November 19th

There is a public toilet in a car park in Falaky Square, downtown Cairo, whose walls have become an outlet for people’s grievances.

At the end of January a joker had scrawled “we want freedom, we want to live, we want Hashish”. In February, a huge and beautiful mural of one of the revolution’s martyrs appeared. The council painted it out and the kids came back and drew it again. Then the anti-army graffiti started, including one stencil of the Field Marshall’s underpants. The latest graffiti before the November 19 uprising was of Alaa Abdel-Fatah, imprisoned by the army at the end of October.

On Saturday this public toilet was turned into a defence against riot police attacked from a street directly opposite it. Protesters and spectators sat on top of the building or sheltered behind it as teargas canisters, flying brides with their train of vicious white danced around them and buckshot splintered into pieces, and into people.

The scene was repeated at several points around Tahrir Square, as for six days the police and protesters engaged in trench warfare led by indefatigable young men in LE 15 gas masks on one side, and armed troops on the other. The battle eventually turned into a costly and interminable war of attrition waged over 50 metre stretches of street. The Interior Ministry’s defence of its actions is that it was defending the Ministry building – its “house” – against hooligans intent on attacking it. Never mind that if you look at a map of downtown Cairo you will find that the battles are on streets that either don’t lead directly to the Ministry or are relatively far removed from it.

Never mind also that the spark for these clashes was a violent attack by police and army soldiers trying to clear a tiny sit-in in Tahrir Square a week ago.

There is a stunning obtuseness to Interior Ministry actions, barely masked by the viciousness.

Like a lumbering heavyweight fighter it stumbles from public relations disaster to public relations disaster, pounding its way through problems. The approach worked with minor dissent but has proved to be less successful 30 years later when there are ten people to replace the one taken out by a bullet. But still it continues, defending itself and its “yard” using the same unsuccessful tactics, briefly cowed in January, but now back on its feet and smarting.

On numerous occasions during these six days the riot police fired multiple volleys of teargas. I witnessed five or six in the span of a minute. It didn’t feel like riot control so much as punishment, or revenge. Brave protesters picked up the canisters and returned them to sender, but the field hospitals set up around Tahrir Square received a never-ending stream of people who had either suffocated on the gas or were experiencing minor spasms, thought to be as a result of exposure to huge amounts of gas in a confined area, thereby reducing oxygen in the blood to dangerous levels.

Despite this, spirits remained high. On one night a man stood in the middle of the clashes, raised his arms in the air and expounded in florid classical Arabic, “DO NOT TURN YOUR BACKS ON THE ENEMY!”

“Mate, talk to us in Arabic so we understand you,” a man grumbled in the Egyptian dialect as he sauntered past.

During the six days of fighting the square itself became a squalid mess of medical waste, human waste and rubbish whose miasma was sealed in by a floating ceiling of bonfire smoke and occasional teargas. At night figures drifted in and out of the gloom in masks, gas or medical, or with faces wrapped in scarves or covered up by goggles. Sometimes people wore all of the above.

A thriving market in industrial safety wear inevitably developed as Cairo’s enterprising street vendors identified a gap and plugged it with goods bought from the nearby Gomhoreya Street, Mecca for all things construction. Goggles are sold for LE 10, gas masks LE 15, medical masks LE 1.

An ambient seller walked through the crowd holding the masks aloft shouting, “protect your heart, protect your chest…Masks, masks”. By the third day the streets around Tahrir resembled a cross between an emergency room and Star Wars, as people sat at cafes with helmets on and gas masks hanging around their necks as they drank tea and this became normality.

Tahrir became even more all-consuming then it did in January, the constant battling a permanent reminder of its fragility. A blitz mentality developed, the sense of solidarity manifested in everyone looking the same in their industrial safety wear uniforms. A little army formed, and the outside world was forgotten.

One night we wandered up from Falaky Square and found ourselves amongst an angry crowd of men who prevented anyone taking photos and aggressively shooed protesters out of their area. On state radio there are callers who out-Mubarak the notoriously deferential state radio, calling the Tahrir protesters child hooligans set on dragging Egypt into the abyss and rejecting any suggestion that Tahrir Square represents them.

On the sixth day of fighting – the day a truce held – I was back at that bloody public toilet in Falaky Square and witnessed an animated discussion between citizens. It was like taking a time machine back to February 2nd 2011 when the state media propaganda machine was at its zenith and you couldn’t move for infiltrating elements and their meddling hands.

A group of men furiously condemned the Tahrir protest, saying that peaceful expression of demands is one thing, “destruction” another. They rejected the idea that the police were at fault. One man said that the army had scheduled elections and put in place a timeframe for a handover to civilian rule – what else did the protesters want?

Another man alleged that protesters were being paid LE 50 a day. He didn’t say who was paying them.

They were admonished by a tall and robust looking woman who called the protesters “men” and rejected the idea that protesters had vandalisd property or started the violence.

She asked where the police were during the security vacuum, and how it is they are now everywhere “like ants”.

“How are protesters meant to defend themselves against the police?” she asked when the men challenged her about Molotovs and rocks thrown by protesters.

“Are they just meant to sit there rocking back and forth reading the Quran and hope for the best?”

A phrase, “the sofa party”, has developed recently to describe those perceived as reactionary or apathetic. They are often conflated with another group, vocal Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) supporters, who think that the revolution was a foreign plot to destablise Egypt.

This group – on Facebook called “we are sorry President [Mubarak]” staged a protest to counter Tahrir on Friday. At its largest a reported 15,000 turned out at the protest to condemn the people of Tahrir, (all traitors and/or foreign agents) Freemasons (Israelis) and “pro-revolution” TV presenters such as Yosri Fouda (mercenaries).

I attended one of their protests once, and it was an extraordinary display of jingoistic paranoia and anti-revolution bile. One speaker, Hassan El-Ghandoury – who once kidnapped an activist, Amr Gharbeia, and publicly admitted to doing so, describing it as a “citizen’s arrest” – played a song dedicated to Hosny Mubarak whose refrain is, “you are a legend, general”.

They are however the extremist wing of the “silent majority”, that amorphous lump of general public perceived as prepared to support anything just for a quiet life. Tahrir and the protests elsewhere in Egypt have yet to co-opt them – at least in terms of numbers on the ground – and it is a mistake to dismiss them. The elections – scheduled despite everything to start on Monday – will decide where they stand.

In case you’re asking I won’t be voting. Neither will several of my acquaintances. While there is a strong argument against a boycott (it might help keep out religiously conservative forces) it doesn’t sway my conviction that taking part in the election gives legitimacy to a regime that doesn’t deserve it, that has treated Egyptians like foolish children and whose only display of creativity during this never-ending transitional process has been in methods of killing people and building walls.

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7 Responses to November 19th

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  4. Constant reader says:

    Please tell us more about the photographs….where, when? “do not turn your backs on the enemy” sounds like good practical advice, I mean who wants to get stabbed in the back?….

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