I watched Egypt's bloody struggle for democracy that began in Tahrir Square 10 years ago today. Here's my diary of 18 days that shook the world.

  • 10 years ago, I was in Cairo when the revolution broke out. 
  • Over 18 days, Egyptians protested and brought down President Hosni Mubarak. 
  • This is my diary of what I saw and did over 18 days that were by turns violent and euphoric.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

On January 25, 2011, Egyptian people shook off the fear that their president of 30 years, Hosni Mubarak, had held over them, and marched to demand democracy.

Pictures of the protests fixated the world's media, but the images— of hundreds of thousands roaring for democracy in Tahrir Square — still never touched what it felt like to live through it.

I ran a small culture organization in central Cairo, working and living a stone's throw from the square. And because artists and activists often overlap in Egypt, I found myself very close to their struggle.

For a time, despite all the powers stacked against them, it felt like the whole country spoke with one voice.

Ten years on, with the country under the even firmer dictatorship of President Abd El Fattah El Sisi, is it hard to recapture that sense of freedom. It is easy to be cynical about.

But as someone who saw it up close, it felt like the Egyptian protesters showed me the peak of what humanity can be, and what it can do.

I've based this account on a diary I kept at the time, with reference to contemporaneous news sources.

While every effort has been made towards accuracy, I was not a journalist at the time, and this is a personal account. Quotes are as recorded in my diary, and the wording of some may not be exact.

January 25, 2011

The rumor had been swirling for a while: on January 25, there was going to be a revolution.

A few days earlier, my friends and I were in Estoril — a bar and restaurant beloved by art types — and toasted the Tunisian uprising that had recently chased President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from the country.

We wondered if it could happen in Egypt. Atrocities like the police killing of Alexandrian student Khaled Said seven months earlier spurred protests and an atmosphere of dissent that was warily tolerated.

But we still used the word "revolution" in air quotes. Most protest was brutally repressed, and had been as long as anyone could remember.

President Hosni Mubarak had been in power 30 years with the full power of the army behind him, as well as Egypt's main political force, the National Democratic Party (NDP). He kept the country under a martial "emergency law," sweeping aside human rights, so a generation of young people did not know what freedom looked or felt like.

January 25 was a Tuesday, and I went to work as normal. My NGO — the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC) — was on the fourth floor in an old central Downtown Cairo building.

We had been working on an exhibition with a Zimbabwean curator, my friend Clare Butcher, who was due to fly in that night. The show was supposed to open Sunday January 29.

But at work we were all pretty much just refreshing social media for news. Crowds were on their way to Tahrir Square, Facebook said.

I couldn't handle the suspense any more, and decided to go to the square, which was just a couple of streets away.

As I approached, I saw black police vans and row upon row of Central Security Forces lined up in riot gear.

These guys — an ever-present paramilitary police group that answers to the armed forces — were the most brutal face of daily law enforcement in Egypt.

But the atmosphere felt was carnivalesque. Teenage boys streamed past me down Talaat Harb Street towards the square, whooping. One of them turned around as he passed, jogging backwards, grinning and beckoning to me with both arms.

"Come on!" he yelled.

It felt like an invitation to the revolution.

My personal threshold was here. The decision whether or not to walk past the rows of police and into the square felt like a commitment to what would follow.

I walked on, promising myself I'd leave as soon as it looked like exits would be blocked.

Tahrir Square is normally the massive, traffic-choked, beating heart of the city. But that day, instead of cars, people were streaming in.

I found a relatively calm spot, leaning on the metal crash barriers of the sidewalk, and watched the strange pageant unfold. Cairo quickly soars to sweltering temperatures from spring onwards, but January is often cold and grey.

Crowds of overexcited young men were skirmishing with police, dragging away metal barriers, laughing as they ran away from each charge.

A man leaning on the barrier next to me — probably in late middle age — struck up a conversation. (My Arabic is only basic, but he spoke English.)

He told me proudly that his son was somewhere in the arriving protest. "I have been waiting for this day since 1972," he said.

Activism has always had a presence in Egypt, and there was a large protest against the Iraq war in 2003. But under decades of martial law it was generally a piecemeal activity undertaken only by people privileged — or desperate — enough to risk imprisonment or worse.

One of the last times the country had seen major protests was a student uprising in 1972.

"What was it like?" I asked.

"I don't know," the man said. "I was in prison."

January 26-27

Clare's view in the back of the taxi as she arrived in Cairo.Clare Butcher

Clare flew in at 4 a.m. "Clare," I said as I greeted her. "I've got some news."

When she stepped on the plane the protests had barely been more than a rumor. There was no sense that they would grow anywhere near as big as they did.

I had called round other culture organisations to see what they were doing; everyone was cautiously carrying on. So did Clare and I.

