Home » World News » 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.
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.
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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.