‘TEN YEARS ON’
by Ahmed Maher
ICNC is proud to exclusively present this excerpt, which Ahmed Maher penned to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the “Egyptian Arab Spring.” It is from his forthcoming memoir.
Lost in the alleys of El-Mohandessin and the streets of Bolak El-Dakrour are our lived memories of 2011. The 18 days of revolution that were filled with stories—stories about protests; stories about torture; stories about demands, plans, and goals; stories about mobilization, resistance, unity, resilience. But above all, those 18 days were filled with hope.
The protests in Tunisia drove many Egyptians to finally express in public their collective longing for freedom and change and join the struggle—their own revolution—to realize that dream.
On January 25, 2011, at noon, I went to Giza and found myself in the midst of several thousands of people who had come out to protest. In the poor neighborhoods lived the people who had suffered cruelty, deprivation, torture. We called on them, “Come down, Egyptians. Come down.” And so they did.
I called the movement coordinators in other governorates, and they all told me that they were shocked to see huge turnouts in their own cities and regions. Back in Cairo, protests started in smaller alleys of the Mohandessin neighborhood and as we began heading toward Tahrir Square we gathered strength in numbers.
People were cheering us on from balconies and from the small spaces of narrow streets. Our march looked big. This gave confidence to entire families to join us and we were growing in size by the minute. Dozens of people turned into hundreds, and hundreds of people became thousands as many marches swept through the narrow streets of Cairo.
We were tens of thousands strong when we arrived at Tahrir Square at 2pm which gave us even more confidence. Tahrir Square is an important landmark located in the heart of Cairo that has housed many significant protests in Egypt over the years. It was previously known as Ismailia Square, renamed to Tahrir Square by Nasser after the coup in 1952. Tahrir in Arabic means “liberation” and thus the Square symbolizes the desire for freedom. People gathered in Tahrir during the bread riots of 1977 as well as the protests against the war in Iraq in 2003. It is an important gathering square, large enough to gather thousands of people. Protests in Tahrir Square become a matter of national concern, and the image of Tahrir Square full of protesters gives momentum to protests all around Egypt.
Once we reached Tahrir Square, we escalated our demands. We had so far been calling for changes in the government and the Minister of Interior, but the situation changed with so many people coming out to the streets. We could finally see our real power. Thousands protested all over Egypt. The main squares in Alexandria, Port Said, Delta and Upper Egypt were all occupied by protesters that day. In Tahrir Square itself, by the end of the day, up to 70,000 people were present. We began chanting “Ash-shab yurid isqat al-nizam!” which translates to “the people want the downfall of the regime!”—a slogan inspired by protests in Tunisia. People were dancing and celebrating. We wanted to push for a sit-in and began to gather donations from people. We also attempted to form a large coalition to represent the youth of the revolution. This coalition included activists from the April 6 Movement, Revolutionary Socialists, Democratic Front Party, ElBaradei Campaign, and others who had been part of organizing the 25th of January protests from the very beginning. In the evening, fireworks filled the skies and gave color to our revolution.
No stepping back. No regrets. This was revolution.
Friday, January 28, was the main day of the revolution. We squeezed ten passengers and plenty of shields into my old Fiat 128, and I dropped them off at different places to lead marches. I was part of the march from Imbaba in Giza.
After the afternoon prayer that day, we began to chant. Thousands of people gathered around us in support and we began to move as one body toward Tahrir Square. People from everywhere were trying to enter Tahrir Square using the Qasr El-Nil bridge, the main bridge that leads into the square. An epic battle ensued between protesters and the police.1 Police vehicles with water cannons and a swarm of armed police with tear gas were battling us. We were armed with our water bottle shields, a lot of hope, and random food carts that we used as defensive shields and barriers. Many of us splashed vinegar or cola on our faces to quell the burning of tear gas. When the officers pushed against us, the will of the people had its own energy and we pushed them back. This tug of war went on until finally we pushed through to enter Tahrir Square. The flow of people was unstoppable as hundreds of thousands of protesters were out on the streets coming from all directions.
It is difficult to describe how I felt on January 28th when we entered Tahrir Square for the second time since the revolution began. It was the kind of happiness that words cannot describe. Everyone there shared in this powerful feeling. We had started something from which we could not turn back, a fight with those in power—and if we did not succeed, they would kill us. Entering Tahrir Square again, stronger than ever, was a key breakthrough for our revolution.
We felt that a dream that had been distant for so many years was now within our reach. We were finally at the turning point of history. This time we knew we sacrificed too much to be here, at this symbolic square, to leave without achieving the ultimate victory. It happened naturally that people decided to remain at Tahrir Square and turn it into the symbol of a future Egypt.
A new way of life developed in the square as people set up tents. Everyone wanted to help. People were bringing blankets and other supplies. The most organized groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, April 6, and the Ultras took charge of managing the logistics and began to collect donations to sustain this massive sit in.2 We collected tents, blankets, medical supplies, and food to make sure people were able to stay in Tahrir Square. We even placed plastic sheets and rugs across the roundabout and pavements for people to sleep on.
