Ahdaf Soueif’s Cairo: Remembering A City Wracked By The Arab Spring
On the anniversary of Egypt’s Arab Spring, novelist Ahdaf Soueif remembers Cairo in the aftermath of Hosni Mubarak’s downfall.
There are an estimated eight thousand people that the police, the military, and their baltagis have injured to a point where they are not able to resume their normal lives. Sami Emile is a young geographical surveyor. He had just married the woman he loved, a lawyer. They owned their apartment. His life was set. The army smashed his leg, and he now drags it behind him and has to pay for the physiotherapy that just about keeps it from withering away.
I met him at the Coptic Hospital when I went to visit the Maspero injured. His leg had been smashed—not in Maspero but in an earlier clash with the military in March. He was just visiting. He was incredibly gentle. Soft-voiced. His eyes kept filling with tears as he asked why. Why was all this happening? As I was leaving, an older man who was very ill with a bullet in the stomach called me over. I sat bent close because he was whispering to me. He said, “If you can do one thing, do it for Sami. He’s the one who needs it most.”
Another: Randa S. is a nurse. The doctors in the field clinics always got her to do the stitching because she was so good at it. On 28 January she was suturing the heads of the shabab, and a Central Security Officer beat her so badly that she was paralyzed. In fact, he would have killed her, but she stabbed him in the hand with her needle. She’s in the rehabilitation unit at Agouza Hospital—the one where we took Abu Mustafa’s testimony on 2 August—and she’s giving them hell. She’s in a wheelchair but has got back the use of her arms, and she plays revolutionary music and organizes her fellow injured.
Some of the injured are still fighting, and some are broken, but all need long-term provision. They need a plan; they need jobs that they can do and that can support them. The majority of them are responsible for households. One of the things that this revolution has revealed is how many young people—young men especially—support parents, how many have dead fathers and look after their mothers, how many fund their sisters through college or weddings and need to see them settled and safe before they can carve out their own lives. A lot of their injuries—particularly the people shot in the eyes—could have been rectified. But after they were given emergency treatment in the field clinics, they—if they were lucky—went into our abysmal public hospitals. Many doctors opened their clinics and treated people for free, many doctors came from abroad to help, but there was no system in place to ensure that patient and doctor found each other. In fact, there was no official will to take care of them at all. What care some got was philanthropic, through individuals and civil society actions. The government, under SCAF, was content to issue statements—crass at the best of times—about compensating people to the tune of
X for a leg and Y for an eye, or—with more enthusiasm—about how imposters were trying to take advantage of the government’s generosity and posing as injured.
Some of these injured had started a sit-in in Tahrir on Friday, 11 November, to demand that the government give them medical and practical provision. General Fangari of SCAF—he who had performed the military salute to the shuhada in February when the military promised to “safeguard the revolution”—now scoffed:
Let them go to the Midan with their demands. See if it’ll do them any good.
A week later, on Friday the eighteenth, hundreds of thousands of us went into Tahrir to insist that elections had to happen on the twenty-eighth and to demand that SCAF set a date for a handover. Manal was one week away from the due date of her baby, and despite everything—despite Alaa in jail, her furniture in cargo from South Africa, her fl at topsy-turvy, and the nursery unfinished—she was radiant. Laila was on day fifteen of her hunger strike, and people—hundreds of people—came up to talk to her, to put their arms round her shoulders, and to kiss her head. I stayed close by, pestering her with my concern. “Listen,” she said, “I really feel the same as in the days when I used to eat.” Fifteen days without food, and the only change I could register was that her voice was more quiet. She submitted to some organ function tests set up by Lulie, and they seemed okay, but I was worried. I tried a tangential approach: “Isn’t it hard for Alaa knowing you’re on hunger strike?” “No,” she said. “That’s our relationship: we trust in each other’s strength.”
And it was Alaa’s birthday: today he was thirty. His friends brought a giant birthday cake to the Midan, and we all lit sparklers and sang happy birthday to him in front of the Mugamma3, in the area where once again the families of the shuhada and the injured were congregating.
Tahrir was back. SCAF’s attempt to control the writing of the Constitution had galvanized everybody, and the call to protest had gone out from all the parties, the coalitions, and the movements. The Midan and the streets surrounding it were full, spirits were high, people were in a good humor, the Ultras were out in force, and the sky was lit up with their fireworks. The plan was that everyone would leave at the end of the day, and most people did. But as usual, when the shabab are in a position where they feel they’ll be abandoning the injured or the shuhada families, some of them can’t do it. Around two hundred people decided to stay.
