The Spark: Starting the Revolution

By Ahmed Salah and Alex Mayyasi

Egypt 2

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Note: Some photographs in this piece were taken in 2012, one year following the events described here, during protests of the military government that followed Mubarak’s rule.


“Tahrir” means “liberation” in Arabic, but the symbolic value of Tahrir Square goes beyond the name. It is the beating heart not only of Cairo but of the entire nation, surrounded by symbols of the government’s power: the headquarters of the regime’s political party and of the Arab League, a major mosque where state funerals take place, and a massive bureaucratic building called the Mugamma. Egyptians have rallied there in protest since the days of British rule. Western businesses have also left their mark on it: enormous billboards top the surrounding apartment buildings, fast food chains line the sidewalks, a Ritz Carlton is under construction, and the old American University in Cairo lies at the southeast end of the square. A three-lane traffic rotary fed by seven streets dominates the central space; the entire square has a surface area equal to 10 American football fields. On its northern edge stands the Egyptian Museum, where on a normal day tourists line up for hours to see treasures like the burial mask of King Tut.

Yet January 25, 2011 was not a normal day. Around 4 p.m. I gazed up at the iconic pink stone of the museum as I approached Tahrir — with 6,000 other Egyptians marching all around me. When we entered the square, we realized we were entering a battlefield.  Several people joining our rally told us that security forces had blocked the nearby 6th October Bridge spanning the Nile. Police were fighting to keep a similar-sized crowd on the other side of the square from crossing to our side. Dense smoke clouded the square, but I could make out the hazy forms of protesters and a dark tide of police opposite them.

Very few of the people around me had been to a protest before, let alone the sort of violent confrontation this was sure to become, and yet with a yell, they charged forward without hesitation. Spreading out into the open space, they sprinted four or five hundred yards to the frontlines halfway across the square, all the while ducking the stones and tear gas canisters that rained down on us. I remember thinking — even as I huffed and puffed in the back — that this was the scene I had always dreamt of seeing. And now I was seeing it.

Image: Alex Mayyasi

Image: Alex Mayyasi


What Protests?

As an activist, I spent nearly a decade working both independently and as part of a number of popular movements to overthrow Egypt’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power since 1981. I focused on nonviolent protest and abstained from politics. Protest shook the foundations of Egypt in 2005 and 2008, but the following years had been empty of promise. One of our bitterest moments had come just months earlier when we witnessed the most corrupt elections in Egyptian history. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party swept parliamentary elections through a process so rigged that no effort was made to hide the fraud. When one member of my family went to the polls, he discovered that he had already voted — his ballot had been fraudulently cast for the ruling party, an all-too-common occurrence. Many Egyptians will tell you that they never had to vote because the government did it for them. Other polling places were marred with violence.

The consensus view among Egyptians was that Mubarak was grooming his son Gamal to take his place, which would turn Egypt into a hereditary dictatorship. This blatant corruption offered a rallying point around which to focus our anger against the regime. Inspired by the Jasmine Revolution in nearby Tunisia, in which 28 days of popular protest led to the downfall of longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, dissidents set the date of January 25 for similar protests in Egypt. It was a purposefully ironic choice. January 25 is a national holiday that celebrates Egypt’s once admired but increasingly despised police force.

Despite the success of our Tunisian brothers and sisters, there was no guarantee of success. In mid-January, I spent an entire afternoon posing as a journalist, walking up to people in cafés around Cairo to ask if they were going to attend the protests on January 25.

The most common reply: “What protests?”

After a decade of struggle, I knew better than to expect an overwhelming response. I hoped just to get enough people on the streets for one successful rally, which would hopefully build momentum for the opposition and spur future protests.

After that discouraging afternoon, I worked nonstop to spread the word, to share the strategy I believed in, and to train new protesters. Those of us who had experience gathering signatures — most particularly my fiancée, Mahitab — set up meeting after meeting with anyone who had ever attended a protest or expressed interest in it. I met with hundreds of Egyptians in Cairo and throughout northern Egypt until I spoke with the rote consistency of a tape recording.

The night of January 24, I could barely sleep. I feared the next day would end in failure, as it had so many times before. I could see state media reporting it: they would imply that the protest’s failure showed that only an extreme fringe opposed the Mubarak regime.

