Excerpt: 'Generation Revolution: On the Front Line Between Tradition and Change in the Middle East' by Rachel Aspden


From The Eighteen Days: The Revolution Begins

monday, january 24, 2011

Amr had seen the news from Tunisia, where the dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s twenty-one-year rule had just been swept away by protests, and read the Facebook calls for action in Egypt. But in the five years he’d lived among Cairo’s bloggers and activists he’d seen too many protests spring up and fizzle out not to be skeptical. He was certain not much would happen on January 25. Probably, he thought, no one would turn up. At most, a handful of the same activists would get themselves tear-gassed, beaten or arrested, as usual.

Less than a month earlier, he’d been celebrating New Year in his hometown of Alexandria when the city’s largest Coptic church was bombed.1 Twenty-three people were killed and ninety-seven wounded, most of them worshippers. The state alternately blamed “foreign elements,” al-Qaeda, Gaza-based Islamists and Mossad-trained Egyptians for the attack, but rumors spread that the interior minister, Habib el-Adly, was himself involved. One of the injured was a Christian university friend of Amr’s, whose wife and toddler daughter had been killed instantly. Amr and another Muslim classmate tried to visit him in the state hospital where he lay, severely burned,“Welcome,” his mother told them formally, not meeting their eyes. Amr could see in her face that she blamed all Muslims for her loss.

When they left, Amr’s classmate rolled his eyes in disgust. “Did you see how cold she was with us? These Christians are impossible to deal with!”

Amr felt like the earth was giving way under his feet. With ordinary Egyptians turning on each other, he saw no future for the country at all.

Now, listening to his Christian colleagues talk about the protest, he thought with a lurch of surprise that he might be wrong. Amr had always considered Copts politically passive— fearful of Islamists, obedient to their pope, conciliatory toward the regime. Today, they were bolder than he’d ever seen them.

“We’ll go out and demonstrate tomorrow,” they were saying. “This time it’s different, something is really going to happen. Especially if people go in large numbers.”

No you won’t, thought Amr automatically. But he thought that if even Christians were willing to take to the streets, many people might go out to protest for the first time.

Mazen was sitting in a street cafe in Nasr City, drinking endless glasses of tea to ward off the bone-chilling desert cold and playing poker with his college friends.

“Do you think anything will happen?” the young men asked each other as they hunched deeper into their jackets. They had also seen the sites calling for protest: We Are All Khaled Said, where 300,000 people had said they would participate in the demonstration; the new citizen journalism network Rassd; a video made by an ex–police officer who’d written a book called How to Avoid Being Hit Over the Head—a guide for civilians in how to deal with the police—then fled to America.

Their friend Mahmoud, a youth member of the Muslim Brotherhood, dropped in to say good-bye. The Brotherhood had officially stated it would not take part in the protests, but Mahmoud had been told by his superiors that he and other youth members would be on the streets tomorrow.

“Are you really going to do it, Mahmoud?” people were asking as they slapped him on the back.

“Nothing will happen,” others were saying. “Egyptians are cowards, they won’t do anything.”

tuesday, january 25

International clients awaiting delivery of IT projects didn’t care that the Egyptian government wanted to celebrate its police force or that Egyptians wanted to protest against them, so Amr went to the office as usual. After work, he sat watching the TV coverage of the protests. For months, he’d been looking forward to a rare break, a desert camping trip due to start the next morning. He still didn’t think that the protests would be significant enough to cancel it.

Mazen fell asleep at dawn and woke just before the noon prayer. Online, he saw a livestream of crowds pouring through Cairo’s streets. They were shouting “Enzel, enzel!” “Come down, come down!” beckoning to the people watching, agog, from their balconies to join them. He had never seen anything like it. He fumbled for his mobile and called his cousin.

“We have to join them!” he said. “We’ll never forgive ourselves if we don’t.”

The young men dressed as the websites advised them, using tactics gleaned from the protests in Tunisia—a big coat, a scarf around the neck for tear gas, and scarves wound around their arms under their coats to protect themselves from baton blows. They bought cans of Pepsi, emptied them out and filled them with vinegar, which they’d read was the best thing to use against tear gas. They didn’t know, yet, that the Pepsi itself worked better.

Under the emergency law, protest was strictly illegal, and his uncle and older brother both shouted at them not to go. On the bus, Mazen and his cousin sat separately, in case state security stopped it and found them with their scarves and cans of vinegar. The winter afternoon was short and they arrived in Tahrir Square only ten minutes before the dusk prayer. It was the first protest Mazen had ever seen and he thought the crowds looked small, ringed by rows of riot police. I never thought I was the kind of guy who’d be in a protest, he said to himself.

