The existence of a sort of nervous anger immediately struck me when I arrived. Around two hundred people were assembled outside the public prosecutor’s office. The usual buffer zone of absent black-clad riot police lined the perimeter of the area. Beyond them the men in suits and sunglasses.
A group of young people began congregating at one end of the pen in which the demonstrators were being held. The slow surge gradually gained intensity, to chants of, “why are you fencing us in?” The riot police started looking unsure. Suddenly there was an enormous push and the steel barrier between protestors and the police was lifted up. The riot police – conscripts, from impoverished backgrounds – hesitated, looked behind them for orders. Reinforcements were brought in and the surge was stopped.
On the other side of the road Bahaa appeared, and began chanting. Bahaa is a protest veteran who seems to like to take risks if not actively provoke the police. Today he swaggered (there’s no other word for it) up and down 26th July Street waving his arm above his head while police officers chased behind him making a feeble attempt to pen him in. He continued marching and shouting. Other protestors joined him when it looked like the police were beginning to lose patience.
At the same time protestors under the impression that Bahaa was being arrested again tried to storm the barrier. Concentrating on this, I lost track of what was happening with Bahaa. The next time I looked he was prostrate on the ground surrounded by people throwing water on him in an attempt to revive him. He had apparently fainted.
He woke up, got up and again started chanting, before pulling off an officer’s hat and throwing it in the air. This seemed to be the last straw. The beating began, and from my vantage point Bahaa disappeared in sea of arms and fists. One officer actually slapped another across the face after pulling him off Bahaa.
Sayyed, another demonstrator who went to Bahaa’s aid was also set upon, after he slapped an officer who had been hitting him across the back of the neck. They chased him down like a pack of dogs and then roughly four officers beat him unconscious. You can see it the video below. An officer pulls them off while behind him Sayyed slowly slips down the car the officer is propping him up against.
Improbably, Bahaa reappeared after this, topless, his hair dripping wet from the earlier dousing of water and his trousers half falling down his legs revealing what looked like a black thong-type affair. Some of the demo wolf-whistled. But Bahaa looked both pitiful and manic. He was again set upon by tens of police officers who flagged down a passing taxi and attempted to bundle him in. They were unsuccessful and the taxi driver sped off. Another taxi was stopped and Bahaa pushed inside. Four of five officers got in with him and sat on top of him. I don’t know where he was taken.
There was calm after Bahaa and Sayyed were assaulted, and demonstrators began leaving. A protestor sitting on the railing next to me tried talking to the conscripts. Attempted to persuade them to refuse to obey orders because once they’ve finished their service they’ll go back to their lives where they’ll be fucked over by the state they’re currently protecting. They looked up impassively. Childlike is not the correct epithet, because these are hardened men who will use their batons if instructed to.
Wretched is a better description. Wretched and stoic and, as usual, they – the silent poor – were on the frontline of Egypt’s relentless march to a better future: quite literally standing between the old guard and the forces of change, absorbing the blows of a battle not really being fought in their name. How will Mohamed ElBaradei or Hamdeen Sabahy or the workers’ movement reach these people? Once they take off their uniforms and disappear back into their underworld; illiterate, uneducated, too busy surviving on the margins to be angry, too marginal for their anger to count. Who will reach them?