I cannot claim, like most Egyptians who inhaled tons of tear gas in the 18 days of uprising against former dictator Mubarak, that I had my fair share of this toxic staple of repressive regimes.
I returned to Egypt after living abroad for years, only two days before Mubarak was ousted. My role in the uprising was limited to participation in a peaceful sit-in in Tahrir Square for 48 hours that was mostly characterised by a dredging counting of the hours before Egypt’s last pharaoh decided to step down.
I felt I got a small, but more than enough, taste of the misery people experienced in the bloody days of late January and the infamous Battle of the Camel at the hands of Mubarak’s Central Security Forces (CSF) on 23 July during what became known as the Battle of Abbassiya.
That evening, I inhaled smoke from three canisters fired by the riot soldiers and dodged rocks that a CSF auxiliary unit of thugs in plain clothes showered at peaceful protesters with over the course of two hours.
Fate, however, arranged for me to get a real taste of what millions of my compatriots endured in the days of January at the hands of the police two nights ago, 9 September, 2011.
In the late hours of 9 September and the early hours of the 10th, CSF forces stationed at the Giza headquarters of the ministry of interior fired no less than one hundred tear gas canisters. They indiscriminately targeted even peaceful protesters and observers celebrating the storming of the Israeli embassy a few hundred metres away, as well as the protesters that had been charging the headquarters.
Sometime between 11pm and midnight a group of tens of mostly young people filtered out of the much larger crowd surrounding the Israeli embassy itself. On their way towards the Giza police centre, they read the documents that had been discovered in the archives floor of the embassy.
It was difficult to determine what actually ensued in the next few minutes and who threw the first punch in the hours of the bloody confrontations that followed.
I was unable to report conclusively on whether the protesters attacked the police building first (as most mainstream media reported) because the CSF had filled the air with lops of tear gas and started shooting ‘non-lethal’ in huge quantities, making it hard for witnesses to say who was doing what in those moments.
However, I did see two dozen CSF and other police officers push 200 CSF soldiers – no-paid 3-year conscripts - to attack protesters relentlessly for hours with tear gas, rocks and bullets.
Several ministry of health ambulances carried one injured protester after another in a non-stop relay race from the battle scene to hospitals and back again.
Behind protesters (where I was standing), it was also clear that CSF soldiers were also suffering considerable losses and injuries.
Nature brought some justice to the protesters and as the night progressed, the winds slowly began to change direction; blowing a good deal of the tear gas smoke towards the police.
Sometime around 12:30, 10 army armoured vehicles entered the battle zone. They parked next to the protesters’ frontlines and faced the ministry of interior building.
Most protesters cheered, billowing chants of “Allah akbar” (God is great) and “The people and the army are one hand.” They seemed to believe that the army came to stop the police rampage.
Tens of individuals surrounded the army vehicles and pleaded with junior officers to march on the ministry in order to push CSF forces back into the police building as a way of ending bloodshed.
However, the sheer arrival of army tanks did not result in the CSF officers letting up on tear gas or bullets.
In fact, while protesters and people standing by attempted to negotiate with army officers, CSF tear gas bombs continued to explode and release toxic smoke, even in the middle of the army’s tank formation, causing serious vomiting and shortness of breath among army soldiers and officers alike.
Two junior officers in their twenties told angry protesters that they sympathised with their goal of stopping police out of control tactics and brutality, but kept reiterating that they must first receive orders from higher ranks before they could proceed any further.
After a roughly 30-minute standoff the army officers did receive some type of orders from superiors, turned on the vehicles and drove in the direction of the Giza police building.
Hundreds of protesters broke out in euphoric cheers, thinking the end of the nightmare was in sight.
The tanks, to the dismay of the crowd, drove past CSF lines, past the building and vanished out of the area altogether.
At that point, I decided to retreat, and take a left on the bridge facing the embassy to join the hundreds who were taking shelter there from the fight.
I wanted to catch my breath and search for some vinegar to treat my burning eyes. When I reached the haven, I found most people on the bridge in a state of shock and mental paralysis.
One after another relayed déjà vu flashback types of stories: comparing police behaviour this night to the police massacre of 28 January.
In a few minutes, CSF forces had managed to push forward and take more advanced positions that enabled it to clearly see the bridge and the embassy on the right, Cairo University on the left and secure closer positions to protesters who had retreated in the direction of Giza Square in the south.
Here, hell seemed to run out of walls and boundaries.
CSF shot tear gas canisters in all three directions.
I became obsessed with the question: exactly how many tear gas canisters do police have stored and ready to use in this one building of theirs?
In the first hours of the fight I had anticipated that the police were bound to run out of these made-in-USA sinister products sooner or later. Veteran protesters, based on their previous experiences also expected it, especially considering the pace at which police were lopping tear gas canisters.
A number of those veterans kept pleading with their now exhausted comrades to hold for another 10 or 20 or 40 minutes, assuring them that the police will “soon” and “very soon” run out of canisters and bullets.
Veterans kept spreading that belief; perhaps intending to comfort comrades in arms or soothe themselves. They will run out of ammunition in no time as they did on 28 January, they repeated.
“Soon” never came.
The Egyptian police, whose new motto after the revolution is “the police is in the service of the people not any regime,” seemed to have signed a deal-of-the century-contract with some heartless American arms producer that allowed it to secure for itself an assembly line that guaranteed it with an endless supply of canisters and rubber bullets.
I must have dodged four or five canisters while I was still on the bridge. They whizzed past me by and hit the mosque and a tall apartment building directly on the opposite side of the embassy.
By 3am, I had run out of energy. I had been running frantically with hundreds of others – reporters, protesters and passive onlookers for hours straight in all sorts of directions to escape from one after another bag of toxic smoke.
My legs began to give way. I wanted to go somewhere where I could sit down and watch the news.
I was praying to hear that the police did not kill any of these young people I saw ambulance workers carry away on stretcher after stretcher all night long.
I kept telling myself that these bullets I heard and dodged all night simply injured some people but divine intervention will prevent any fatalities.
I woke up in the morning to news reports from state TV stations giving a simplistic story of thugs, manipulated by “foreign forces, who attacked the Israeli embassy and police the previous night.”
I learned that the total number of injured topped 1,000 individuals and that at least three families of three Egyptian protesters must prepare their children’s funerals.
A deep compulsion took over me to get a hold of the names of the families of those injured and killed to describe to them how some of the injured and killed were smiling and enjoyed a few precious moments of victory because they broke the unbreakable doors to the Israeli embassy, sent a mostly unwanted ambassador packing safely back to Tel Aviv and broke into Israeli archives: papers that rained from the sky that could change their country’s future for the better.