When the call to prayer came, they knelt on the tarmac of the square. The police, living up to their godless reputation, tear-gassed them while they were praying. Mazen, feeling proud to be so prepared, soaked his scarf in vinegar and wrapped it round his nose and mouth. He had seen tear-gas attacks in the movies—people simply tied bandanas over their faces and carried on as normal. He didn’t understand what was happening when he found he couldn’t breathe or see. Blinded, he ran in weaving arcs through the square, panicking. Around him he could hear people shouting to each other, “Rinse with water!” “Don’t rinse with water!” “The vinegar doesn’t work!”

But some demonstrators—members of the protest movements Kefaya and April 6, Muslim Brothers, students and the fanatical football fans that Egyptians call the Ultras— had faced the riot police before. When Mazen’s eyes cleared, he saw they had captured a shield, a helmet and a baton from a policeman and were brandishing them as trophies, throwing them from hand to hand across the square. Now, they were celebrating their own courage, drumming on lampposts and chanting an old revolutionary poem:

Real men are real men and cowards are cowards And us real men are gonna stay in this square!

Between the moments of drama, the square was oddly calm. When the tear gas dissipated, street vendors filtered in from their refuge on the Nile corniche a few blocks away, sliding round corners like cats till they were sure it was safe to sell newspapers and snacks to the protesters. Some good-looking, long-haired boys and girls Mazen thought looked like liberals started playing the guitar and singing. He saw the middle-aged opposition journalist Ibrahim Eissa walking about, saying loudly, “Our demands are all written down!” He was acting like a leader, but it didn’t look like anyone was paying attention to him.

In the lull, Mazen and his cousin went over to speak to the police conscripts, thin, dark-skinned boys of their own age with rough country accents. They had no idea how to control a crowd or police a big urban protest, and they looked scared and angry.

“Do you really like Mubarak?” they asked them. “Do you like the state this country is in? Do you like being forced to beat your fellow Egyptians?”

Hearing them, the officers screamed at their men—“Don’t speak to them! Sit down on the ground and await orders!”

The conscripts couldn’t reply, but some of them grimaced meaningfully and Mazen knew they were on his side. Mazen thought, Now they will never hit us or gas us, now we’ve talked to them.

But soon after midnight someone gave orders for the police to clear the square and the riot police obediently advanced with their gas and batons. Around Mazen, the protesters scattered in all directions. Forgetting to feel frightened, he thought they looked like cockroaches fleeing an insecticide spray, running into the side-streets off the square, choking on the gas.

When he finally arrived home, all his friends were sharing a video from the day’s protests. A young man stood small and defiant in the path of an advancing water-cannon truck, his hands on his hips, looking like he would stop it with his willpower alone. It reminded Mazen of the famous image of a man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square. “Geda’, geda’,” screamed the onlookers on the video. “That’s a real man!”2 The protesters were encouraging other Egyptians to “man up”—to demonstrate their masculine credentials by taking on the regime. But despite the macho rhetoric, women were participating in the demonstrations as equals. Shared between thousands, then tens of thousands of users, the video was helping persuade both men and women that the protests meant something, and that they should join them.

wednesday, january 26 – thursday, january 27

On Wednesday morning, Mazen’s friends called, asking him to come out and protest. His eyes still red from the gas, Mazen felt afraid. The official holiday was over and everyone had gone back to work and college until Friday, the first day of the weekend.

“If there aren’t many of us, I won’t come,” he told them. “On Friday there’ll be more people. I’ll come out then.” He ended up joining them anyway, but it wasn’t like the previous day. He saw a few people waving banners in the crumbling elegant side-streets of downtown Cairo, and a couple of hundred protesters bunched on the steps of the journalists’ syndicate, hemmed in by ranks of riot police. They were chanting in standard Arabic, not Egyptian dialect, “The people want the fall of the regime!” It was the chant from the protests that had brought down the Tunisian president. Now, Mazen realized, the protesters wouldn’t be satisfied until Mubarak was gone.

The electric word “thawra,” revolution, was spreading online. People had hardly dared hope that they could emulate Tunisia’s success, but now it was starting to look possible. They knew that Mubarak, who had been a close friend of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaus¸escu, executed by the army during an anti-communist revolution in 1989, was terrified of his own military turning on him. “This is the fate of all dictators!” they reminded each other online.

