by Alex Mayyasi and Ahmed Salah
Ahmed Salah in Egypt’s Tahrir Square on January 29, 2011, after his release from prison. (WNV/Ahmed Salah)
It took the crash of an Egyptian airplane for the world to notice that Egyptians are defying the military tyrant who rules our country.
The airline, of course, is EgyptAir Flight 804, which crashed into the Mediterranean Sea on May 19. While the press speculated about the cause of the crash, they reported that an eerily prescient graffiti message had appeared on the belly of the plane two years earlier: “We will bring this plane down.”
The military tyrant is Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian president and former general who was “elected” by 96 percent of voters after ordering the massacre of 1,150 men, women and children who died protesting peacefully.
Sisi was the reason for the eerie message. The graffiti was not a threat of terrorism. Rather it was a response to the plane’s technical name: SU-GCC. Since the last two letters (‘CC’) sound like the president’s name (Sisi), workers who wrote the message intended to make a political statement about removing Sisi from power.
It’s unfortunate that this is what it took to get Egyptians’ resistance to our president in the news. Because while the world has called the Arab Spring a failure and moved on, the protesters who denounce the president at demonstrations and sit-ins have not given up. Since we ousted Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egyptians have never ceased to risk incarceration or death to fight for real democracy.
I know this because I am an Egyptian democracy activist. I attended my first protest in 2001; I helped organize the Egyptian Revolution in 2011; and I attended nearly daily protests against the corrupt political system that remained after Mubarak’s ouster until I fled the country in 2012.
I had to leave due to assassination attempts, which made me part of a community of Egyptian dissidents who now have to watch Egyptians fight for freedom from afar. Nobel laureate and former vice president Mohamed ElBaradei lives in Europe. “Facebook activist” Wael Ghonim works in Silicon Valley. Political satirist Bassem Youssef films comedy in the United States. Ramy Essam, Egypt’s “Revolutionary Singer,” records music in Sweden.
Many of us are hopeful about Egypt; many of us are despondent. In other words, we feel just like Egyptian exiles, emigres, and dissidents did from 2005 to 2010, when regular protests occurring in Egypt felt inspiring but perhaps hopeless. They felt that way until January 24, 2011. Because on the next day, January 25, we took to Egypt’s streets and started a revolution.
I was there that day, after spending two feverish weeks preparing for the protests on January 25. I recently wrote a book about my life as an activist, hoping to show the world and other activists what Egyptians accomplished, and why we are still fighting.
The following is an excerpt from that book, “You Are Under Arrest for Masterminding the Egyptian Revolution,” that describes the first day of the 2011 revolution and the events that led to it. It is now a historical document — a first-person account of the Egyptian Revolution.
But it is my belief that it is also a playbook. One that we created and that Egyptians will use again as many times as it takes to achieve our dreams of bread, freedom and dignity.
The night of January 24, 2011, I could not sleep. I tossed and turned and worried about what would happen the next day in cities across Egypt. For 30 years, a dictator had ruled my country. Under President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s economy deteriorated, political prisoners languished in jail, and corrupt politicians rigged elections for the president and his allies. I had spent nearly a decade working with democracy activists to overthrow Mubarak through nonviolent protest, and I believed the success or failure of our 10-year struggle would be determined tomorrow, on January 25.
I belonged to a loosely unified opposition movement of activists, politicians, workers and judges that wanted to overthrow Mubarak and bring democracy to Egypt. In 2006, we criticized the government in protests and press conferences in downtown Cairo so often that we referred to the area as “liberated territory.” In recent years, however, we struggled to challenge Mubarak’s rule. Just months earlier, the president’s National Democratic Party swept parliamentary elections in one of the most corrupt elections in Egyptian history. Egyptians agreed that Mubarak was grooming his son Gamal to succeed him as president.
The rigged elections and prospect of hereditary rule insulted Egyptians’ dignity and focused people’s anger against the regime. On January 14, 2011, twenty-eight days of protest culminated in the downfall of Tunisia’s longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. This inspired Egyptian dissidents, who set the date of January 25 for similar protests in Egypt. It was an ironic choice. January 25 is a national holiday that celebrates Egypt’s once admired but increasingly despised police.
I doubted we would succeed as quickly as our Tunisian brothers and sisters, and I feared the protests would fail entirely. In mid-January, I posed as a journalist and asked Egyptians in Cairo, where I lived, if they planned to protest on January 25. “What protests?” they answered. After attending hundreds of protests attended by only a few dozen people, I knew better than to expect an overwhelming response.
