Away from Tahrir Square

In this article gathering my memories of those days, I will describe what I have witnessed during the protest away from Tahrir Square.

by Aya El-Hilaly

Tahrir Square has been the focus of world's media since a group of young Egyptians called for a peaceful demonstration on January 25. Many of us thought it would be like one of the many demonstrations seen in the last year. Demonstrators called for social justice, human dignity, and fair wages. The brutal conduct of the central security forces against the demonstrators resulted in a lot of public anger.

The Egyptian society as a whole was inspired and affected by what was happening in Tahrir Square. In this article gathering my memories of those days, I will describe what I have witnessed during the protest away from Tahrir Square.

The 'Day of Rage'

On January 28, the government cut off the internet and mobile communications, in an attempt to discourage people from joining the demonstration. As a consequence, more protesters flooded the streets. A number of bloody clashes between the police and the demonstrators happened, including beating with sticks, shooting rubber bullets, and in some cases even live ammunition. The Ministry of Interior packed the streets with central security forces, however they were overwhelmed by the large number of demonstrators and had to withdraw before the sunset. At 5:30 p.m., the Egyptian national TV announced the decision by Mubarak - as the military ruler of Egypt to impose a curfew from 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. of the day after, on Greater Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez, where massive demonstrations and clashes between police and protesters took place. Immediately after the curfew was imposed, the forces of the Ministry of Interior withdrew from the scene completely. A police officer said that they lost contact with their leadership and consequently had to decide whether to stay and be subject to clashes with the demonstrators, or to withdraw and save lives on both sides so he made the decision to withdraw his forces.

News of the burning building of the ruling National Democratic Party in Cairo, and of some hotels and malls around the area, was announced. I was anxious, and I could feel sadness falling on the streets.

Too Late and Too Little

At about 12:15 a.m. the president announced he had asked the cabinet to resign. At that point, I believed that Mubarak's speech was too late and was offering too little. A friend said: 'It's not only that he doesn't address people's demands; the speech is full of arrogance. Why should a president speak in this way to the people? We are humans.'

At 6:00 a.m., smoke was everywhere as if the entire city was set on fire. A young man who worked until late, said: 'A lot of the hotels and night-clubs in the neighborhood are burnt. It's scary.' A general feeling of insecurity was spreading around. No one was sure what tomorrow will bring. With the extension of curfew from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m. the following day, people's feelings of insecurity increased. People were buying groceries in extraordinarily large amounts, fearing that shops will run out of food supplies. A friend said: 'I wanted to buy food supplies for a week, but my husband wanted to buy enough food supplies for a whole month. We don't know how long things will be available in the market, and we don't know when all of this will end.'

As darkness fell, I could hear gunfire nearby. One neighbour used the mosque's speaker to mobilize the men of the neighborhood to protect their homes and cars from thieves and thugs. All men in the area went to the streets with sticks, knives, and penknives to stay for a night watch, starting from the sunset until dawn of the following morning. That night, the armed forces positioned their tanks in different areas of greater Cairo. I could see the military tanks moving up and down the street where I live. Young men cheered the military tank advancing and exclaimed: 'The military and the people are one.'

The bombing of the water pipe in the neighborhood, a black car roaming the streets and shooting people on its way, thieves assaulting buildings and forcing people to move out: these are only some examples of what was happening, especially during the night.

The Second Mubarak's Speech

On January 31, Mubarak appointed Ahmed Shafiq former air force commander and civil aviation minister - as new Prime Minister and Umar Sulaiman - the intelligence chief - as Vice President.

I thought he was more than 10 steps behind. Independent TV channels also voiced a similar opinion. On February 1, the 'new' cabinet was formed: 13 ministers were new and 14 ministers were taken from the old cabinet. This was disappointing for most Egyptians.

That night, President Mubarak addressed the people on national TV with an emotional speech, promising that he would not seek to be re-elected. He also proclaimed his commitment to an orderly and peaceful handover of power to avoid chaos. He asked for the amendment of two articles of the constitution and the related legislations.