Next day, Saturday, Central Security Forces moved. They tore down some tents of the sit-in and set fire to the others. They beat the injured. Supporters rushed in to Tahrir to help fight them off, and by nightfall, when I went down to the Midan, there was gunfire and smoke and tear gas and hundreds of Security Forces with guns and sticks and hundreds of protesters hitting back at them with stones. The military stood by. From time to time they covered the Security Forces.
The Security Forces always entered Tahrir from Muhammad Mahmoud Street; this is their route from the Ministry of the Interior in Lazoghli, some seven hundred meters away. So it was on
Muhammad Mahmoud that the protesters intercepted and eventually managed to stop them. For four days the shabab protected Tahrir and held off the Security Forces in Muhammad Mahmoud.
The battle was presented by state media as “revolutionaries and baltagis try to storm the Dakhleyya building,” but what the shabab were doing was once again protecting the Midan—unarmed. Fifty meters was the distance between relative normality and war.
And the shabab taking a break from the front told us that soldiers had waved and indicated “peace” so they could change shifts and attack them again, and they told of the attacks breaking the traditional prayer-time ceasefire. A residential block caught fire, the shabab climbed to help the people inside, and Security shot them as they climbed. I learned later that Omar had come within inches of being shot when he and Aida, another young fi lmmaker, were trapped against a doorway in Falaki Street trying to hide from approaching soldiers. He turned his back to the street and covered her with his body, and they heard the soldiers come closer and closer till they came to a stop next to them. As they heard the clicks of the shotguns, she leaped out from behind him shouting, “A girl! There’s a girl! I’m a girl!” and the soldiers didn’t shoot.
At six p.m. on 23 November, I wrote:
I’ve just read this tweet: “Eat a good breakfast. Take a ruck-sack with a gas mask and swimming goggles. Write your name on your arm. Write your details into a message on your mobile. And go to the Midan.”
Tuesday was declared a day to “Save the Nation,” and people across the country once again demanded the abdication of SCAF. Tuesday night as the news cameras concentrated on Tahrir, the Army and Police were attacking citizens in other cities: in Alexandria, Assiut, Aswan, Damietta, Ismailia, Luxor, Mahalla, Mansoura, Sohag and Suez. And yet, of course, in this age of televised spectacle it was the images of Tahrir that were most relayed: Midan el-Tahrir teeming with citizens, decorated with flags, and clouded with tear-gas.
All day that Tuesday thousands had poured into the Midan. In the small hours of Sunday the little fi eld hospital in the small mosque of Ibad al-Rahman had been pleading for a stethoscope, a blood pressure gauge, betadine, cotton wool. By Tuesday afternoon there were seven fi eld hospitals around Tahrir stockpiled with equipment and medicines—all donated by the people coming in. Omar Makram Mosque and Qasr el-Doubara Church cross-referenced specialisations. On a wall between them someone had written: “We are the Midan: A Church, a Mosque and a Parliament.”
On Tuesday two hundred young doctors walked in to the Midan together in their white coats and distributed themselves among the hospitals—in a few hours one of them had been killed. The revolution is using what it learned back in January/February and adding to it. Signposts, information, directions. Young men on motorbikes ferry the injured from the front lines to the field hospitals. The spontaneous, organic organization is breathtaking. And the creativity: when Malek Mostafa—a popular, newly married young activist had his eye shot out by the Army, one of the great bronze lions on Qasr el-Nil Bridge suddenly sported an eye patch.
In a flat on the 10th floor above Tahrir we were weeping under our gas-masks, the smell was so strong. The protestors are unarmed. When the Army/Police attack them they fight back bravely, using stones from the street, lobbing back gas canisters, keeping up a constant chanting and a constant drumming on the metal lamp-posts and street-signs, occasionally shooting fireworks. The Midan is well aware of the contrast between their drumming and fireworks and the deadly thud of the teargas canister and the treacherous silence of the sniper.
