they came for us and won’t let us down.
People started jumping on the vehicle as it headed towards the barricade of hundreds of police officers and hands were raised signalling – Stop! No more fighting! The army is here.
By that time, we noticed that our mobile phones had no coverage and were showing SOS. We later learned that all communications were shut down that day. All cellular coverage and internet were down. Only landlines were working.
At this point it was getting dark as we had been on this journey for over six hours. There was another barricade at the entrance of the square, but this time we could hear shots fired, see and smell more tear gas, that day was named the Friday of Rage.
Running around without a plan, we didn’t know what to expect. We initially had hoped to form in Tahrir Square as a show of solidarity. However, our peaceful intentions turned violent and chaos ensued. It resembled what you would see in a war-torn country.
At around 2 am, exhausted, I decided to make my way home. I had been out since before the morning of Friday prayers. On every street, I heard screaming and gunshots. Police were everywhere. I navigated the backstreets to avoid detection. The screams faded into the distance the further I walked. The silence was eerie and unsettling as Cairo is a 24/7 city.
I was shocked to have found a doorman at the entrance of one of the buildings. I asked him “what is going on?” before he could answer I saw a convoy of military vehicles and tanks passing by. He then replied, “Military curfew has been declared, and you have to go home now.”
I ran as fast as I could heading home. I didn’t know where I found that energy as I was about to collapse from exhaustion and dehydration. I saw a taxi approaching so I gave the signal to stop. There was a mother and daughter in the back of the cab. I asked the driver and the passengers to please take me with them as I couldn’t walk any longer. I had told them I had just came out of the square. Luckily, their destination was on the way to my home.
I finally arrived home dragging my feet. Once my mother opened the door, she hugged me and cried. She said her and dad were so worried about me. I apologised and went to have a shower. I took my time in the shower as exhaustion and bewilderment overcame me. After washing off the sweat and dirt, I sat beside both my parents and told them about my day and what I saw on the streets. In the background, the news was on the TV showing reports and scenes from all over the country. This was the moment we all realised this was a brand new chapter in the history of our country and our lives.
P.S: This piece was just a very summarised version of what I experienced in one day. There are lots of stories that will need a book to be told.