I did not set an alarm for that morning. The image of an activist leading the masses, perhaps with a flag draped around his or her shoulders, is a romantic notion, but a misleading one. In truth, activists operate in the shadows. They don’t address hundreds of thousands from a stage; they meet a few people at a time in a café and tell them in hushed tones why they should believe when no one else does. An activist’s moment is not the moment of change; it is the long years when change seems impossible. We had done our best to strike a match. Now we could only pray it would catch.

The sun was already up when I finally fell asleep. I could have slept much longer, but I was awakened at 11 a.m. by a phone call from the Delta, the area north of Cairo where the Nile spills into the Mediterranean Sea. I cannot remember exactly who called, but I remember how hard it was to hear the caller from the noise all around him. Since January 25 was a national holiday, Egyptians had the day off. It should have been quiet.

He told me that protesters had driven the police outside the city and declared it liberated. Turnout is massive, he told me. Egyptians are going crazy — it’s like the city’s on fire. I was stunned. If this was the case in the small cities of the Delta, what was in store for Cairo?

Over the next half hour, I attempted to dress and go out, only to be interrupted every few minutes by phone calls from activists I knew or protesters I had spoken to over the past week. Each told a story similar to the first caller’s. One man even relayed news of successful protests in Mahalla, an industrial city that boasted a strong labor movement and history of rebellion until the Mubarak regime viciously cracked down on its dissidence in 2008. Since then, no protests had been staged in Mahalla — until four days earlier, on January 21, when we organized one in recognition of its value as a symbol of protest. That day had ended brutally after security forces arrived from five different governorates (the Egyptian equivalent of states). This time, with the whole country awakening in protest, the government could not afford to focus on one single protest in Mahalla.

With each phone call, my disbelief lessened until finally I left my apartment to join the protests. I did not know exactly where I was going. The plan I spearheaded had been to assemble and rally in side streets in every neighborhood, gaining numbers before moving to more central locations and, eventually, to Tahrir. We did not set exact times and gathering points — a purposeful move, as that would have allowed security forces to disperse the crowds before they could grow large enough to hold their ground.

Following the noise in my neighborhood of Shubra, I found a main street packed with protesters. I looked around in amazement. The crowd numbered in the thousands, chanting and clapping with more enthusiasm than any soccer hooligan or excited child. This was my neighborhood, my home, and during my 10 years as an activist I had met hundreds of people in and around the activist community. Yet the streets were filled with men and women I had never seen. And they were leading chants! As I lifted my voice to join them, I thought to myself: My God! Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you!


Image: Alex Mayyasi

Image: Alex Mayyasi

Every Egyptian joining a protest knew that he or she potentially faced arrest, and that the security forces would end the protest with overwhelming force if necessary. For almost all of the last 45 years, Egypt has lived under the Emergency Law enacted after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, banning non-approved opposition parties and street demonstrations.

In Shubra that day, however, the security forces watched from the sidelines. We had safety in numbers; if they attacked, we could fend them off. Every protest movement in Egypt over the past decade has preached nonviolence. Egyptians are generally not keen on violence (we would rather crack jokes), and we also realized that violence would only legitimize the government’s brutal methods. I had talked to many soldiers in search of sympathetic individuals who could be convinced to go easy when ordered to beat and disperse us. I knew these soldiers existed in significant numbers among the rank and file. Other activists believed and taught the same, and we discouraged people from bringing weapons to demonstrations, even going so far as to check protesters for weapons before they could enter Tahrir in the days after January 25. Our efforts largely succeeded: the people chanted, “Peaceful! Peaceful!” and told the security forces, “You are our brothers.”

We spent the next four hours marching through the streets of Cairo. Everywhere we went, we attempted to recruit more people to join us. Microbuses packed with passengers nudged through the masses of people in the roadway. In street cafés, people drinking tea and playing backgammon looked up in amazement.

“Join us!” we shouted. “Come on! Come on!”

Most stared back in shock and disbelief. But over the course of several hours, we attracted some 2,000 more spirited Cairenes, until we numbered five or six thousand.

We had never achieved a turnout like this before, and I could tell that almost everyone in the streets that day was attending his or her first rally. A few people waved improvised protest signs, but there were no choreographed actions — nothing like the tactic of placing a sticker reading “Enough” over the mouth, which had introduced our opposition movement Kefaya (“Enough” in Arabic) to the world in 2004. A few minor opposition parties like the Socialists and the Nasserists handed out political literature, but they were few in number and largely ignored. The Egyptians who walked the streets of Cairo with me that day had never demonstrated any interest in political activism until they had seized on this opportunity to challenge the status quo.