Tahrir Square became a self-organized community run on the principles of equality, nondiscrimination, nonviolence, mutual aid, and public transparency—everything that we imagined in our future country. Everyone was helping each other. No one focused on their ideological differences. Atheists and Islamists were sharing their meals. There were no complaints or reports of sexual harassment. People were not throwing trash to avoid littering the place. It was the utopia we wanted to live in.
It did not matter who you were when you were in Tahrir Square—rich or poor, man or woman, socialist or conservative—everyone there lived in harmony. Coptic Christians would stand guard in front of Muslims when they prayed, and Muslims would do the same for Christians when they held mass.
People ran makeshift health clinics serving anyone that needed help. People organized themselves into groups responsible for collecting trash, maintaining tents, operating heat generators, and distributing water. Others got busy arranging the stage and speakers, checking people entering the square for weapons, and setting up an information wall with the newspaper pages reporting on the revolution.
There was a main stage set up that we called the Speakers’ Corner where people went to call for action. Beside the stage there was a white screen playing televised speeches given by the government. A memorial for those who died at the hands of the police was set up—the Wall of Martyrs—in which their pictures and stories were put up. There was also a kindergarten organized by mothers in the middle of the square, since schools in Cairo were closed during the protests.
On February 2, the Battle of the Camel, as it became known, ensued. NDP leaders mobilized Mubarak supporters to attack the protesters. These were mainly people from the pyramid areas whose livelihood depended upon tourism and who thus viewed the revolution as a threat. They feared change and desired stability, preferring corruption and poverty over the risk of change. It was a stunt by the government to show that they too had a lot of supporters. Even though army units were stationed everywhere, the military stood aside as these people came on horses and camels wielding machetes and other weapons to attack the protesters. Absolute mayhem ensued. Everyone was screaming. Protesters ran from the camels which moved in a stampede while others tried to pull the riders off the camels and take away their weapons.
While we were being attacked, I went to the front lines to talk to the attackers as to why they were trying to reverse the tide of revolution. Some of the attackers were much like the protesters in Tahrir, suffering under poverty and hardship; but they preferred stability under Mubarak. However, many of them had taken money and other benefits from the ruling party in exchange for using violence. My words were to no avail.
While this was happening, the state police attacked our headquarters in downtown Cairo. They arrested and tortured many people, including Mohamed Adel and Amr Ali. Arrested activists were taken to the intelligence headquarters though they were released after a day or two. I still fail to understand the true purpose of the violence and arrests, but it was probably an attempt to scare the protest leaders.
The previous night, Mubarak had given an emotionally charged speech that convinced many protesters to return home. Rather than hundreds of thousands that were there the night before only around 30,000 people remained on Tahrir on February 2nd. The security forces expected that the attackers would succeed in dispersing the rest of the protesters and clear out the Tahrir Square.
We did not leave Tahrir Square despite these attacks. This made the authorities reevaluate their tactics. When Egyptians witnessed the violence and bloodshed perpetuated by the government, it irreversibly turned the tide against the Mubarak regime in the eyes of the Egyptians. People were reminded of the inhumanity of those in power, and that led to even more people participating in protests and supporting those who were fighting for a better Egypt in Tahrir Square.
On February 11, Hosni Mubarak and Vice-President Omar Suleiman resigned. We celebrated in Tahrir Square for many days. Hopes and dreams filled the streets of Egypt.
On February 11, Mubarak resigned.
That morning, Omar Suleiman appeared live on TV to announce that Mubarak would resign in the early evening. I only saw this by chance when I was passing a store outside of Tahrir that had a TV on. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I stepped back, sat down on the pavement, looked up at the sky and cried. As I looked around, I realized I wasn’t alone. Many people were crying in the streets. And then we danced in the streets. We celebrated our first taste of freedom.
During the 18 days of revolution, over 900 demonstrators were murdered by security forces. They became our martyrs. Tens of thousands of protesters throughout Egypt had lost body parts such as eyes and limbs from the clashes with the police. The fight for freedom involves risks and costs. Yet, resistance can clearly make a difference. The resignation was such tangible proof that unarmed people can indeed bring about major political change against all odds if only they shed their fear, refuse to obey, and awaken their dormant power, which makes them more powerful than that of a tyrant.
Ahmed Maher, a civil engineer born in Alexandria, Egypt, is a co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, which laid the groundwork for the historic “Egyptian Arab Spring” – the revolution of 2011 that culminated in the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.
Recommended Viewing: Egypt: Revolution Interrupted?
1 It was captured in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBtYLBQPRGQ
2 Ultras were hardcore football fans in Egypt who supported the al-Ahli and Zamalek teams in Egypt. The Ultras were an organized group whose members were routinely arrested and tortured by the police. On January 26, they stood bravely against the police. They did not have ideological or political backgrounds. They would be part of the revolution until the very end.