After that discouraging afternoon, I worked non-stop with other activists to spread the word, share the strategy I believed in, and train new protesters. We recruited Egyptians who had attended protests or signed political petitions. My fiancée Mahitab, who excelled at recruiting people to our cause, set up dozens of meetings in Cairo and northern Egypt. I talked with volunteers until I spoke with the rote consistency of a tape recording.
I did not set an alarm for the morning of January 25. I was tired, and I worried that I would find my hopes dashed again the next day. Since I focused on training others, I had not planned to lead a rally. The role of an activist is not to lead the masses with a flag draped around his or her shoulders. Activists meet a few people at a time in a coffee shop to explain in hushed tones why they should believe when no one else does. An activist’s moment is not the moment of change; it is the period when change seems impossible. We did our best to strike a match. We could only pray that it would catch.
When I finally slept, the sun was up. A phone call from the Delta, the area north of Cairo where the Nile spills into the Mediterranean, woke me at 11. Even though January 25 was a national holiday, and shops and offices were closed, I struggled to hear the caller. He told me that protesters had driven the police outside the city. “Turnout is massive,” he told me. “It is like the city is on fire.” I was stunned.
Over the next half hour, I dressed while answering phone calls from activists and protesters I had met over the past week. Each told the same story. One man relayed news of successful protests in Mahalla, an industrial city that Egyptian riot police had patrolled like an occupying force since it held massive anti-government protests in 2008.
I felt euphoric as I left my apartment to join the protests. I did not know exactly where I was going. Along with other activists, I advised people to assemble and rally in side streets, gaining numbers before moving to more central locations and eventually to Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. No one set exact times and gathering points, as that would allow the police to disperse protesters before we achieved safety in numbers.
Following the noise in my neighborhood of Shubra, I found a main street packed with thousands of protesters. I looked around in amazement. During my 10 years as an activist, I had met thousands of activists, politicians, and politically active Egyptians. Yet the streets were full of men and women I had never seen, and they were leading chants! As I lifted my voice to join them, I thought to myself: My God! Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you!
Policemen also lined the streets. Egyptian law bans street demonstrations and non-approved public gatherings, and the country had lived under emergency law almost continually since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Every Egyptian joining a rally knew that the police usually attacked protesters, and that he or she could face arrest and torture.
That day in Shubra, however, security forces watched without intervening. Egypt’s protest movements preached nonviolence and banned weapons from demonstrations. We knew that violence only legitimized the government’s brutal methods and that many policemen did not want to hurt us. People standing near the police chanted, “Peaceful! Peaceful!” and told them, “You are our brothers.”
We spent the next four hours marching through the streets of Cairo. Enthusiasm, rather than any individual, led us. Microbuses became islands in a sea of protesters. People drinking tea and playing backgammon in cafes looked up in amazement. “Join us!” we shouted. “Come on! Come on!” Most people stared back in disbelief. But over the course of several hours, we recruited two thousand more Cairenes to join our rally, swelling our numbers to five or six thousand.
The protesters that day resembled those who attended protests over the past decade. Most were middle class and educated. As many women wore the hijab [headscarf] as not, and very few men had long beards or wore the galabiyya, the traditional Egyptian garment consisting of a long, loose robe. In the following days, Egyptians from all cross-sections of society joined the protests. On January 25, however, I marched with middle-class Egyptians who wanted to depose Mubarak and vote in real elections. Although Egypt’s ailing economy motivated us, the revolution was not about bread. It was about dignity.
We had never achieved a turnout like this before — almost everyone was attending his or her first rally — yet people displayed the passion of lifelong activists. I remember one young woman who wore a red scarf and struck me as a nice girl who introduces herself with a shy smile. On January 25, 2011, she was a thundering revolutionary. “Down! Down Mubarak!” she screamed, as dozens echoed her and the group picked up the cry.
As we approached downtown, we found more security forces waiting for us. In Bolak Abou El Ela, an area near Tahrir Square, we marched toward a thousand policemen. Yet we provoked no response. We outnumbered them by more than four to one.
The rally could have continued into Tahrir. Although many protesters had joined the rally without knowing activists’ plans to occupy Tahrir, the square was a logical destination. I doubted security would act as leniently, however, in Tahrir. Other rallies were coming from throughout the city, but Shubra was one of the closest neighborhoods to downtown. We could not arrive alone, and I suspected that we needed more time. Waving my arms like a madman, I pointed away from Tahrir and yelled, “Come on! This way! This way! Back to Shubra!” Luckily, the crowd followed my lead.
We returned two dusty hours later.