On Thursday Mazen stayed at home, following the news online. The Rassd website said protesters were gathering in Talaat Harb Square, but the police couldn’t find them. Then they were in Simon Bolivar Square, then in Abdel Moneim Riad Square, but the police couldn’t find them. Afterward, his Brotherhood friends told Mazen that this was a long-planned strategy to tire out the riot police. They would keep protesting in small groups, moving rapidly from place to place, all day every day from January 25 to the big marches they knew would happen on January 28, Friday, the traditional day of protest in the Arab world. I’m naive, Mazen started to realize.

I’m just into Life Makers and community work, but these other Islamists are politically organized. Amr Khaled, the head of Life Makers who Mazen and his friends had respected and trusted so much, still hadn’t said a word in support of the protests. Mazen realized, bitterly, that Amr Khaled was afraid of the regime.

friday, january 28

The whole country was braced for “the Friday of Anger,” the huge anti-regime protests that were expected, and Mazen’s older brother had already forbidden him to leave the house. During the night, the government had cut off Internet services and shut down mobile networks. It showed, Mazen thought, just how out of touch and literal-minded the regime was—if young people were sharing protest material on the Internet and over mobile phones, it thought that the solution was to just pull a plug and cut the entire country off from the world.

Early in the morning, Mazen slipped silently out of his family home and joined a group of young men from Life Makers, heading to the protests. The plan was for protesters to gather at major mosques around Cairo, pray the communal Friday noon prayer, then form marches that would converge on Tahrir.

Like most Cairenes Mazen stuck to familiar areas of the huge city, and it was the first time he’d ever been to the middle-class district of Mohandiseen on the west bank of the Nile. He found the mosque where they were due to gather ringed with riot police. The friends couldn’t break through, so at noon they knelt to pray on the street outside, shaking out the rugs they’d brought with them both to pray on and as extra padding against the beatings they expected later.

When the march started, snaking down streets Mazen didn’t know, the wealthy people of Mohandiseen came down from their apartments to join them. There were girls with perfect makeup and their hair curled like film stars, carrying perfume against what they imagined was the horrible smell of tear gas. The actor Amr Waked came out and Mazen heard people shouting his name. People were shouting “Come down! Join us!” to spectators on their balconies, and the march kept growing. There were rich people, ordinary people, doormen, street sellers. With the protesters near him, Mazen shouted “Salmiyya, salmiyya”—“Peaceful, peaceful.” They passed a small knot of riot police, who looked afraid. The officer called to them, “I won’t hurt you! Just don’t hurt us!”

Half an hour later, the attack started. Mazen and his friends ran to a side-street, upwind of the tear gas, and took shelter behind a kiosk whose owner had fled. He saw people taking bottles of Pepsi, against the gas, from the kiosk’s fridges and leaving the money for them on the counter. Then a gas canister arced over their heads into a flat overlooking the street and flames began licking from the windows. Enraged, protesters started to throw rocks at the police. Behind Mazen, an empty police transporter parked in the side-street caught fire and exploded. It looks just like an action movie, he thought as he ran from the flames.

The march pressed on, the young men kicking away the tear-gas canisters that kept flying toward them, to the bridge over the Nile that led to Tahrir Square. Mazen’s friends were lost, swirled away in the powerful surges of the crowd. Mazen forced his way to the side of the march, next to the railings, so that if anything happened he could jump into the river.

The bridge felt so long that day. The police had begun to use rubber bullets, shooting marchers in the legs. A man rolled up his trousers to show his attackers the wound and shouted, “My father was a martyr of the October 6th war with Israel, and look what you’re doing to me.”

Then they were face-to-face with the ranks of police on the bridge, looking into each other’s eyes. Mazen saw a young conscript, his face twisted with hatred, screaming at the marchers, “You’re the losers, we’re the winners, you’re all going to jail and you’ll never get out.” He saw a protester talking to a helmeted officer who was holding his hands over the man’s ears to protect them from the boom of the tear-gas guns. People were still shouting “Peaceful, peaceful.” The hours stood still until the afternoon prayer.

The crowd on the bridge was packed as though they were in the metro at rush hour. Mazen pushed his way back to the side and knelt to pray. When the police opened the water cannon on them as they prayed, at first people laughed and joked—“Thanks guys, now we have water for our ritual ablutions.” Then a strange silence fell. The rows of police opened and a water-cannon truck raced straight toward the protesters, trying to scatter them.

Suddenly, Mazen found himself in the front row of the crowd. Time slowed. He thought, I’ve seen this in Medal of Honor, on the PlayStationa guy with a rifle, moving his head around to take aim. His eyes locked with the police marksman’s and Mazen realised He wants to kill me. He turned and ran and ran.

