Somebody Else's Revolution
An account of post-revolutionary Tahrir Square
There’s an all-you-can-eat meat restaurant called Carnivore on a moored boat down the Nile from downtown Cairo. It’s one of those places you treat yourself to, because it’s expensive even by Western standards and because there is only so much meat you can eat in a month. I was in the city for two, writing for a local English-language newspaper.
I was eating dinner there at the end of June with my friend Pierre, a filmmaker, when his mother called. She lived in the area. They’re back in Tahrir, she told him.
What she meant was, at least partially, be careful. Protests had generally been peaceful since the regime fell nearly five months before, but everyone knew that when it got late—at midnight, they said—the police came out. By that time, the women and children had left, the foreign media was less likely to be around, and darkness provided easy cover for the sort of thing no police force wants caught on tape.
But she also meant, partially, this is something you don’t want to miss. This was something different. The protests were real again. She knows that Pierre carries a camera around with him for a reason.
Pierre’s parents are both Egyptian, but he grew up in Canada and the States. He went to film school in Colorado, and he was there, glued to al-Jazeera’s live online video stream, when Egyptians first flooded the streets in January. When classes ended in the spring, he moved in with his mom in Cairo to make a documentary on post-Revolution Egypt.
I made him wait for dessert to come—he blew me out of the water in our eating contest, having thirds of the ostrich meat, and I planned to make a comeback with the vanilla ice cream—but we were only halfway through when we changed our minds. We dropped our spoons and headed out.
The cabbie said he’d heard that the Interior Ministry—about four blocks from Tahrir—was on fire. If that were true, this was serious, this was something major: the Interior Ministry was a symbol of the old regime’s tyranny. Its security forces had shot at protesters, live bullets. The institution survived the Revolution, but then so did its repressive reputation.
He dropped us off at the end of the bridge, a short walk from Tahrir Square. He wouldn’t go any closer, but he was polite about it.
When we arrived in the Square on the other side of the Nile, the canisters of tear gas were falling sporadically.
It wasn’t the ocean of people like in the pictures. We walked straight up to the center, a grassy circle surrounded by normally-traffic-plagued boulevards. There were other people watching with us, advancing and retreating according to how much gas was up ahead. In front—the front being the corner of the square where the police had chosen to take their stand—hundreds of young men stared down their opposites in anti-riot gear at the end of the street that enters Tahrir Square. The Interior Ministry was well behind them. We found out later that it hadn’t been aflame.
First you would hear a horn from the police side. It seemed to be a warning. It was hard to tell in the back of the crowd. Then they launched the canister. It flew up in the air, crackling like New Year’s wands, and on the ground everyone waited, all eyes looking up. When you had an idea where it would land, you ran the opposite way—the opposite of baseball, fielding something that wasn’t there. We fled the poison gas.
Pierre struggled to focus the camera—a tripod was out of the question—as I yelled at him to run some way or another. He stumbled over a curb evading a canister that I’d seen too late to warn him, with the camera in one hand, catching himself. I laughed because it was funny. It was funny that we were here right then. We were wandering in somebody else’s Revolution.
There was one section of the Square that didn’t fall directly in the path of the police launchers. We found some relief there. Pierre lifted his camera towards the launchers. I took a break from scouting duties. I started to look horizontally. That’s when I saw Mahmoud walking by.
I’d met him at an American journalist’s house party. It was a party where we all wore galabeyas, traditional Egyptian clothing. It was a joke. Mahmoud is the type of person whom you wouldn’t catch wearing such long pantless clothing in the street. In Tahrir Square, he was calmly making his way over to the police blockade in a large group that was flowing back and forth with the intensity of the teargas shots, a school of fish swimming into the current.
Seeing Pierre and me, Mahmoud stepped out of his informal formation to greet us. He asked if everything was ok.