It was 23 July, the anniversary of the 1952 Free Officer's coup. The evening before, a spontaneous march towards the Ministry of Defence was forcefully ended in front of the Nour Mosque in Abbassiya Square. Protesters later informed me that they were given no instructions concerning the march. Tahrir Square was full of life, according to most, and the presence of Sufi singer Ahmed El-Tuni pleasantly distracted many of the square's inhabitants.
Reports from Friday indicated that residents of the district also clashed with the protesters. Following the clashes, the military council released Statement 69 and 70 early Saturday morning on its Facebook page.
The first statement denied using violence to disperse demonstrations in Egypt's cities – clashes took place in Alexandria, Cairo and Suez. The council also accused the April 6 Youth Movement of seeking to sow discord between the military and the people and warned against any further attempts to do so. It was the first time the country's de-facto leaders had identified a single group by name, rather than the usual “elements” or “agents” it so often made reference to in previous statements. The online community of activists quickly leapt to April 6's defence. A group was soon created, entitled “We are all April 6.”
In a strange and incongruous second statement, the military council thanked those who had formed human shields between the army and protesters, and prevented potential strife, ensuring the military were seen as an institution which does not attack its own people. The Facebook message also warned people against the use of certain internet sites where saboteurs and malevolent agents roamed freely.
Comments on Twitter abounded. But soon, the focus turned again towards the forthcoming march. The route was the same as the spontaneous march the night before. The destination was the Ministry of Defence. The call: a swift transfer of power to a civilian government. Protesters would gather in Tahrir Square at 4:00pm to begin the march which would proceed through Ramses Street. By 5:00pm, the cadre would be joined by demonstrators waiting in front of the Nour Mosque. Such was the plan, at any rate.
Critics questioned the logic of such a march and criticised the calls for protest on a national holiday – the anniversary of a 'revolution.' They called for protesters to respect the country's wish to celebrate and honour the '52 'revolution.' Those who supported the march argued that the '52 military coup gave birth to the very system that the revolutionaries were trying to break.
One Twitter user and journalist, @JanoCharbel, sent a message stating that '52 should not even be referred to as a revolution: “We must stop referring to the military coup of #July23 1952 as a #Revolution! In modern history #Egypt has two REAL REVOLUTIONS: 1919 & 2011.”
Tahrir Square was surprisingly empty in the early afternoon. Small groups of protesters marched sporadically around the traffic island, chanting against de-facto leader Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and his council. The sun forced a number of my colleagues and me onto the traffic island, where we took to the shade. An activist from a neighbouring tent walked around, handing protesters gas masks. I took one for myself, knowing well the threat of Central Security Forces (CSF).
The zero-tolerance tone taken by the military council in its statements meant that Saturday's marchers would need to be extra cautious. I asked several around me of the prospect of tensions. “We are sending the military council a clear, confrontational message of dissent,” stated one. “It took us 30 years to break down the police state; now we're rushing to take down military rule; I hope we're not rushing this,” another stated. “It's a revolution,” was the response.
IT WAS ALREADY PAST 4:00. Soon the numbers revolving around the square began to increase. Coalescing, they gathered in front of the Youth for Justice and Freedom's stage. Chanting erupted. Kamal Khalil, a socialist activist and leader of the Democratic Workers Party, took to the stage, asking protesters to remain still until those praying finished. “You all saw what happened yesterday when our numbers were too few; if we are to march, we must march with as many numbers as we can muster,” stated the ageing activist.
Within minutes, those assembled began to mobilise and the marchers soon set their course for Abdel Moneim Riad Square. Shouts of “freedom, freedom” rang out. Hoping to get a feel for the numbers, I ran ahead along the foot path and jumped onto the green railing. I looked ahead towards the 6 October Bridge and behind me, towards the square. The stream of bodies seemed endless. I couldn't tell where the march began and where it ended. Protesters chanted, “Down, down with military rule.”
We weaved our way under the bridge and onto Ramses Street. Protesters spanned the entire width of the street. The main street offered intermittent plots of shade for the spirited demonstrators. The crowd’s energy was high and their chants roared through the streets of downtown. Passing the state-owned daily Al-Gomhorriya’s offices, interested spectators could be seen leaning out of their offices. The marchers soon turned their zeal towards the reviled paper and shouted: “Here they are, here they are, here are the liars” and “the people demand the cleansing of the press.”