Though most of the individuals may have been personally new to the cause, the protesters that day resembled those who had come out for rallies over the past decade. Most were middle class and educated — in my experience, the demographic most ripe for building social movements. Only about half of the women wore hijabs (headscarves), and very few men sported long beards or wore traditional galabiyyas (long, loose robes). Over the next few days, Egyptians from all cross-sections of society would join the protests. But from the start, the movement had a secular feel. Among those present on January 25, very few suffered from the ambivalent embrace of democracy offered by Egypt’s religiously conservative politicians and organizations.

Despite their lack of experience, these protestors showed the passion of lifelong activists. I vividly remember a young woman leading a crowd in chants. I had never seen her before, and I never saw her again. She maintained a powerful presence difficult to accomplish without training or practice. She wore a red scarf and struck me as a nice, young girl — the type of girl who comes from a good family and introduces herself with a shy smile. But on January 25, 2011, she was a thundering revolutionary.

“Down! Down Mubarak!” she screamed, as dozens echoed her and much of the group picked up the cry.

Over the course of an hour, we haphazardly made our way south, where we found more security forces waiting for us. In Bolak Abou El Ela, the downtown area separating Tahrir Square from my neighborhood of Shubra, we marched toward masses of security forces in the hundreds. Yet even there we provoked no response. We outnumbered them by more than 4 to 1.

The rally could have entered Tahrir at that point. Although many protesters had joined what appeared to be a small, local rally, rather than planning to occupy Tahrir Square as activists intended, it was the logical destination. But security would not be as forgiving in the square; we could not arrive alone. Other groups were coming from throughout the city, but as Shubra is very close to Tahrir, we were bound to be among the first to arrive. I figured the others would need more time. Waving my arms like a madman, I pointed away from Tahrir and yelled as loudly as I could.

“Come on! This way! This way! Back to Shubra!”

I was lucky: the crowd followed my lead. By circling back to Shubra before finally going to Tahrir, we bought another two hours for the protests to grow.

Image: Ahmed Salah

Image: Ahmed Salah


Meeting Our Friendly Neighborhood CSF

When we entered Tahrir, I immediately took shelter behind a fence, looking for projectiles coming my way before rising up to throw stones at the lines of security. Our rally from Shubra seemed to have arrived at Tahrir at a critical moment: Police had swiftly retreated, and by the time I caught up, they had already withdrawn from the center of the rotary, moving back across the street. The fence sheltering me separated a courtyard on that side of the square from the roundabout.

Arrayed before us were ranks of the Central Security Forces (CSF). Western journalists often refer to them as riot police. In a sense, this is accurate: The CSF, like the French gendarmerie, perform police functions that require a heavy presence. In practice, the CSF functions as a tool of repression.

There’s a popular joke about the CSF: An army officer greets a group of new recruits. He says to the group, “All of you who can read and write: move to the left.” He waits for his order to be obeyed, then says, “All of you who can’t read and write: move to the right.” Again he waits, and then adds, “You idiots still in the middle: you are the Central Security Forces.” The lower ranks of the CSF consist mostly of young, undereducated Egyptian men performing their obligatory military service, likely to follow orders without question. They tend to believe the regime’s rhetoric about defending Egypt from American-Israeli plots and the foreign agents behind every opposition group. The officers wear visored helmets and cheap imitations of bulletproof Kevlar vests. They always carry shields and batons, but their weapons can include tear gas, water cannons, and shotguns loaded with rubber bullets, birdshot, and, sometimes, live ammunition.

Fighting raged on and off for the next two hours, and we had the good fortune to face only batons, tear gas, and water cannons. This did not indicate restraint on the part of the CSF, though. Soldiers in the forces often beat protesters mercilessly. Commentators discussing the Arab Spring have compared our tactics with those of Mahatma Gandhi. As an activist, I would never advocate for an opposition movement that tries to kill soldiers or to destroy government buildings. But I would also never advocate for the type of civil disobedience that meekly bears blows from the regime’s thugs. We all knew that we had to fight. We broke up rocks — plentiful among Tahrir’s cracked sidewalks — to use as ammunition, and yet we urged each other to break them into smaller pieces and to avoid aiming at the head. Those fighting us are still human beings, we reminded each other.