For the next couple of days, we worked as normal on the exhibition.

The internet shut down on January 27. A few floors below us, we heard word of ongoing clashes. In the streets, something hung in the air. A rumor of a curfew circulated, but did not become reality. It looked like it could all fizzle out.

Tomorrow was Friday, a weekend day in Egypt, and a day of rest and prayer.

But Friday, January 28, 2011, became known as "The Friday of Anger," and that's when the country changed forever.

The Friday of Anger

Abd El Khalek Tharwat Street, Cairo, pictured in 2019. CIC was on the 4th floor of the left hand building.Google Streetview

Cellphone and internet signal cut out early, the first sign of trouble. Without being able to contact my staff, Clare and I headed into work with my colleague and then-boyfriend  — who did not want to be named for this piece — so we could send them home.

Protests and small clashes were beginning to happen in the streets. Clare, my colleague, and I decided to stay in the building in case anyone in the streets needed shelter.

From my office balcony, we could see officers facing off against protesters at the intersection of Abdel Khalek Tharwat Street and Talaat Harb Street.

It was largely peaceful, but charged. Behind the police line we could see a gaggle of plainly-dressed men who were almost certainly baltageya: plainclothes police who were essentially hired thugs.

Their job is to beat people up on behalf of uniformed officers in a way that can never fully be blamed on the police, and could instead be pinned on other protesters.

From our vantage point, we watched people try to get past the intersection for hours. Shouts of "Peaceful! Peaceful!" came up from the crowd. The first plumes of tear gas sailed through the air.

We threw bottles of water and halved lemons down to the protesters — biting into a lemon is a good last resort to counter the effects of tear gas. Even four floors up, it began to sting.

At some point, a parley was called. The opposing lines had met outside the gas station next to our building. Any sort of pitched battle involving live fire had the potential to cause a catastrophic explosion.

Over loudspeaker, police announced to people in the buildings: if you want to evacuate, come out now.

I grabbed Clare's hand as the three of us left the building. Not 24 hours ago, she had been safely doing curatorial admin at a laptop in Amsterdam, and now thanks to me she was narrowly escaping a police siege in a country she was visiting for the first time.

But she's the most level-headed person I've ever met and I'm pretty sure she thought she was the one comforting me.

The walk to my apartment in Mounira — a shabby, formerly bourgeois district off Downtown — normally took 20 minutes. But today it took hours as we picked a circuitous path through a city in uproar.

The CSF had thrown tear gas into the metro, and as we passed Sayyeda Zeinab station, I saw it billowing out and people emerge, choking.

From street corner to side street, from coffee shop to corner store, we saw fighting at every turn. What we were actually walking through was Cairo's wholesale expulsion of the hated Central Security Forces.

When we finally reached my street, my apartment was inaccessible. There was a large, blazing barricade, and a skirmish we didn't want to go near.

We changed course. The two-minute route to my boyfriend's apartment was blocked, so it took another half hour to skirt his district and find a route in.

Garden City — a shaded, leafy, crumbling former colonial district also just off Downtown — was eerily quiet.

At the apartment, we collapsed and immediately started seeking information. Internet and phones were still down, but we found a radio and started tuning.

Crackling, popping. And then, through the fuzz: "This is the BBC World Service."

As we listened we realized for the first time that the streets outside our door had become the focus of the world's attention. People were gathering in their thousands in Tahrir Square, not ten minutes' walk away, said the BBC. 

I wanted to go and join them. My boyfriend, crossly, told me I was stupid.

When he went to the bathroom, I said to Clare I wanted to go and join them. Clare also told me I was stupid.

Clare picked up a guitar and, absently, got beautiful sounds out of it.

There was nothing to do but drink strong gin and tonics and take in the astonishing things the radio was telling us: protesters had surrounded and stormed the National Democratic Party (NDP) headquarters — just off Tahrir Square — and were burning it down. Protests were nationwide.

Mubarak's NDP party was the overwhelming controlling force in Egyptian politics, to the exclusion of any real opposition. Until January 28, anybody who wanted to get anything done had to show fealty to that system and participate in its deep-rooted corruption.

Until it went up in smoke.

January 29

The next morning, I set about getting Clare out of the country, as there was obviously going to be no exhibition.

Unfortunately, there were also no flights. Cairo Airport was chaos, with hundreds of tourists trying to leave. We split up to approach every desk. Every desk turned me away.

"Can I take a desk number so I can call back later?" I asked one person.

"We're not answering the phones," said the assistant, before being engulfed by another 20 inquiries.

But somehow Clare had charmed KLM into giving her the last seat on a flight leaving in an hour.