This statement caused a split among people (outside Tahrir), as some were in favor of stability, while others insisted that these were empty words and he should resign immediately. Some people called for a 'pro-stability' demonstration in Mohandeseen, an area of Guiza that is about 8 km away from Tahrir. This was reported by the media as the 'pro-Mubarak' demonstrations.

The Bloody Wednesday

On February 2, demonstrators holding and chanting pro-Mubarak slogans entered the scene in Tahrir square. The two groups argued for about an hour or so. An engineer who was in favor of stability and was in Tahrir with a friend, said after that at some point he decided to leave as the situation was becoming very tense.

A group of men on camel and horsebacks entered the square beating the protesters calling for the removal of the regime. Suddenly Tahrir square turned into a battlefield. The two groups started to throw stones at each other. As darkness fell, gunfire from the rooftops of downtown buildings and Molotov cocktails were thrown from one side to the other. A young woman in Tahrir, shouted in anger on the phone: 'Can you see? He is sending these men on horsebacks to kill us. It's the same.'

There was a general feeling of sadness, anxiety, and anger. The following day, a lawyer said to me: 'My sisters and I stayed awake all night, crying and praying it will end.'

The Second Week

During the second week of demonstrations, people's sense of fear increased. The widespread chaos was frightening. The situation in Tahrir Square was still the same. Umar Sulaiman was making the attempt to negotiate some demands with the opposition parties and independent opposition figures.

People outside Tahrir split again. Some people held the same opinion as the demonstrators in Tahrir square, while others preferred to stop and wait for a few weeks until their demands were implemented. An engineer, said: 'Mubarak's speech on Tuesday was playing with people's emotions. The people in Tahrir are correct, he must leave now.'

A housewife, said: 'It's enough, they should go home and wait for things to take place and if not, they can go ahead with the streets'. The branch manager of a company believed that these continued protests could be harmful for the economy. He pointed out: 'Our company lost more than LE 300,000 since the beginning of the demonstrations because the Egyptian Pound fell drastically in comparison to the US Dollar. It will be difficult for many medium-sized businesses to survive in such an environment.'

When the three major opposition parties withdrew from the negotiations on February 9 and 10, I felt that the dialogue between Sulaiman and the opposition was coming to a deadlock. There was a rising feeling among people that Mubarak should resign. A young designer, said: 'At the beginning of the demonstrations, I couldn't formulate a clear position. I didn't want the country go into chaos. Since the last two days, I want Mubarak to resign. All this should come to an end.'

The last speech

On Thursday, February 10, there were leaks that Mubarak would resign. Later that day, the national TV announced a new speech from President Mubarak. After waiting for hours, he came out with a very badly written speech, announcing his transfer of powers to Vice President Sulaiman. Again, he addressed the people with arrogance. In addition, it did not respond to any of the people's demands, and stressed more than once: 'I shall stay'. This last speech filled people with anger. A former government employee, said: 'Hearing this speech, I have realized how bad he is. The people in Tahrir are right asking his immediate resignation.'

A New Era

On Friday, February 11, Sulaiman announced Mubarak's resignation. Celebrations were all over Cairo and not only in Tahrir Square. People were cheering in the streets. People felt relieved as the military, that were on the side of the demonstrators from the first minute of the protest, took the control† and assured the people that it will pass on power to a civilian government. A general feeling of comfort mixed with concern about the future was spreading around.

Now, when you walk on the streets of Cairo, you can smell freedom everywhere. People are happy and proud. We are looking forward to seeing real democracy in Egypt. The winds of change are blowing. I am hopeful of the future.


Aya El-Hilaly is based in Cairo. She received an M.A. in International Human Rights Law from the American University in Cairo in 2005, worked with a number of human rights organizations in Cairo, on a number of issues ranging from the right to fair trial to the right to health and rights of refugees. She has a special interest in the rights of children and has worked closely with unaccompanied refugee minors.

Photo: monasosh/flickr