Pressing on through the streets of downtown, a group of marchers chanted a reworded and now, anti-military council Zamalek football anthem. As the column of demonstrators neared Ramses Square, two bangs echoed and two skyward clouds of smoke dispersed. Some claimed the sounds came from Ultra football fans.
Passing the train station and the square, protesters entered into the Abbassiya district with its old, ornate architecture. Faces peered out of their windows, down at the stream of bodies. “Oh residents of Abbassiya, come down and join us,” chanted protesters. Some were greeted with bags of supplies and water bottles, thrown from above.
Moments of silence were generally greeted by a resounding question: “Those of you quiet, why are you so? Have you reaped your rights, or is their more to sow?”
MIDWAY THROUGH THE MARCH, I turned to the member of my family that happened to be marching next to me. “Where do you reckon we are? The front, middle or back of the column?” I asked. We were unable to tell. Massive enough to stop the flow of traffic, it seemed. People glued to their smart phones reported numbers in the tens of thousands.
Within a little over an hour, we arrived, having been forewarned of the awaiting military cordon. As I approached the barbed wire barricade, I realise that our numbers were nowhere near the five thousand mark, let alone the estimated tens. Behind the barbed wire stood a sea of military police, ranked and unranked, as well as at least six personnel carriers – soldiers manning the turrets – and a fire engine at the rear. A group of civilians stood on the bridge behind the rows of soldiers and their superiors. Others were interspersed into various empty spaces.
A military police officer (three stars) stood grinning at the protesters as some tried to stick their heads through the wiring. He laughed and commented about a sign held behind me, but I couldn't make out his words. The amassed demonstrators chanted against Tantawi and the military council. Some protesters grew agitated and began yelling at individual soldiers, but they were pulled away. “The army is ours, but the military council is not,” chanted many, hoping to disarm the lower ranks of the army.
A man began yelling, “the people and the army are one hand” but was soon hushed by most of those around him. Another jokingly yelled back, “the army and the police are one hand.” An older, veiled lady took her turn and walked up to the fence to give the army a piece of her mind. She was soon drowned out, as the cut off mass began singing the national anthem. I looked at the soldiers in this moment, wondering what thoughts may be turning in their minds. Here were protesters, who came chanting “peaceful, peaceful,” now giving a stirring rendition of our country's anthem.
Four or five soldiers drew past, each holding a piece of wire. They proceeded to reinforce the barbed wire, as onlookers facetiously asked if they were scared the marchers would break through.
Turning to the mosque, I noticed a string of soldiers standing behind the iron fence. Behind them, a group of civilians, gathered to watch. People had taken their seats along the square and I decided to go to the nearest kiosk and buy more water bottles for the rest of the evening. Making my way through the protesters, I noticed there was both the young and old in our midst.
As I returned with the water bottles, I was met by a stampede of protesters, fleeing from a threat, as yet, unknown to me. Was it the military? Suddenly, bottles came crashing down in front of me. A man, beside me on the foot path, warned protesters not to flee into the side streets: “If you run in there you're not coming back,” he shouted. Running in and out of the side streets were plain clothed individuals with sticks and stones.
There were several open fronts. The alleyways proved to be the first forceful confrontation. Our way back to Tahrir was still open, but not for long. I doubled my speed, but was soon met with bursts of gun fire. People rushed towards me. Others dove to the ground. “It’s just sound,” people yelled. Sound or not sound, their aim was intimidation and they succeeded.
Protesters reached for the ground to pick up rocks, but many jumped and grabbed at their hands, urging them to remain peaceful.
We were stuck in between buildings and barbed wire. Bottles and stones came crashing down around us. Looking up I noticed men and women running across the rooftops overhead. Underneath the trees and off to the side, I noticed Yehia, one of the camp's resident street children, and one of his friends. They were both shaken and panic-stricken. Women and children around them were crying. I handed them my water and tried to get closer to the alley nearest the barbed wire.