We said our goodbyes, and I watched her head to departures. Then she turned back, stood on her tiptoes, and over the glass barrier threw the wad of Egyptian expenses money we'd given her. There was later a run on the ATMs, so the cash was a lifeline.

My taxi passed the NDP building, still smoldering, on the way home.

My apartment was now accessible, but it was unwise to stay alone, so I went to get my cat and pack some things for a stay at my boyfriend's place. I set up a decoy in my window, made of a mop in an overcoat leaning against a chair. It looked stupid, but hey — nobody broke in.

From this point on, I began to carry a kit of essentials: A tote bag stuffed with a change of underwear, a scarf, snacks, vinegar (another teargas cure), tissues, and first aid, which wouldn't matter if it was snatched or lost. Passport, phone and cash — in case I needed to flee to the airport — were hidden on my person.

My boyfriend and I headed to the square. Something like a sit-in was beginning. We joined the protest until nightfall.

January 30

We awoke in the night to gunshots and screaming in the street. Dressing hurriedly, we barricaded the apartment and imagined terrifying possibilities.

Had total anarchy descended? Was the army beginning a massacre? I grabbed a broom for a weapon, which on reflection wouldn't have helped.

Minutes ticked by, and things went quiet. Eventually we slept in our clothes.

My boyfriend found out the next day what had happened by talking to the night watch.

The police had been chased out of view, and police stations had been ransacked. Losing their oppressive presence was freeing, but there was suddenly no rule of law — and a lot of guns unaccounted for.

Local men took it in turns to sit up at night in groups and barricade the neighborhood. One of them, it transpired, had seen a group of returning protesters and, taking them for thugs, had fired shots in the air to scare them away. Nobody was hurt.

The episode illustrated the local tensions the protests could cause.

Hundreds of thousands of people upending the social order were bound to be a headache in the streets immediately surrounding the square, and while nearly everyone agreed with the aims of the revolution, there was resentment at the disorder.

To cross from my neighborhood to Garden City, I would soon have to show my passport and answer questions from the newly formed guard.

One time I tried to keep a straight face as a 12-year-old boy with a machete gave me a grilling. His dad lightly cuffed him round the head. "Give over, idiot, she's local."

On January 30, as I picked up more supplies from my apartment, two F-16 fighter jets did a low fly-by over the square, making a thunderous noise. Later I heard people laughing at the show of power: "Oh, Mubarak's angry!" 

When the army arrived at the square in armored vehicles the day before, people appealed to the soldiers to protect them. 

The armed forces' protection was a pivotal moment.  

An Egyptian army officer salutes protesters from atop an army armored personnel carrier in Tahrir Square in Cairo January 29, 2011.Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

"Eed Wahda!" was the chant, Arabic for "one hand." The idea was that the protesters and the army had a common aim. On January 30, Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi — the head of the armed forces and a key Mubarak ally — came down to the square and was cheered. 

The armed forces' grip on the country was never truly released. 

January 31-February 10

The government announced a 3pm curfew. So that became the signal to go out.

Despite intermittent attacks on the protest, it became safer inside the square than out. The surrounding area had become sketchy, while the square was so large that it was possible to stay out of the front lines, which I did.

And as you approached the square, the roar of the people could be heard up ahead — one that did not leave my ears for months.

"The people — demand — the downfall of the regime!" went the chant. 

To enter, you showed your passport to a volunteer guard, and went into a different world.

Describing Tahrir Square in this time is difficult, because it constantly changed.

It was a site of resistance, but what is rarely explained was that this wasn't just barricades, clashes, and chanting, but, for many people it was an attempt at a new society.

It wasn't perfect. The social problems of life outside the square, like harassment, were not completely gone. But it still felt a world away.

But everyone was in that place because they dreamed of things working differently, and from what I saw they largely did. 

I have never been able to reconcile this experience with the brutal, sustained sexual assault on CBS journalist Lara Logan on February 11, and I won't attempt to.

In the early days of the skirmishes, as tear gas hung in the air, I saw a man rush into the square with a box of water bottles on his shoulder and set them down, shouting a price that was twice the normal rate. He was chased out.

People were objecting to the overwhelming power of the military state, but they were equally sick of how top-down corruption filtered into every tiny aspect of life. Price gouging was anathema.

The revolution was as much a revolt against misinformation as anything. He understood that the government would try to undermine the truth, and spread fear and mistrust.

The protest got busier in the evenings, as people joined after work, filling the square. A smaller number stayed overnight. 

Anyone with supplies brought them and shared them. Girls weaved through the crowd with trays of pastries and boxes of juice, handing them out. A few days in, a take-what-you-need shop was set up by volunteers with clothes, food, and blankets.

Later, street traders came in selling souvenirs, snacks and commemorative tat. But for several days, everything was free.