While he was running, he broke down. He saw a young protester with a rubber bullet in his throat, fighting to breathe, a horrible heaving sound struggling from his open mouth. Mazen stumbled to the ground in horror, picked himself up and ran on, sobbing.

He ran to the end of the bridge and into a side-street on the island of Zamalek. His clothes were soaked from the water cannon and he had no idea where he was. In Nasr City or Heliopolis he could take care of himself, but here he didn’t know anyone or anywhere. He sank into a patch of grass, crying hysterically, thinking, When they come I’ll hide in the long grass and they won’t even know I’m here. Suddenly, a foreign journalist with an interpreter was standing over him, wanting to interview him. Mazen held up his hand to show he couldn’t speak, tears streaming down his face.

He limped across Zamalek, seeing protesters coming from the poor districts across the river. They didn’t have Pepsi or elegant scarves against the gas, but pieces of onion or coal, and dirty rags. He saw riot police resting with their boots off, so exhausted they had lain down in the street. Suddenly, he just wanted to go home.

But on the metro, he thought again. This was a battle, and Islam forbade believers, on pain of hellfire, from fleeing a battlefield. It was time for him to prove himself a real Muslim. At Mubarak, the station below Cairo’s central train station, he left the train. Clouds of smoke were billowing along the passageways and squads of teenage protesters were running through the station, calling to male passengers, “If you’re a real man, come and join us!” Their masculinity at stake, the commuters followed them sheepishly. Seeing how organized and disciplined the boys were, Mazen recognized them as Muslim Brotherhood.

Outside the station, he saw lines of police trucks retreating, carrying riot police away from the center of the city. People were bombarding them with broken bricks and paving stones that rattled off the sheer metal sides of the trucks. On the other side of the road, a line of tanks was advancing, soldiers waving from their turrets. People were screaming ecstatic greetings to them and throwing them flowers that had appeared out of nowhere. Mazen thought, The army has come, it’s the Tunisian scenario, we’re saved. He knew that without military backing there was no way Mubarak could stay in power. No one found it strange that the army had come to safeguard the people’s revolution. Egyptians grew up on heroic stories of the revolution of 1952, when the Free Officers had overthrown King Farouk. Mazen thought, Now we’re victorious, I can go home.

He started walking toward north Cairo, passing kids playing in the street and shouting, “The police are gone, we kicked them out!” A middle-aged man looked down from his balcony and saw Mazen, soaked from the water cannon, coming home.

“Weren’t you afraid?” he shouted admiringly, as if to a hero. “I didn’t have a choice,” Mazen replied hoarsely. He had lost his voice from the gas and the crying and the shouting.

But he felt proud.

The Internet was still cut, but on the TV, at home, he saw police vehicles burning in Tahrir, the army taking over the state TV and radio building at Maspero, and the hated NDP building, the headquarters of Mubarak’s ruling party, ablaze. Then he saw that a second march had come from working-class areas over the bridge where Mazen had run away, and forced its way into Tahrir. Mazen thought, These guys were like—Forget “peaceful,” these sissies from Mohandiseen couldn’t do the job!

Amr and his friends were marooned in the remote Western Desert on their camping trip, following the news as best they could on a radio. They jeered when they heard that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had condemned the protests and called Mubarak to express his support. “No Arab and Muslim human being can bear that some infiltrators, in the name of freedom of expression, have infiltrated into the brotherly people of Egypt to destabilize its security and stability,” the king had stated. The region’s other defenders of the status quo had rallied round the Egyptian president. Mahmoud Abbas, from the Palestinian Authority, had also called Mubarak to “affirm his solidarity with Egypt and his commitment to its security and stability.” And the Israelis had called, and been reassured by Mubarak that “this is not Beirut and not Tunis.”3

Amr’s friend Khaled was furious. He was a veteran activist and had attended every protest against Mubarak for the last ten years—except the one that really mattered.

“It’s all because of you,” he screamed at Amr. “I told you it would be different this time, I’ve wasted this golden opportunity!” “Calm down, there will be a lot more fights after this,” Amr told him, “and you can attend all of them.”

But Khaled wouldn’t be comforted. In the middle of the desert he protested by himself, standing on a big rock shouting the chant from Tahrir—“Irhal!” “Leave!”

Excerpted from Generation Revolution: On the Front Line Between Tradition and Change in the Middle East by Rachel Aspden, published by Other Press on 7 February 2017. Copyright © Rachel Aspden. Reprinted by permission of Other Press.

Photograph by Lilian Wagdy.