I noticed a red glare, reflected off the shiny exterior of a shop. With one explosion after the other, an onslaught of Molotov cocktails rained down on us. There were those who came prepared with various makeshift forms of head gear. I saw several hard hats. Several used milk crates and others, still, tied compressed water bottles together to form a helmet.
THEN THE CLANGING BEGAN. Men and women stood hammering sticks and stones against metal shutters and side rails. Protesters laboured at the pavement, crushing the concrete beneath their feet. Others came with bins, crates and anything that could transport ammunition to the front lines.
The number of injured began to steadily increase. Bloodied faces were carried back to the ambulances parked in front of the mosque. A new front had been opened on Ramses Street, blocking our way out of the square. For some time, the protesters made significant advancements against our assailants. (It remained unclear whether these were hired thugs or misinformed residents set upon us, thinking we were the thugs).
After some time, the war of stones and petrol bombs unfolding in the background, demonstrators gathered near the entrance of the garden adjacent to the mosque. An escape route had been discovered through the garden of El-Demerdash Hospital. Calls were made to leave, but those present overwhelming refused to pull out and forsake fellow protesters to an assuredly grim fate.
A lady sat in the middle of the street weeping. A small group surrounded her, and a man, sobbing at the sight before him, pleaded with her to get herself together. The ongoing clamour was augmented by the unyielding roar of the mosque's speaker system. Above, a military helicopter slowly circled the area.
The next moments were filled with indecision. It's difficult to accurately portray the passage of time in any such conflict, though I feel the pace at which events unfolded was diminished due to confusion amongst demonstrators.
All the while, the tide of battle ebbed and flowed. Voices called for a sit-in, refusing to cede any ground, but the overwhelming sentiment was for a return to Tahrir Square. We were under siege and the destruction to cars and shop fronts made it clear that these weren’t just residents defending their neighbourhood, so incongruous was the wanton violence.
A third party had arrived to shield and protect the thugs. The glint of their black helmets and visors was unmistakable. It was an ominous sight. To one side stood a gigantic mosque; to the front stood a stoic military; to the other thugs and to the rear CSF forces now gathered.
Protesters feverishly set on the garden's fence, forcefully tearing it open for women and children to escape. The flow of retreats doubled, but persistence saw many rushing back to the fray. Suddenly a single wave of tear gas was fired directly into our midst, sending people through the garden.
THE SHOCK FROM THE GAS WAS SHORT BUT POTENT. The move to Tahrir couldn't be more pressing. Word spread of missing activists and friends. Amr Gharbeia, a blogger and activist, was kidnapped by vigilantes against the revolution as he approached El-Demerdash metro station. Another reported being chased by another posse of self-anointed deputies.
The decision to return had been made, but we waited for the green light from the mosque. Passage would be granted for those wishing to return to Tahrir, boomed the mosque's speakers.
To call it the trudge back home would belie the vigour and spirit of the marchers, but the protesters, including myself, showed clear signs of fatigue. Many stopped intermittently along the way to sit down and regain what little energy remained. At the first sign of a juice maker, I ran across the street and swallowed a stein of sugar cane juice.
Marching through Abbassiya, we passed onlookers who cheered and applauded us. They waved flags and snapped photos. Some residents threw down water bottles. Our numbers had dwindled and eventually traffic began to squeeze past us on one side. Passing through Ramses Square, the volume of the chants trebled. The protesters had found a second wind, chanting ”freedom” as though walking to a football stadium – clapping rhythmically and pumping their arms into the air.
With this renewed vigour, the procession approached Tahrir Square where we were met with applause and words of praise. Passing through the checkpoint, I quickly walked towards the traffic island. Resting my legs, I began to think of the repercussions.
The military council had acted brashly, declaring war on a group of peaceful protesters. It had laid a trap and watched in silence as civilian aggressors brutishly pinned in the revolutionaries. Would the images and videos, released in the next days have an effect on public opinion? The military's messages and actions over the past two days represented an aggressive shift in tone. Were they probing their mandate: playing poker? And if so, what was their next hand? Or, just as importantly, what was the revolutionaries' next move and how would Abbassiya's events affect the sit-in's future?