Egypt's 'Battle of the Camel': The day the tide turned

Yasmine Fathi , Thursday 2 Feb 2012

One year ago today, pro-Mubarak thugs on horses and camels attacked protesters arrayed in Tahrir Square. But it was a battle they lost, turning the tide of public opinion irreversibly against the Mubarak regime

File photo: Pro-government demonstrators, below, some riding camels and horses and armed with sticks, clash with anti-government demonstrators, above, in Tahrir square, the center of anti-government demonstrations, in Cairo, Egypt Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011. (Photo: AP)

In a scene reminiscent of the Middle Ages, men on horses and camels entered Cairo's Tahrir Square on 2 February 2011. The purpose, it seemed, was to disperse the week-long sit-in calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. The events that followed came to be known as the "Battle of the Camel," in which protesters went head to head with Mubarak loyalists in a fight that lasted well into the next day.

The battle left 11 dead, over 600 injured and 25 members and affiliates of Mubarak’s now-dissolved National Democratic Party (NDP) behind bars. It is believed that it was orchestrated by Mubarak’s panicked and embattled regime in an attempt to end the mushrooming uprising and maintain its grip on Egypt. But what it did instead was provide the revolution with the necessary momentum to bring a swift end to Mubarak’s 30-year rule only one week later.

The night before

On the eve of the battle, thousands in Tahrir Square gathered around a huge projector to listen to a speech by Mubarak. One week had passed since the revolution erupted on 25 January and many exhausted protesters hoped that Mubarak would announce his resignation.

Even though Mubarak did not step down that day, he promised not to run for office again when his presidential term ended in September. The soon-to-be-deposed leader then proceeded into an emotionally-charged speech in which he spoke of his love for Egypt, vowing to stay in the country until his death. The speech earned him the sympathy of many, and slowly, during the night, many protesters began leaving the square and heading home. Once their numbers decreased, pro-Mubarak elements began entering the square to talk to protesters.

"We kept getting these strange people who would come into our tents to convince us to leave," remembers Heba Mohamed, a protester who was in the square that night. "They kept telling us that it is over and that we have lost. It was psychological intimidation."

By the end of the night, those in the square – which had held hundreds of thousands the night before – had dwindled down to between twenty or thirty thousand protesters.

The battle

At 6am on the morning of the battle, some protesters heard shots emanating from atop the building that houses a Hardees fast-food outlet. Several of them, including Abdallah El-Sadawy, a member of the 6 April Youth Movement, went to investigate.

"When we went up, we discovered that it was a hotel and found two government agents hiding there. We took them and handed them over to the army," remembers El-Sadawy. "This gave us the feeling that something was going to happen that day."

At 11am, minor scuffles began to break out in the square between protesters and young people from outside the square, says Mohamed.

"I remember they kept trying to provoke our youth, luring them into side streets to fight with them," she recalls. "I believe they were trying to exhaust them, so that when the attack began they wouldn’t have any fight in them."

At noon, protesters were shocked to find pro-Mubarak marches entering the square from several directions.

One march entered into the square from the Abdel Moneim Riyad opening, with horses and donkeys. That march was led by then-MPs Abdel Nasser El-Gabry and Youssef Khattab.

According to Ali Atef, a lawyer at the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, who is currently pursuing the case, the march was stopped briefly by the armed forces.

"An eyewitness in court said they had been asked to identify themselves," says Atef. "So El-Gabry took out his NDP identification card and showed it to the officer, who promptly let them pass."

This group, Atef said, later told the court that they had not been planning to attack anyone, but that the sight of camels and horses galloping through the square had spooked protesters, prompting them to attack them.

The duo had allegedly hired thugs with camels from the Nazlet El-Saman district with which they entered the square. According to Ali, another march coming from Cairo's Abdeen district, led by then-MPs Rageb Helal Hemada and Talaat El-Kawas, entered from the adjacent Mohamed Mahmoud Street.

Aisha Abdel Hadi, then-minister of manpower and migration, and Hussein Megawer, then-chairman of the Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions (EFTU), led another march from Nasr City that entered the square from Ramses Street. In court, Abdel Hadi also denied any intention to disperse the Tahrir sit-in.

"She said she had been leading a workers' march to demand labour rights," says Atef.

From the Qasr El-Aini entrance to the square, another march entered from Sayeda Zeinab, the district represented by MP Fathi Sorour, Mubarak’s long-time parliamentary speaker.

Just before the battle, Sorour had been holding a meeting in parliament. A journalist covering the meeting later testified in court that Sorour’s office manager had entered the room and told him, "the Sayeda people are ready."

Several more marches entered the square, led by various MPs. From Mustafa Mahmoud Square, another pro-Mubarak protest set out for Tahrir Square. None of the MPs actually entered the square, and all departed after leading their respective marches, says Ali.

"All of a sudden, there were pro-Mubarak marches coming in from every street," remember El-Sadawy. "In a matter of minutes, we were outnumbered. We were about 20,000 and they were at least 70,000."

Pro-Mubarak forces managed to get as far as the KFC fast food outlet, in the heart of the flashpoint square.

"They then began raiding protesters' tents and removing banners that had been hung up," says journalist Rasha Azab, who witnessed the scene. "At that moment, my heart just broke. I thought they had taken the square and I remember thinking, 'Is this it? Is the revolution over?'"

But what ensued was a heroic battle by protesters who were outnumbered and outgunned but determined to hold their ground. The battle lasted throughout the day and well into the next, during which assailants threw stones, glass and Molotov cocktails at protesters. As the night drew near, live ammunition was fired at protesters.

"They were on top of the 6 October Bridge, on the Egyptian Museum and on adjacent apartment buildings," says protester Ghareeb Soliman, who was there during the battle. "These strategic places were in their hands."

So unprepared were the protesters for the attack that they had to break up the pavement in Tahrir Square, from which they drew stones to hurl at their attackers.  

"We never discussed our plans, but somehow there was perfect harmony," remembers Soliman. "The young people would throw stones, the older men would break up the pavement, and people like me would carry the stones in our jackets and distribute them among protesters."

The main battle took place near Tahrir's Abdel Moneim Riyad entrance, but smaller ones were raging across the square.

"We created this secret code so that if protesters in any of the battles felt they needed reinforcements, they would bang on the wall and we would send them a group to help them," says Soliman.

Throughout the day, buses would come frequently to unload more pro-Mubarak forces to continuing fighting the exhausted protesters.

Protesters managed to capture many of the attackers. Some of them reportedly confessed that they had been hired to attack demonstrators in exchange for meals, Tramadol painkillers and LE50 to LE500 each. The men were also promised apartments and LE5,000 each if they actually managed to end the sit-in.

In the meantime, protesters managed to arrest 70 of the horsemen who had entered the square, says Ali. Only 17 were later tried in military courts and given five-year sentences each.

Lawyers of the victims were not allowed to see the documents of the trial, although they officially requested access to them in hopes that the evidence might be useful against the suspects.

"These documents are vital and will be a turning point in the case," says Ali.

As the battle raged on, protesters eventually managed to push the attackers outside the square.

"I saw the revolutionaries win back Tahrir Square inch by inch and my heart soared," remember Azab. "At that moment I knew the revolution would be victorious."

The case

Shortly after Mubarak's 11 February ouster, prosecutors began a round of arrests of suspects believed to have orchestrated what soon became known as the "Battle of the Camel." Around 25 figures associated with the NDP were arrested, including the former secretary-general of Mubarak’s NDP, Safwat El-Sherif; former parliament speaker Fathi Sorour; former minister of manpower Aisha Abdel-Hadi; former NDP parliamentary minister and businessman Mohamed Aboul Anin; parliamentary minister Ragab Hamida Halal; lawyer Mortada Mansour; the latter's son, Ahmed Murtada Mansour; and EFTU chairman Hussein Megawer.

They are accused of “attempted murder and the formation of a criminal body that threatened the safety of people.” The defendants were referred to a criminal court in July. The first session of the trial, which was covered live on television, kicked off on 11 September.

Investigations revealed that El-Sherif had made phone calls to several members of the NDP in which he asked them to organise pro-Mubarak marches and head to Tahrir Square.

According to Ali, eight court sessions were held before Mansour filed a lawsuit against the judge accusing him of being biased against him. The court was then adjourned until 20 February, until a decision regarding the judge can be made.

Confessions have already been secured. Two more suspects in the case, Sherif Waly, former NDP secretary-general in Giza, and Mageed El-Sherbini, party secretary, have both admitted to receiving orders from El-Sherif to launch pro-Mubarak rallies in Mohamed Mahmoud Square en route to Tahrir Square.

Since the case commenced, several more figures have been implicated, including El-Salam Democratic Party Chairman Ahmed El-Fadaly. Video footage clearly shows the latter standing among hired thugs during the attack on protesters.

El-Fadaly has since denied any involvement in the case, claiming that he was there because the party's offices were located nearby.

About 400 horsemen who participated in the camel attack have also testified in court that they had not been there to attack protesters but that they had gone to Mustafa Mahmoud Square merely to celebrate new government regulations that would be good for their businesses.

Ali complains, however, that many of the suspects in the case have now been released, which, he asserts, gives them a chance to tamper with evidence. Already, he says, many of the witnesses brought to testify against suspects have since changed their stories after negotiations with the latter.

"I have never seen a case in which the murderer is released," says Ali. "If you're accused of murder, you have to be detained."

Ali believes that Egyptians won’t have to wait years until the case is concluded. He believes that, once the trial commences, Egypt can expect a verdict on the notorious battle within two months.

"We'll see a wide array of sentences," says Ali. "Some defendants will be declared innocent, while others will get either life sentences or the death penalty."

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