Other initiatives sprang up. Medics set up field hospitals. There were concerts, movie screenings, and public meetings. Filled with thousands of people, the place should have been a mess, but volunteers kept the square clean. They labeled the piles of trash bags: "Mubarak government grave."

People heap trash with signs on top telling President Hosni Mubarak that his government is trash and in the grave in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, Egypt on January 31, 2011.Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The place became more settled, and a tent village developed. It was not only somewhat domestic, but creative.

People who would ordinarily never go to a modern art gallery were expressing themselves in any way they could.

One man I saw lying on the ground in a personal performance he kept up for hours. He lay on the ground in a long, white galabeya — a traditional garment — with his eyes closed, holding a sign inscribed with: "This is my dead body if Mubarak stays in power."

A group of media activists rerouted electricity from the lampposts and set up a tent to collect cellphone footage and photographs from the thousands of people willing to give it.

That project became the media collective Mosireen, which still hosts an archive here.

On February 2, I asked if I could help. An organizer said I could become a digital mule: take data cards home and upload the videos on them to YouTube, as a means of archiving.

As I walked down Kasr Al-Einy Street — a main route to from the square — I passed a large group of men, and something told me to stay out of their way.

I got inside and started the upload. But then I got a text message: Stay there. It's not safe to come back. Something's up.

That's how I escaped the most dangerous night of the encampment, which became known as The Battle of the Camels. Pro-Mubarak gangs — a few riding camels and horses — stormed the encampment and tried to disperse it. Many of my friends were trapped there.

I helplessly scanned social media, and waiting for my colleague and his brother to come home were the longest hours of my life. Some time in the evening, they made it out safe. 11 people didn't. 

The apartment I was staying in had become an informal base camp, with numerous people — including me — using it as a safe haven and breathing space. There they unpacked the events of the day, slept, treated injuries, unwound.

The editor of the English edition of the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm (AMAY, Egypt Today) — a woman named Lina Attalah — used it as a place to edit in between bouts of protesting.

Egyptian press freedom was, and remains, abysmal. The papers could not ignore the uprising, but most tiptoed around it — either denouncing the protesters as thugs, or downplaying what was taking place.

AMAY was one of the papers that took more risks, and its English edition — sheltered by its limited readership — was especially unrestrained.

(Lina was later named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people.)

People in the square were warier from then. In one striking image, Christians banded arm-in-arm to form a barrier around Muslims at prayer time to protect them. 

On February 6, I asked Lina if there was anything I could do to help. Instead of handing me some copyediting as I expected, she told me to write Ahmed Basiony's obituary.

Basiony was an artist, educator, and musician whom I had met a handful of times. He went out with his camera on the Friday of Anger, then nobody heard from him for days. He was found dead in a hospital on the outskirts of the city several days later. The art community was crushed.

It is still impossible to understand that he had been killed by the state, even knowing that it happened to hundreds of others, too. Even that estimate may be too low.

I set out to call up his friends and family to write his tribute, which is archived here.

His last Facebook post said: "I have a lot of hope if we stay like this. Riot police beat me a lot. Nevertheless I will go down again tomorrow. If they want war, we want peace. I am just trying to regain some of my nation's dignity."

This, and the months and years of protest that followed, were thrilling, frightening, and inspiring. 

But as a white, British foreigner, I could opt out at any time. I could return to a country with a functioning democracy and the rule of law. I had privilege and a ticket out of there — quite literally, as I bought (but never took) a flexible flight. 

It was something that most Egyptians did not have.

February 11

On February 11, the square was hushed.

Ten days earlier, Mubarak had promised to stand down at the next election — a proposal that only increased protesters' resolve. The night before that, he tried to mollify them further, but still didn't resign.

But now a new announcement was coming. 

Mubarak's clout in the international community — which had for so long propped him up — was seeping away. Hillary Clinton, then President Barack Obama's Secretary of State, had called for an "orderly transition" of power.

Loudspeakers, radios, and cellphones all hummed with the voice of Vice President Omar Suleiman. 

And then, in a speech that took less than 30 seconds, he said it: Mubarak was stepping down.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/DxGpgi-cKBc

 

I can't remember much more than the electric joy that crackled through thousands of tired, resolute people. I only remember heading, with a gang of friends, to a Downtown rooftop bar and looking out over a newly liberated country that seemed to never stop cheering.

The bar made a lot of money that night. Every time the bartender appeared, we took up the revolutionary chant, and adapted it: "The people — demand — more — beer!"

In truth, that day in the revolution had only achieved one of numerous demands: the downfall of the dictator.

The other demands — concerning the total reformation of the country's political system — were what people fought for. In the months and years that followed, they largely did not get them.

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