We were not being overly idealistic. Many of the CSF privates were just as scared as we were. At one point, as the sun began to set over the fighting in the square, I helped escort a group of security forces out of the battle. They yelled, “We don’t want to fight. We just want to pass.” These 20 young men were fulfilling their compulsory military service. They had no desire to fight their fellow Egyptians. We made a human ring around the men and escorted them out of Tahrir. “We are your brothers,” we told them.

Afterwards, I retreated to the roundabout in the center of the square and collected my thoughts for the first time. It seemed that if we could hold the square for three or four days, it would be a real revolution that could not be ignored. I looked around at the thousands of Egyptians with me in Tahrir fighting and screaming as the tear gas and rocks flew around them, and I cried.

Protesters in Tahrir, 2012. The man’s poster reads: “Down, down with the military government! Egypt is our nation, not a military camp!” The woman’s continues: “The army has no place in politics.” Image: Alex Mayyasi

Protesters in Tahrir, 2012. The man’s poster reads: “Down, down with the military government! Egypt is our nation, not a military camp!” The woman’s continues: “The army has no place in politics.” Image: Alex Mayyasi

Perhaps the most unlikely heroes in the square that day were Cairo’s soccer hooligans. Security forces would have succeeded in dispersing the crowds from Tahrir before any momentum could build were it not for the hooligans’ efforts. Egypt has two main soccer clubs, El Ahly and El Zamalek. Both are based in Cairo, but anywhere in Egypt, asking a man which of the two he supports is like asking an American if he is a Republican or a Democrat. Each team has a group of diehard supporters called Ultras. These groups have no headquarters or formal meeting places, because the Mubarak regime was so worried about people organizing for political purposes that it banned almost every type of social organization. Leaders of charities and even yoga classes received threatening calls from state security for the same reason.

Yet the regime’s concern regarding the Ultras became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pushed underground, the Ultras developed a durable, dispersed, well-organized network, using their cell phones to raise money (to buy fireworks, banners, and other supplies) and to organize rallies in support of their teams — rallies that the regime condemned but failed to prevent. They also numbered in the tens of thousands, hated the CSF for trying to control them and for treating them like low-class scum, and had a culture that lionized fearlessness and determination.

In other words, the Ultras’ involvement in politics would be the government’s worst nightmare — so I dedicated hours to lobbying for them to show up at the protests. I contacted them through friends and acquaintances, mostly over the phone, and tried to speak their language and to make the most of their rivalry. I told those that supported Zamalek:

Guys, El Ahly said that they are coming to the protests and that they’ll beat the shit out of security. They also said you’ll stay home like wusses. If you don’t come, you’ll never be rid of the shame.

I then told the El Ahly Ultras the exact same thing about Zamalek. And by that point in time, there was just enough mention of protests in independent newspapers, street campaigns, and online for them to think that it could all be true.

Once in Tahrir, the Ultras brought the confidence of a group that had challenged the CSF before, and they spearheaded our defense. In this strange fight, the only way to make progress was to force the adversary to cede ground, denying them rocks to use as ammunition. Yet we also needed people on the frontlines to keep security from beating us into submission. I could not be one of those people, and neither could the thousands of Egyptians attending their first rally. With my health problems, I stayed near the back, breaking up rocks and throwing the occasional stone. When security advanced through the rocks to force us back, it was the Ultras who rushed forward to take the blows and push the soldiers back. I am not a soccer fan, but I am a huge fan of the soccer fans. It’s not a stretch to say that the Ultras saved the revolution that day.[2]

As protesters continued to fill Tahrir with the Ultras leading the way, we pushed the CSF further and further back until they were forced out of the square. They retreated down Kasr Al Aini Street to the parliament buildings. At 6 p.m., we realized that security forces had new orders to hold their fire. They ceased shooting, throwing rocks, and surging toward us. We responded in kind, and an uneasy truce began. The CSF remained stationed in several streets around Tahrir, but they made no effort to attack protesters and even let people pass through the streets freely. The one exception was Mohammed Mahmoud Street, which led toward the fortress-like Ministry of Interior building. None of us were naïve enough to think that they would leave the square to us.

Image: Alex Mayyasi

Image: Alex Mayyasi

My suspicions about the truce were confirmed in, of all places, a Pizza Hut. When the truce began, I entered the Pizza Hut located across the street from the former American University in Cairo campus, with the hope of refilling a bottle of water. The store was closed, but the doors were open. I snuck to the bathroom on the second floor, where I expected to find nothing but a few dirty trays and the smell of pizza grease. Instead, I discovered the temporary operations room of the Central Security Forces.

