The revolt’s first Friday was decisive. The preceding 3 days had shown that what had started on January 25 was not a mere demonstration. It spread like wildfire across the country. Police oppression cleared Tahrir square for normal use again, kept the streets flowing, but it was like a lid over boiling water. They knew – and we knew – that what had started was not going to stop and the protesters were not going anywhere. January 28 was intended to be our point of no return. Each one of us went to the street with that in mind. It was like knowing that nothing was ever going to be the same again.
It was also a decisive day in exposing many public figures, actors, singers, even imams, who went after their interests, so they either praised the regime and stormed the protesters with verbal attacks, or just remained silent, waiting to see how things would turn out, always wanting to be on the winning side.
I sat in the mosque waiting for the sermon to begin, wondering which kind the imam who was going to deliver it to us was. Word had spread that State Security police, Amn Dawla, had issued clear instructions to all major mosques around the country to preach that revolt against the ruler was a major sin, arguing that it threatens to shake the stability of the country and to promote division–a classic escape Muslim rulers have adhered to for centuries throughout Islamic history.
Unlike most times, none of the women in the mosque appeared to be engaged in any conversation. The place was mostly silent; some were praying and others were reading the Quran. The journalist began to take pictures, making some women uncomfortable. Soon the sermon began and Nadia and I listened attentively, waiting for the imam’s mistakes. Soon we discovered that we were not alone with this attitude. A girl clad in black sat before us, exchanging glances and smiles whenever the imam appeared to be wandering off in the desert, clearly over-making his points.
To me the sermon lasted an eternity. I was so charged on the inside I could no longer tolerate the normalcy. It was soon over, we prayed, and moved to the main exit where the women merged with the men at the large open space. Everyone walked normally towards the door and by the time the first in line reached it the chants began. It was a moment of transition from the wary calm and quiet that spread across the mosque and in the faces of the worshippers to a loudness that never ceased from that moment on. Looking around me, it was as if everyone felt the same way I did; waiting for that key moment in which they could finally raise their voices together and demand their freedom. We all rushed toward the outer door, crowding each other as we frantically searched for our shoes and put them on. I don’t recall ever putting on my shoes with more of a rush. I didn’t want to lose Nadia with the shoving of the crowd. I kept my eye on her until I was ready, and we were both out in Azhar street with the flood of people chanting out of the mosque, taking the center of street, past the officers and the plain clothes policemen with their sunglasses and walki talkis who stood by watching.
The Azhar road is topped with the Azhar bridge, reaching directly to the center of the city. It is a narrow, long old market street filled with fabric, spice, and book shops on both sides. It was where my father used to buy the fabrics he distributed among the poor of his hometown village every Ramadan. I had taken it thousands of times on my way to college or on a Fatimid Cairo outing with friends. Its penetrating spice aroma would always linger in my head for long hours after I had passed through it. To me, it was the aroma of home; the Egypt I had grown to love – its history and mine – and the many beautiful tales of I’ve read and heard when I was a kid.
As loud as the chants and shouts were as we moved through the closed space of the mosque exit, I expected that they’d disperse as we were out in the open space of the city, but they kept getting louder. The narrowness of the street and its relatively confined surroundings; the crowded shut down shops and the bridge overhead magnified the sounds of the protesters’ chants and shouts, echoing from one side of the street to the other. They seemed to be coming from all directions: in front of me, behind me, over me, and I could nearly feel the vibrations under my feet. The sounds felt like they were coming right out of the walls. Everything seemed to synchronize itself with the people. And as we continued more people were drawn to the streets out of awe or mere curiosity. Like most photojournalists some ran to the top of the bridge to get a better view. I could tell by the rising numbers that not everyone marching now was among those in the mosque. The chants drew many people in.
At this point all the resistance I could see from the police was a mere attempt to control the route of the march. Or perhaps just the density. Our march continued until we came to a human wall of guards in helmets blocking our passage, creating a small stampede. Some of the protesters tried to calm the crowds and stop them from getting into confrontation with the guards, so they signaled for everyone to jump on the iron bars that divided the two way street, the other side of the street being open for advancement. An older woman standing next to me began to panic with the pressing crowd. There was no way for her to go with the guards blocking the passage and the bars being too high. I held her by the hand and began to shout to one of the guards to let us through, given the condition of the woman. I used every bit of logic I could think of when my mere appeal to common sense did not do the trick with him, but all I continued to get from him were the same responses. “No. Sorry. Not allowed.” The more he said those words the more infuriated I became, so I began to push against him with all my might. He did not budge an inch. I know I’m not that weak and yet I failed to cause the slightest movement in him or any of his colleagues. I don’t call them a human wall out of nothing. They’re actually trained to be that. A senior officer places his orders and they are encrypted in their skulls. His words are final and there’s no rationalizing with them.
With the sheer force of the people they managed to create a gap in the iron bars and we went right threw it, marching on and out of the street till we got caught in more serious police resistance. We could hear rubber bullets being shot and people began to run everywhere. Sirens and showers of teargas canisters filled the intersection we found ourselves in. The air was no longer breathable. Nadia and I frantically looked for a place to hide until we found a small passageway between two buildings that many people were rushing into. As we followed them we found a senior police officer carried by some of the protesters and rushed into the same place, his face flushed red and he had difficulty breathing. For many of us this might have been the first time we encountered teargas so we were clueless as to how to combat its effects. All what many of us could think of was water. Many were calling out for water to give to the troubled officer and save him from whatever the gas appears to have done to him.
If that moment was anything to me, it was only proof and reassurance that our uprising was for beliefs, hopes, dreams. Those people of all ages marching around me held no grudges to uniforms or individuals; their only enemy was oppression and corruption. This was a war of ideas and beliefs, not people, because in that narrow passage there was no telling who was the enemy. The officer in the uniform among us was no more than just another helpless Egyptian desperate for a breath of fresh air. That’s what we all were.
To be continued.
Videos from the day:
Beginning of march from inside Al Azhar open space and out to the street:
The early spark. Egyptians from all walks of life join the march from Al Azhar mosque. Old men joined shouting “Down with Mubarak” while some carried their children on their shoulders:
Woman urging protesters to hold on:
Panic at the intersection, the sound of rubber bullets and me cursing:
Hiding from teargas in the narrow passage:
Police vehicle with its eerie siren gets caught among the protesters at the intersection. On that day many such vehicles have chosen to run over the protesters: