THE FRIDAY OF RAGE: The March to Tahrir Square
Ed.’s note: The Friday of Rage was a turning point in the Egyptian Revolution. Here is Cairo-based writer Nagat Ali’s account of that pivotal day.
I woke up on the morning of January 28 a little before Friday prayers. My younger brother was already outside and he was talking to a friend, a neighbor in our building: “I’ll wait for you after the prayers. Don’t be late.” I became worried and asked him where he was going. He told me he was going to pray and then return to our house. I gently advised him that he should not go to an area far from where we lived. I was frightened for him because demonstrations shouldn’t be taken lightly. Maybe I was also frightened because he was impulsive, young, and inexperienced; he did not know how to protect himself. He had never participated in any demonstrations or protests in Egypt.
I went directly to the Fatah mosque after Friday prayers. I imagined that it would just be another sit-in, nothing more. However, I was surprised by the huge crowd like me, waiting for the worshippers inside the mosque. After the worshippers had left the mosque, they joined the crowd and crossed Hussein Desouki Street to join other groups from El-Ferdus mosque, located on the same street. More people joined, creating an enormous wave of people; I suddenly noticed in the crowd many were Ultras from the Zamalek Team and Ahli.1 From the first moment I viewed the Ultras with a terrified eye and considered them a threat because of my fear of the violent groups of Ultras I had seen at soccer matches—in terms of their strength in numbers and organization. I found myself marching with the Ultras and repeating their chants. I noticed how they swept through the streets; they were not afraid of security forces. Just the opposite, they knew how to deal with them. Like a team, their movement was disciplined and they chanted in rhythm. I felt this demonstration had transformed into an orchestra; they were clever musicians. Like pied pipers, they were trying to draw people from their buildings with their chants:
“One, two, where are the Egyptian people?”
“Why are you watching from far away? You’re Egyptian, aren’t you?”
“Raise. Raise the voice. He who chants will never die.”
“Come on, people. Join us!”
“Mubarak. Mubarak. Jedda, Jedda, is waiting for you.”2
zby clapping, “Peaceful. Peaceful.”
Before we crossed Maadi Street to the Maadi Corniche people began to hang out their balconies; they cheered us with love and affection from their windows. We were like a bridal procession, not an angry demonstration. Some of them threw bottles of water, fruit juice, and Pepsi to us. I felt as if I were in a dream; I had entered a scene in a historical movie. The youth around me raised the Egyptian flag confidently in a way I had never seen before; everywhere I looked, people were so jubilant at this great scene that they were taking photographs from their windows. The demonstrators themselves were taking photographs of the demonstration with their phones to record this important historical moment. For the first time, I felt I was not alone in my alienation when we crossed the Corniche. We shared one dream: the fall of this regime and the injustices connected to it.
I chanted enthusiastically with veiled women dressed in traditional clothes. They chanted: “Ya Suzanne, wake up your husband, the bey [gentleman]. A kilo of lentils are 10 pounds a kilo.”3
Suddenly, someone chanted, “Islamic Rule. Islamic Rule.” I stopped him and answered in a loud, angry voice. “We agreed not to answer religious chants because we’re all Egyptian citizens—Christian and Muslim.”
Maybe I misunderstood the man. At first, I had thought he was from the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafi groups maybe because of his long beard. His chant came from out of the blue. However, maybe he heard it from someone without understanding what it meant. I guessed that from his polite apology. He said: “I’m really sorry. You are our sisters and we respect you.” I thought he was probably an uneducated man while he thought I was a Christian because I wasn’t veiled.
The fierce sun shone down on us even though it was still January. Suddenly, people became quiet when they heard the call to mid-afternoon prayers. Some entered a nearby mosque; others decided to pray in the street because they did not want to be late for the demonstration in the square. Suddenly, Christian youth formed a human chain around the praying Muslims in case of a probable attack on their Muslim brothers during the prayers. I felt proud and happy to be an Egyptian and this caused me to cry. This was the most wonderful scene I had ever witnessed in my life. This was like the Egypt I had yearned for and read about, especially the great 1919 Revolution, which had united all Egyptians: Muslims and Christians. I admired this period and wished I could have lived at such a time.
I was so exhilarated that I forgot I hadn’t eaten breakfast; I was running on adrenaline and didn’t feel tired. I had worn uncomfortable shoes with high heels and my toes had rubbed blisters yet I felt nothing. However, a small trail of blood dripped from them. A young veiled girl marching beside me said: “You are tired and your legs must be tired. It’s clear you haven’t eaten anything.” I smiled and said, “Not really. This is a minor injury. When we get to Tahrir Square, I’ll deal with the problem.” But the young girl got a bottle of water and sprinkled the cold water on my feet, which stopped the bleeding. Suddenly, another young woman about 30 years old appeared. She was wearing black clothes, and from her clothes, it was obvious she was very poor. She held the hands of two children; one was crying. The little boy was walking with difficulty in old, tattered shoes, which would not make the long distance left to the square. I was surprised and asked her why she brought the children with her. How would she ever carry them all the way to Tahrir Square? She answered in despair, “I’m a widow. I have no one to leave them with. I have no one to help me but God.” I was ashamed of myself. I felt as if I would never be able to face this woman the rest of the way to Tahrir. I wanted to apologize to her for my naïve ideas about poor people who didn’t know the meaning of revolution and struggle.
We arrived as a group together, marching and chanting. We had dreamed of arriving to Tahrir Square to regain the Promised Land. When we crossed Manial Street, it was about four in the afternoon. After about 15 minutes, a young man from the Ultras said to me, “Stay strong. You are almost there. Not much further to the square.” Just as I was about to answer, I heard the sound of gunfire. People in front of the demonstration were screaming; the crowd scattered in all directions. Many ran into the nearby streets to escape from the tear gas. I couldn’t distinguish between the sound of gunfire and tear gas. Wounded people were carrying others. Terrified, I was running with some of the others. The widow with the young children who was marching beside me had disappeared. I did not know what had happened to them.
I felt dizzy and was about to faint. Because I was losing my balance, I leaned against the wall in the street. A man with his young son noticed me as one of the demonstrators from the Maadi neighborhood and he waited with me until I felt better. I drank water and cleaned my face with Pepsi to neutralize the effects of the tear gas. I thanked the man and his son, who advised me to return home but I still wanted to join the rest of the demonstrators. I decided to search for a safe way to get to Tahrir. The man and his son told me that they should return home because the situation had become too dangerous. They warned me to be careful the rest of the way. I thanked them for the second time and decided I would make a last attempt to get to Tahrir; maybe the others had succeeded in getting to the square.
The man and his son left me. However, I didn’t catch up with the rest of the demonstrators because I didn’t know which direction I should take. At the same time, there was no transportation in the streets. Even though my feet hurt, I decided to force myself to walk until I found a main street so I could return by taxi. I got to the Corniche, but not one taxi driver would stop for me. A microbus driver stopped, but he didn’t have any passengers. It was clear that people were panicked; everyone was fleeing from the place. I heard the sound of gunfire and I decided I should get away any way I could.
What next passed in front of me was a surreal scene. People were laughing uproariously in a huge truck; it was a wedding party. Some people from the countryside were riding on top of the truck, dancing and singing on top of the bedroom set for the bride. They seemed unaware of the march, the sounds of gunfire or the screaming of the demonstrators who were wounded. I thought: “People who are living on another planet.”
After walking for another 15 minutes, I still was not able to find any transportation. I hoped to find a taxi near the Metro Station Al-Malek Al-Saleh. But suddenly a big truck passed very close to me. In the truck, a group of men in prison uniforms were armed with knives, swords, and clubs. They got out of the truck and started to shoot wildly in the air and beat any car that passed in front of them. One of the prisoners shouted insults at people, as if he were a raging bull tied up for a long time that had just been freed. He repeated one phrase, as if he were a parrot: “There is no government. We are the government.” I started shaking when I saw one of the prisoners break the windshield of a car, who crossed the road at a distance.4 Frightened, I was running because one of the prisoners was getting closer to me; he was holding a sharp tool to terrify people. From the direction of his eyes, I thought he might kill me.
A small Jeep only a meter from me was crossing the road quickly, fleeing from the escaped prisoners. I suddenly fell on the sidewalk. The sound from my fall caused some of the prisoners to look toward me; however, most of them were terrorizing other people. Suddenly, the man and his young son who were with me at the demonstration appeared and helped me to get up. The escaped prisoners had scattered among other people; they had focused on targeting new victims.
The three of us took a taxi toward Maadi, to our neighborhood. The man and his son wanted to be reassured that I arrived safely. I got out of the taxi near the pharmacy on the street where I live and bought medicine and bandages for my feet. When I entered the pharmacy, I heard people discussing the burning of a police station and the escaped convicts from the prison. The anchor was announcing on the news bulletin from someone on the telephone, who informed him that the military government had set a curfew for the districts of greater Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez. The curfew would begin that day at six in the evening until six the next morning—it was 15 minutes until six!
I bought some sedatives and first aid medicine and climbed the stairs to our flat. I tried to avoid talking to my angry mother because she did not know where I had been since the morning. I went to my room and locked the door, cleaned the wounds and wrapped a bandage around them and then took a sedative to relax me. I did not feel anything in my body. Immobile, like a mummy, I was so exhausted I was not aware of anything for hours. My eyes were confined to the walls of my room. My nightmare of being chased by thugs merged with the knocking on my bedroom door. I woke up from the knocking. Had the escaped convicts found my house? How would I escape from them?
After a while, I heard the voice of my younger brother calling me and I forced myself to get up and open the door. I told him, “I’m a little tired and need to rest.” He was silent and he said, “Were you at the demonstration? I glimpsed someone like you from far away, walking beside a swarthy tall guy. He was carrying the Egyptian flag.” I felt tense and answered, “Which demonstration?” I wasn’t able to think clearly. “Where were you all day?” After I had asked him the question, I saw the bloodstains on his clothes, but I also noticed his hand was injured and wrapped in a huge elastic bandage. He told me that we had marched in the same demonstration without knowing it since it was so crowded. He informed me like a shy child, “I went to the demonstration. How could I not go? All of my friends decided to go. We must change the country.” He told me how he was wounded by a small bullet before they arrived to Tahrir. One of his friends from Al-Sayeda Zeinab took him to a doctor who lived on his street and he took out the bullet and cleaned the wound before going with them to Midan Tahrir. I put my hand on his shoulder and said to him: “You are a hero. But I plead with you not to tell your mother. She is sick. She can’t take much more.”
I left my brother to comfort my mother and then took the medicine and slept. I tried to call my married brothers, but then remembered the mobile networks in Egypt had been cut since the morning.
1 On the Ultras: Since 2007 Egypt witnessed the appearance of Ultras groups from the soccer clubs: the “Ahly Ultras” from the supporters of the Ahly Club; the “White Nights” from the Zamalek Club; the “Yellow Dragons” from the Ismailia Club; the “Green Magic” from the Alexandria Club; and the “Green Eagles” from the Egyptian Club. Because of the police’s severity with the Ultras and their huge banners at soccer matches, the Ultras groups nicknamed all security forces (A.C.A.B.) or All Cops Are Bastards: all security were the first enemy of the Ultras. In the past, the Ultras had violent clashes with security forces, which had erupted into incidents of looting at several matches. However, this aggression between the Ultras and security forces had never moved to politics before the 25th of January Revolution. Never had the Ultras been a force in Egyptian political life; however, in the 25th of January the Ultras played a prominent role in the Friday of Rage. The Ultras defended demonstrators when the regimes’ thugs attacked them on camels and horses in the Battle of the Camels on February 2.
2 The intended meaning from this sarcastic chant is “Leave Mubarak and go to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” like the President of Tunis, Zein el-Abdeen Ben Ali who escaped to Jedda after the ignition of the revolution of 2011. Mubarak received a similar offer to reside in Saudi Arabia after the 25th of January; however, he refused and insisted on staying in Egypt until the end of his rule.
3 This sardonic chant refers to lentils: an essential meal, especially for poor people in Egypt because it is cheap. However, the price of lentils increased because of the corruption of Mubarak’s regime; even the poor could not afford to buy lentils.
4 The expression that the prisoners are referring to is about chaos: the one choice of the Mubarak regime. In his first speech to the Egyptians Mubarak used this as a threat: “It’s either me or chaos.”
ContributorNagat Ali, Translated from the Arabic by Gretchen McCullough
Born and raised in Cairo, NAGAT ALI is a doctoral candidate in Literature at Cairo University. Her collections of poetry include: A Superstitious Creature Adores Garrulousness, Cracked Wall, and Like the Blade of a Knife. She was awarded the Tangier Prize for Poetry in 2009, and in 2010, she was selected as one of the best writers in the Arab world for Arab Festival Beirut 39. This excerpt is from her book in progress, Days of the Revolution, excerpts of which were published in Arabic by Nizwa Magazine, April 2012.
GRETCHEN MCCULLOUGH is a writer and translator whose bilingual book of short stories in English and Arabic, Three Stories From Cairo, was published in July 2011 by AFAQ Publishing House, Cairo. Currently she is a Senior Instructor in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo. For more of her writings and translations, go to www.gretchenmccullough.com.