Roughly 20 officers were reclining in their chairs, each playing the role of the nonchalant tough guy. My heartbeat quickened as I opened the door to the bathroom. On the far side of the room I could make out the Director of Security for the Cairo governorate, General Ismail il Shaer. I had encountered him numerous times, beginning in 2005 and 2006. Those years were especially charged for the opposition movement, and we had hoped that Shaer would be more reasonable than the despised director he replaced. We were disappointed; many of my friends bore bruises or worse as a result of his orders. As I left the bathroom, I worried I’d hear him bark my name and be caught on the stairs. I kept my head down and left as quickly and quietly as I could. Once my concern for being caught dissipated, I began to worry about what they could be planning.

Back with my fellow protesters in the square, I shared my conviction that our most important task was to hold the square overnight so that we could establish a permanent presence. Exhilarated and incredulous, we asked ourselves: Were we really here, turning back the feared Central Security Forces? I received triumphant phone calls from Alexandria, Mahalla, and Suez. I heard for the first time what would become the trademark of the Arab Spring: “Ish-shab yurid is’at in-nazam,” the crowds chanted. “The people want the fall of the regime.” First heard during Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, the chant became a staple in Egypt and then throughout the Arab World — from Morocco to Bahrain to Syria.

But we had been here once before. In 2003, we held Tahrir Square — albeit with fewer numbers — until security forces turned off the streetlights at night and dispersed us in the resulting mayhem. As the square darkened that evening in 2011, I imagined myself as General il Shaer. What would I do? Looking around the square at dusk, the answer was obvious. I would wait until late at night, when most people would leave the square to return to their families or escape the cold. Then I would attack the remaining protesters with everything I had.[3]

Protesters and spectators mill around the edge of Tahrir Square. On the right is the Pizza Hut where Ahmed discovered the field headquarters of the Central Security Forces on January 25, 2011. Image: Alex Mayyasi

Protesters and spectators mill around the edge of Tahrir Square. On the right is the Pizza Hut where Ahmed discovered the field headquarters of the Central Security Forces on January 25, 2011. © Image: Alex Mayyasi

I could foresee the enactment of General il Shaer’s plan, but I could not prevent it. Telling cold and tired protesters that an all-out attack was imminent did not strike me as a promising way to keep people from returning home to their families. So I did one of the only things I could think of: I urged people to buy onions.

Over the years, I had learned to use the acidity of onions or vinegar to neutralize the effects of the alkaline-based tear gas preferred by the CSF. It helps you stand your ground and relieves the stinging pain of the gas. I never left my apartment for a protest without a small onion or an emptied perfume bottle filled with vinegar — so I had an onion in my pocket that day. But I doubted people would rub onions and vinegar on their faces based on advice from a stranger. So I sought out people I knew from past protests, counting on them to recommend the tactic to their friends.

There was one final thing I could do: contact the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was by far the largest and best-organized opposition group in Egypt. It is both a social and charitable organization and an Islamic political party —though the party’s status was unofficial as the government had not given it permission to form a party. (Nevertheless, a number of Muslim Brothers held seats in parliament as independents, and the Brotherhood’s political ambitions were never in any doubt.) It had nearly half a million members organized into a tightly knit and hierarchical structure.

In the days preceding January 25, the Muslim Brotherhood announced that they would not participate in the protests. But that evening in the square, I encountered Mohammed il Gebba, a friend of mine who was part of the Brotherhood. He was, to the best of my knowledge, one of only three Brothers in Tahrir at that point. Mohammed told me that the Guidance Council that led the Brotherhood had decided to meet after they learned of the turnout for the protest, and he put me on the phone with one of its members.

“We’ve come this far,” I told him. “But people are tired and leaving. We will be attacked and driven out after midnight, and this will end.” I did not see eye to eye with the Brotherhood, but I told him that a CSF victory would be in neither of our interests; we would lose our chance to end Mubarak’s reign. “But if you strengthen our lines,” I said in conclusion, “we will be able to hold the square, and bring change to the country.” He told me that he would share my point of view with his colleagues.

As the night grew colder, we called Mohammed’s contact on the Guidance Council several times without success. Finally at 10 p.m. he picked up. The Guidance Council had ended its meeting, he told us. The Brotherhood would not bar its members from attending the protest, but it would not officially participate. We were on our own.