Tahrir means liberation in Arabic, but the symbolic value of Tahrir Square goes beyond its name. It is the heart of downtown Cairo, surrounded by symbols of the government’s power: the main office of the state’s political party, the Omar Makram Mosque, where the funeral services of prominent Egyptians take place, the headquarters of a regional organization called the Arab League, and the Mugamma, a massive bureaucratic building. Apartment complexes topped with enormous billboards, fast food chains, cafes, the site of the future Ritz Carlton, the Egyptian Museum, and the old American University in Cairo campus encircle Tahrir. Seven streets pour into a three-lane traffic rotary with a large green space in its center. The square is as large as 10 American football fields. Egyptians have rallied in the square since the days of British occupation.
As we approached Tahrir, several people joining our rally told us that police had blocked the nearby 6th of October Bridge, which spans the Nile. We heard them fighting to keep protesters from crossing. Amidst the smoke obscuring Tahrir, we could make out the hazy forms of protesters and the thick, dark tide of police opposite them.
Very few of the people around me had protested before, and yet, with a yell, they charged forward. Spreading out into the open space, they sprinted the equivalent of several city blocks to the frontlines and dodged the stones and teargas canisters raining down. As I huffed and puffed in the back, I remembered how I had dreamt of scenes like this.
Now I was living it.
We arrived in Tahrir at a critical moment. Multiple rallies arrived from different directions, and the police began to cede ground. When I caught up, I took shelter behind a fence, looked for projectiles coming my way, and rose up to throw stones at the lines of security.
We were facing the Central Security Forces, or CSF, which Western press refers to as riot police. The CSF wear a visored helmet and a cheap imitation of a bulletproof vest. They carry shields and batons, and they also wield tear gas, water cannons and shotguns loaded with rubber-coated bullets, birdshot or even live ammunition.
Young men fulfilling their obligatory military service make up the rank and file. A popular joke about the CSF goes as follows: An army officer greets a group of recruits and says, “All of you who can read and write: move to the left.” He waits for the recruits to obey and says, “All of you who never learned to read and write: move to the right.” He waits, and then adds, “All of you left in the middle: you are Central Security Forces.” Most men in the CSF are illiterate, uneducated, and tend to believe government propaganda about defending Egypt from American-Israeli plots and the foreign agents behind every opposition group.
Fighting raged on and off for the next two hours. We faced only batons, stones, tear gas, and water cannons, but it was a battle. I believe in nonviolent activism, and I oppose tactics like destroying government buildings or killing government forces. Yet I do not advocate meekly bearing the blows from the regime’s thugs. We knew we had to defend ourselves. We broke up rocks, which are plentiful among Tahrir’s cracked sidewalks, to use as ammunition, and urged each other to break them smaller and smaller and to avoid aiming at the head. The CSF are still human beings, we reminded each other.
We were not being overly idealistic. At one point, I helped escort a group of riot police out of the battle after they yelled, “We don’t want to fight! We just want to pass!” We formed a human ring around the young men and helped them out of the square to an area where the policemen were inactive. “We are your brothers,” we told them.
After shielding the policemen, I retreated to the roundabout in the center of the square and collected my thoughts. I figured that if we could hold the square for three or four days, it would be a real revolution that could not be ignored. I looked around at the thousands of Egyptians with me in Tahrir, and at the acts of bravery being committed in the swirling tear gas, and I cried.
We had a secret weapon in our confrontation with the CSF: Cairo’s soccer hooligans. Egypt has two main soccer clubs, El Ahly and El Zamalek. Both are based in Cairo, but anywhere in Egypt, asking a man which team he supports is like asking an American if he is a Republican or a Democrat. Each club has a group of diehard supporters called Ultras. Their involvement on January 25 represented the government’s worst nightmare.
The Mubarak regime worried so much about Egyptians forming political groups that it banned or harassed all types of organizations. Even the organizers of charity groups and yoga clubs received threatening phone calls from State Security, the police branch that deals with political dissidents and internal threats to the regime. The government banned the Ultras’ fan clubs, but that only made them more dangerous.
Pushed underground, Ultras clandestinely raised money to buy fireworks and banners and organized rallies in support of their teams — rallies the regime condemned but failed to prevent. Cairo was home to tens of thousands of Ultras. They were athletic guys who hated the government’s attempts to control them and the police who treated them like low-class scum. They scuffled with Egypt’s security forces on a regular basis.
The Ultras did not care about politics, but several of my fellow activists lobbied them to participate on January 25 by speaking their language. A few activists told the Zamalek Ultras, “Guys, El Ahly said that they are coming to the protests and that they will beat the shit out of security. They also said you cowards won’t come.” Other activists told the El Ahly Ultras the same thing about Zamalek. Both groups promised to come.
We needed them. Most protesters clashed with the CSF from a distance. We threw stones and the security forces threw them back. The only way to make progress was to force our adversary to cede ground, denying them ammunition. When the riot police advanced through the rocks to press our lines, it was the Ultras who pushed the CSF back. They brought the confidence of a group that had challenged security before, and they spearheaded our defense. I am not a soccer fan, but I am a huge fan of the soccer fans. The Ultras saved the revolution that day.
As protesters continued to fill Tahrir and the Ultras led the way, we pushed the CSF further and further until they retreated out of the square and down Kasr Al Ainy Street to the parliament building. At 6 p.m., we realized that security had orders to hold their fire. They stopped shooting, throwing rocks and charging us. An uneasy truce began. The police remained in several streets around Tahrir, but they did not attack. With the exception of Mohammed Mahmoud Street, which led to the fortress-like Ministry of Interior, they let people pass through. Yet none of us believed they would leave the square to us.
My suspicions were confirmed, surprisingly, in a Pizza Hut at the intersection of Mohammed Mahmoud Street and Tahrir. When the truce began, I entered the restaurant to refill a bottle of water. The Pizza Hut was closed, but the doors were open. I snuck upstairs to the bathroom. I expected to find a few dirty trays and the smell of pizza grease. Instead, I discovered the temporary operations room of Cairo’s security forces.
Twenty officers reclined in their chairs, trying to outdo each other in the role of the nonchalant tough guy. My heartbeat rose as I opened the door to the bathroom. On the far side of the room, I saw the Director of Security for the Cairo governorate, General Ismail il Shaer. I had encountered General il Shaer numerous times since 2005 and 2006, years that were especially charged for the protest movement. Many of my friends bore bruises or worse as a result of his orders. As I left the bathroom, I imagined him barking my name and catching me on the stairs. I kept my head down and exited to the street. Once I escaped, I worried about what they could be planning.
For the next two hours, I spent time with my fellow protesters. I shared my conviction that we needed to hold the square overnight and establish a permanent presence. I received triumphant phone calls from Alexandria, Mahalla and Suez. I joined in chants of “Ish-sha’ab yurid isqat in-nizam.” First heard during Tunisia’s revolution, the chant means, “The people want the fall of the regime.” It became a staple in Egypt and in protests across the Arab world. Everyone in Tahrir expressed incredulity. Were we really here, turning back the feared CSF?
We had been here once before. In 2003, protesters held Tahrir Square, albeit with fewer numbers. At night, security forces turned off the lights in the square, attacked, and scattered and arrested us. That evening in 2011, I imagined myself as General il Shaer. What would I do? Looking around the square at dusk, the answer was obvious. I would wait until late at night and attack in full force.
I could predict the attack, but I could not prevent it. Warning cold and tired protesters of an all-out assault did not strike me as a promising way to keep people from returning home to their families. So I did what I could: I urged people to buy onions.
Egyptian security forces use an alkaline-based tear gas. As alkaline is a base, acids neutralize its effects. Over the years, protesters learned to use the acidity of onions or vinegar as protection from tear gas. I had a small onion in my pocket that I brought to protests. It was imperfect, but it helped us stand our ground, and it dulled the pain of the gas. I doubted people would trust a stranger telling them to rub onions and vinegar on their faces. Instead, I sought out people I knew from past protests, counting on them to spread the word to their friends.
When I found my friend Mohammed il Gebba in Tahrir, I realized I could try one more tactic. I could contact the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Muslim Brotherhood was by far the largest and best-organized opposition group in Egypt. It was both a social and charitable organization, and an unlicensed political party. The government had not given the group permission to form a party, but Muslim Brothers held parliament seats as independents, and the Brotherhood’s political ambitions were never in doubt. The Brotherhood had over a hundred thousand members organized in a tightly knit and hierarchical structure.
In the days preceding January 25, the Muslim Brotherhood announced that it would not participate in the protests. So when I crossed paths with Mohammed il Gebba, a member of the Brotherhood, he said he knew of only two other Muslim Brothers in Tahrir Square. Mohammed told me that the Brotherhood’s Guidance Council decided to meet when they saw the turnout for the protest. He put me on the phone with a member of the council.
“We’ve come this far,” I told him. “But people are tired and leaving. We will be attacked and driven out after midnight, and this will end.” I did not see eye to eye with the Brotherhood, but we had a common cause in opposing Mubarak. “If you strengthen our lines,” I said, “we can hold the square and bring change to the country.” He told me that he would share my view with the leadership.
At 10 p.m., Mohammed and I heard from the Guidance Council. The leaders of the Brotherhood would not prohibit their members from attending the protest, but they had decided not to participate.
