On Friday, 11/18/2011, I traveled to Tahrir Square, which is about two metro stops from my apartment in Dokki. There was a huge Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood presence on Friday; the entire Square went silent during prayer time as men laid out large prayer mats and performed ablutions. To my displeasure, there weren’t many women whom I could see in Tahrir, but the general atmosphere there was calm and peaceful, which I hadn’t necessarily expected. I received none of the harassment I expected to see as a woman in Western dress with short hair (a rarity in Cairo); I did, however, dress a little more conservatively than usual–long sleeves and pants with a kifayya hanging to cover my chest area. I had heard about Lara Logan, the 60 Minutes reporter who was brutally physically and sexually assaulted in February, and was afraid to go to the Square in such a large crowd of people, especially one consisting of thousands of men with few women in sight. Anyway, I stayed at the Square for awhile taking pictures and then left.
On Saturday, I heard on the news that a small group of protesters had decided to stay and occupy the Square. The Egyptian military had been trying to change the Constitution here to prohibit civilian government oversight, and Egyptians started to realize that they weren’t the guardians of the Revolution, but the opponents. During the Revolution last winter/spring, the Egyptian people and the international community had praised the military for exercising restraint in the Square and not harming protesters. Now, it seems, many Egyptians had realized that the military wasn’t going to give up the massive concentration of power it’s had a sole claim to for decades. All of Egypt’s past presidents had advanced far in the military before becoming president, because the military had de facto control over the flow of politics and civic life here (Mubarak himself became Commander of the Air Force in 1972). Once the military riot police started to use violence against protesters, thousands more came to occupy Tahrir. I don’t understand why riot police frequently decide to use such force on small groups of protesters; it seems, almost without fail, to bring many more people (think of Anthony Bologna, pepper spraying peaceful protesters in NYC).
I went to Tahrir on Tuesday to assess the situation for myself. I got off of the Metro at Sadat Station and walked through the tunnel to get to the outside. There were many men, women, and children selling gas and face masks. I would estimate that about half of the people I saw donned some sort of mask, and I had a scarf in case I needed to protect my face from tear gas. A lot of Egyptians brought their young children to the Square, which surprised me. Most babies had a mask over their face as well. At first, I thought that the parents were just being overcautious, as the military was not in the Square itself, and without the military, the chances of being pepper sprayed seemed slim to none. But once outside, my eyes started to water and feel irritated. At first, I thought that I was getting sick, but the three friends I went with confirmed that their eyes stung as well. The military had used so much tear gas that the remnants stuck to the pollution. Hours later, my eyes still burned. I had never seen anything like this in my life. At some points in the day, I could also see smoke billowing up from streets nearby, which filled the sky in several directions. I’m assuming the cause to be Molotov cocktails or something similar, but I can’t say for sure.
I walked along the street for a bit and started to hear sirens coming. Several men ushered me out of the way, while hundreds of protesters (including many, many women) linked hands, one line of people on either side of the street, to allow the ambulances to get through, in addition to the motorcycles carrying injured protesters to the field hospitals set up inside the Square. Most of the violence was a couple of blocks away where a smaller group of protesters was clashing with the Security Forces. A lot of the men I saw carried to the field hospitals looked unconscious or seriously injured; some of them needed four people to carry their dead weight. The military claims that it had only been using tear gas (made in the USA, of course), but from what I’ve seen, it is unlikely that all of these injuries were caused from being hit with tear gas canisters.
On another note, to my delight, I saw both male and female doctors in the Square, and a group of women was handing out medical supplies. I think many Westerners might have the impression that the only women who went to the Square were the more ‘liberated’ ones (in their opinion, the women who choose not to wear the hijab, a discussion I don’t want to get into in this post), but most of the women I saw were wearing hijabs. There were some, of course, who were not, and I also saw a fair amount of women in burqas.
Unlike the protests on 11/18, there was clearly an atmosphere of devastation in Tahrir. Many Egyptians were crying, either in pain or mourning. Thousands had been injured by this point in time. I almost felt dirty for being there, as if I were witnessing something private and intimate that I should not be intruding upon. Despite this, I was glad to be there, and it seemed that many Egyptians were happy to see foreigners there, as well (I only saw a handful of other foreigners the entire time I was there). Many Egyptians secretly took pictures of us on their phones, perhaps to prove that they were not alone in their fight, and a few even asked to take pictures with us holding up an Egyptian flag. We all gave the peace sign in our photo. It was really nice. I hope that I can share my experiences with all of you at home, and that perhaps through writing I can gain some insight into my experiences here.
Pictures that I took can be found here.