“Silence is not for us.” Image: Alex Mayyasi

“Silence is not for us.” Image: Alex Mayyasi

The Mastermind

The attack from the CSF came shortly after midnight. Tahrir’s streetlamps were shut off, and the yellow light from the bulbs faded into darkness. Police surged from positions south of the square — which they had maintained for nearly six hours — firing rubber bullets and tear gas canisters. The large masses of protestors from the afternoon were gone, and only small, scattered groups of them remained. We were quickly overwhelmed. The lack of wind, initially welcomed as a blessing in the chilly night, became our enemy; there was nothing to disperse the gas. With Tahrir lit only by the surrounding buildings hundreds of yards away, visibility in most of the square was reduced to mere feet. I saw protesters fleeing in every direction, and I could only try to head away from the “pop” of tear gas canisters being fired.

While we sought safety in the side streets and alleyways of downtown, state security hunted us. Hunted — that is the only word that describes it. With billy clubs, rubber bullets, and water cannons, officers assaulted protesters both inside and outside Tahrir. Everyone who fell was arrested; injuries were ignored. I made several attempts to team up with other protesters and re-enter the square, but we never lasted long. The force was overwhelming, my onions of little use.

I eventually joined a group that returned to Shubra. Not all neighborhoods in Cairo welcomed protesters, but Shubra was a friendly place. Its middle class population was educated enough to understand the country’s problems and to see through the regime’s propaganda, but they were more inclined to challenge the status quo than the upper class was.

Despite our losses, we continued to protest with a group of almost 2,000 people. We had been in the streets for over 12 hours and fought state security for more than three. Our enemy was there again, looming in a dark formation on one side of the street. Now numbering only 50, the officers stood and watched as we yelled “Down! Down, Mubarak!” and “The people demand the fall of the regime!”

It was a short reprieve. At 2:30 a.m., fully packed CSF vehicles sped towards us, driving the wrong way on a one-way street. Stopping twenty yards away from us, officers unloaded their weapons from the trucks with precise and organized movements, faced us, and began shooting teargas and shotguns loaded with rubber bullets. Skirting the line of fire, I ran up to the soldiers, and started yelling, “Why are you doing this? We left the square. We are peaceful. This will all die down soon. The people will get tired and go home.”

This was not true, of course. I had been on the phone all evening with other activists to coordinate a return to Tahrir.

A police officer launching a canister of tear gas shouted back at me, “Haven’t you heard? A police officer was killed in Tahrir today!” His response implied that this legitimized any CSF brutality. Before I could retort that I had heard no such thing — it was most likely a lie told to rile up the security forces — a voice barked in my direction.

“Grab that son of a bitch.”

The voice belonged to head of security for that part of Shubra, a hard man I knew from past rallies and negotiations for the release of imprisoned activists.

“So, it’s you here,” he said, marching into view and somehow looking down at me despite needing an inch or two to match my height. “I will teach you a lesson that you will not forget for the next forty years.”

He ordered several security members to “discipline” me. A cop grabbed the glasses off my face and smashed them. Three others joined him in punching and kicking me, throwing me from one to another. This barely registered at the time; I felt little pain and was uncertain about what was happening. Once deemed sufficiently broken, I was thrown into a white microbus. At this point, I assumed that security had arrested me at random. I would learn later that they had a warrant for my arrest on charges of “masterminding a plan to overthrow the regime.” Autocrats always give dissidents extra credit.

“Down with the military regime!” Image: Alex Mayyasi

“Down with the military regime!” Image: Alex Mayyasi

Like any Cairene, I had ridden microbuses countless times, but this was my first time being arrested in one. Cairo sits at the center of a sprawling metropolitan area of 18 million, served by only two subway lines. What keep the city moving are the microbuses: thousands of ubiquitous vans packed with as many as 25 passengers each. (Imagine an airport shuttle van in the U.S., designed to hold 12 passengers but crammed with twice as many, and you have the idea.) Anyone can hop on or off — passengers literally hang off the side when it’s crowded — for a few cents.

Sitting with my head against the cool glass of the window, I slowly regained my senses. I searched for my wallet and cell phone, but I found only my phone. When I pulled it out, blood dripped onto it. My nose was broken, my clothes bloody. Security saw the phone in my hands and demanded that I turn it off, and I did. They wanted to take it, but I asked to keep it until we arrived at the police station. After checking that it was really off, they relented. My only explanation for this is that they still fancied themselves professionals.