We were on our own.
The attack started shortly after midnight. Tahrir’s street lamps went dark, and police surged from the positions they had maintained for nearly six hours. They fired rubber-coated bullets, water cannons and tear gas canisters at the small, scattered groups of protesters that remained. We were quickly overwhelmed. The lack of wind, which we initially welcomed as a respite from the chilly night, meant there was nothing to disperse the gas. I could only see several feet ahead. Protesters fled in every direction. I ran away from the popping noises of fired tear gas canisters and down a side street.
Outside of the square, policemen from State Security, who wore plainclothes, hunted us through the maze of downtown’s back alleys. Anyone they caught, inside or outside the square, they beat with billy clubs and arrested. I made several unsuccessful attempts to team up with other protesters and re-enter Tahrir. There were too many police, and the gas was too thick for my onions to work. I eventually joined a group that returned to Shubra.
Roughly 2,000 of us gathered on Shubra Street and continued to chant and march. Fifty policemen stood nearby and watched as we yelled “Down! Down, Mubarak!” and “The people demand the fall of the regime!”
It was a short reprieve. At 2:30 a.m., police trucks packed with CSF sped down Shubra Street, which is one way, against the direction of traffic. With military precision, they got out, took up positions facing us, and shot teargas and shotguns loaded with rubber-coated bullets. Skirting the line of fire, I ran up to the riot police. “Why are you doing this?” I asked. “We left the square! We are peaceful! This will all die down soon.”
A policeman shooting tear gas canisters responded, “Haven’t you heard? A policeman was killed in Tahrir today!” His response implied that this legitimized their brutality.
Before I could say that I heard no such thing — it was likely a lie told to rile up security forces — I heard a voice used to being obeyed. “So, it’s you here.” It was the head of security for that part of Shubra, a hard man I knew from past protests. He always seemed to look down at me despite needing an inch or two to match my height. Marching into view, he told me, “I will teach you a lesson that you will not forget for your next 40 years.”
He ordered several Central Security men to “discipline” me. A cop grabbed my glasses, smashed them, and punched me in the face. As three others joined him in punching, kicking, and throwing me, the abuse barely registered. I felt little pain, and I was uncertain what was happening. When they threw me in a white microbus, I assumed they had arrested me at random. I later learned they had a warrant for my arrest on charges of “masterminding a plan to overthrow the regime.” Dictators always give you extra credit.
Sitting with my head against the cool window, I slowly regained my senses. The microbus was one of the ubiquitous vans that keep Cairo moving. For a few cents, passengers hop on the vans that fill up until people hang off the side. Like any Cairene, I had ridden microbuses countless times, but this was my first time being arrested in one. I searched for my wallet and cell phone, but found only my phone. When I pulled it out, blood poured onto it. My nose was a broken faucet and my clothes were bloody. The police saw the phone in my hands and demanded that I turn it off.
Every few minutes, another protester joined me on the bus. They were all bruised and bloodied; security did not stop hitting them as they loaded them in. Only one man seemed to have escaped a beating. A well-dressed girl crying near the front of the bus reminded me of the girl in the red scarf who chanted “Down! Down Mubarak!” She seemed to belong in a modest home reading a book, not in a dingy microbus full of bleeding men in the middle of the night. The policemen never stopped calling her a whore as they hit her on the back of the head. Once security had filled the bus, a driver entered. The only sounds were the engine and our breathing. When anyone attempted to speak, the cops in the front seats responded with more kicks and slaps.
The one small mercy of the night was that the police let the young woman leave before we reached the police station. The rest of us were not as lucky. As we entered the drab building, we received the customary greeting: a beating. I was used to it. I smiled and joked that they were pulling their punches. I had more luck with the man escorting me upstairs. “I’m coming with you,” I told him. “You don’t need to be so hard.” He stopped pushing me, and we walked to the cells.
A day that began with exuberance ended with the cold reality of the Mubarak regime: pulverized bodies, broken spirits, and incarceration in a grimy prison. The police beat anyone who talked. We listened for hours to the sound of our breathing and the occasional whisper or moan. The only words I spoke all night were a few words of comfort to a man I recognized, a lawyer who was in great pain.
The cells were so full that we had to stand in the hallways. But therein lay our one consolation. Every five to 10 minutes, the gun of a microbus engine announced the arrival of new prisoners. Each time, we heard the scuffle of security hitting them before they joined us in the hallway. A hundred more busloads arrived by dawn.
This many prisoners meant that security succeeded in capturing and arresting protesters. Yet it also meant that people were still in the streets and that the protests continued. Even if I did not see it, maybe it would be a real revolution.