Every few minutes another bruised and bloodied protester joined me on the bus. Security officers did not stop hitting their captives as they loaded them in. Only one man seemed to have escaped a beating. Most remarkable was a well-dressed young woman crying near the front of the bus, terrified. She reminded me of the determined girl in the red scarf chanting “Down! Down Mubarak!” — looking like she belonged in a modest home reading a book, not in a dingy microbus full of sweating, bleeding men in the middle of the night. The CSF men kept calling her a whore and a prostitute as they hit her on the back of her head. When the bus filled with prisoners, a driver entered and started the engine. The only sound was of our breathing, as any attempt to speak invited more kicks and slaps from the police.

The one small mercy of the night was that the officers let the young woman leave the bus before we reached the Rawd el Farag police station. The rest of us were not so lucky. Entering the building, we received the customary greeting — a few slaps and kicks. But I was used to it by now. I smiled and joked that they were pulling their punches. “Salaam aleikum,” I said as each blow landed: “Peace be with you.” I had more luck with the man assigned to escort me to my cell. “I’m coming with you,” I told him. “You don’t need to be so hard.” He stopped hauling me up the stairs and walked with me toward the cells.

Image: Alex Mayyasi

Image: Alex Mayyasi

A day that began with exuberance ended with the cold reality of the Mubarak regime: pulverized bodies, broken spirits, and incarceration in a grimy and overcrowded prison. For hours, we stood in silence, listening to the sound of our own breathing and the occasional whisper or moan of pain. I offered a few words of comfort to a man I recognized, a battered lawyer in great pain. Otherwise I did not speak. The cells were so full that the police were forced to lock many of us in the hallways. Every five to ten minutes, the gun of a microbus’s engine marked the arrival of new prisoners. We heard the scuffle of state security hitting them in the hallway and welcomed more prisoners into our midst. One hundred busloads must have arrived by dawn: up to several thousand people.

Therein lay our one consolation. The masses of prisoners indicated that security had been very successful in capturing and arresting us. But it also suggested that great numbers of people were still in the streets, and that the protest would persevere through the night. Even if I did not see it, maybe it would be a real revolution.




No Empty Streets:
Egypt’s Next Chapter

Read Alex Mayyasi’s exclusive update following President Morsi’s removal in July 2013

Image: Alex Mayyasi

Image: Alex Mayyasi


Adapted by the authors and The Brooklyn Quarterly from Ahmed Salah’s upcoming memoir.

Ahmed-Salah-HeadshotwebAhmed Salah has been an activist and member of Egypt’s protest movements since 2001, and was a founding member of Kefaya (the Egyptian Movement for Change) in 2004. He is currently the Coordinator for the Coalition of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution in Egypt, and working to found an NGO, the Activism Research Center, in the U.S. to help activists worldwide in the struggle against tyranny. He is also the recipient of the Center for Justice and Accountability’s 2013 Champion of Justice Award.


Alex Mayyasi is a writer at in San Francisco and the co-founder, with Ahmed Salah, of the Activism Research Center. He is a graduate of Stanford University’s International Relations program, where was a former editor and contributor to The Claw Magazine. From 2011 to 2012 he lived in Cairo, and worked for a local non-governmental organization supporting human rights and civil society through the use of new media.

[1] Alex Mayyasi: “There was little to no communication between online organizers and those on the street, and they disagreed in terms of tactics. Overall, there was and still is a disconnect between street activists like Ahmed and “keyboard activists” like the bloggers of the Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said” (which also played a primary role in organizing the Jan. 25 protests).”

[2] Ultras have also been key in the recent protests sweeping Turkey, where they instantly united against the regime despite their traditional club-based rivalry. See analysis by Dave Zirin at The Nation.

[3] Ahmed Salah was quoted in a blog post by Guardian correspondent Jack Shenker that night, hours before the CSF attack:

Drums were banged and fires started as night moved in; having established their lines, hundreds of security forces stayed put and kept their distance, although alarmingly police snipers were seen to be taking up position on nearby buildings. “They are waiting for numbers to dwindle, and then they will switch off the street lights and charge,” warned Ahmed Salah, a veteran activist.

“We must hold Tahrir through the night and tomorrow, so that every corner of Egypt can take us as an inspiration and rise up in revolt,” claimed Salah. “It’s a matter of life and death now – what happens over the next 24 hours will be vital to the history of this country. It’s a very emotional moment for me.”

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