We’re saying these are “ayyam el-farz”—the days of sorting. The situation is very intense. Just now, at that flashpoint on Muhammad Mahmoud where a truce was brokered at 3 and broken at 5, the Army/Police have shot the protestors at sunset prayers. The field hospitals in Qasr el-Doubara Church and Omar Makram Mosque are calling for neurologists; the motorbikes have brought in 50 cases in the last 10 minutes—
In the events that radiated across Egypt from Muhammad Mahmoud Street, 3,800 young people were injured and 42 killed in Alexandria, Cairo, Ismailia, and Marsa Matrouh. Ahmad Surour was one of them, killed on the morning of the twenty-sixth, when a police car hit him and dragged him fifty meters down the street. His mother: “When they knocked on the door they said he’s just injured in hospital I said he’s in the morgue. I know my son. My son won’t be laid low except by death. At the [Israeli] embassy he took two bullets and he never flinched. He kept them. Last night I told him: Enough. Enough! You’re lucky nothing’s happened to you so far. He said how can we be men and leave it now? My son. He helped everyone, he would help the stones on the ground if they asked, and now they’ve killed him.”
Forty-one more mothers lost their children over those four days. The young dentist, Ahmad Harara, who had lost one eye on 28 January, lost the other on Muhammad Mahmoud. Friday the twenty-fifth was declared Shuhada Friday and Last Chance Friday. An unprecedented number of citizens filled the Midan to repeat their demand for the immediate abdication of SCAF and the handing of power to an interim president. No waiting till April now. The street would accept any one or combination of three presidential candidates: Muhammad el-Baradei, Abd el-Moneim Abu el-Futtouh, Hamdein Sabahi. Chants and banners demanded the trial of Hamdi Badeen, the head of the Military Police. The anger and demands of Tahrir were replicated across the country.
But in Cairo, two alternative protests appeared. The Muslim Brotherhood declared against Tahrir and set up its own protest, at the Azhar, the seat of Sunni Islam in Fatimid Cairo. (The grand imam of al-Azhar, for his part, stepped away from this and sent a representative to Tahrir to demand the trial of the murderers of the shabab.) The Brotherhood named the day al-Aqsa Friday. The al-Aqsa—Islam’s third holiest mosque—has been under periodic Israeli attack for years, but the Brotherhood claimed they just happened to choose this Friday to show solidarity for the beleaguered mosque. The Palestinians were quick to denounce the naming and accuse the Brotherhood of cynicism and of using the Palestinian cause to undermine the Egyptian Revolution. And in Midan el-Abbaseyya, near the Ministry of Defense, the first demonstration in support of SCAF appeared. This gathering of a few hundred, presented by state TV through close-up shots as the equivalent of Tahrir, became the nucleus of the campaign for the military’s candidate, Ahmad Shafi q, in the presidential elections.
Some Abbaseyya residents said the “protesters” were mainly police and army conscripts in civilian clothes.
On Muhammad Mahmoud, the army piled up great cement blocks in the middle of the street. As with the Israeli-style wall they had built in May at the end of University Bridge, they now built one cutting across the middle of Muhammad Mahmoud, truncating the street. To protect, they said, the Ministry of the Interior from the revolutionaries. And the street miraculously transformed itself, from a somewhat characterless thoroughfare connecting Midan el-Tahrir to Midan el-Falaki, it became the spiritual home of the revolution. People came to look, to see the wall the army’d built, to take in the place where so many had fallen to protect Tahrir. A group of young artists came up from Luxor, and Mina Danial’s cross-legged angel appeared. Then groups of angels in gas masks rose from the pavement into the wall of the American University downtown campus. Pharaonic scenes, Muslim symbols, poetry, and Coptic icons—great vivid murals bloomed onto the walls. In December, when Sheikh Emad Effat fell, he reappeared on the wall of the Greek School luminous with energy. Angel wings burst from his shoulders, and from his extended hands fl owed the Quranic verse “And they said Lord, we obeyed our masters and our elders and they led us astray. Lord, double their torment and curse them forevermore.”
Later in February, when the Ultras fell, it was here that they were celebrated. The street grew plastic chairs and modest tea stands. People sat with their friends, their books, and their laptops in the company of the shuhada. The colors from Muhammad Mahmoud spilled over into Tahrir and into Downtown. General Muhammad al-Batran—killed by the police in January 2011—appeared in his police uniform with angel wings and so entered officially into the ranks of the revolution’s martyrs. Through the dark, cold winter, the walls on Muhammad Mahmoud erupted into huge images of celebration, lamentation, and commentary. The army dismembered Downtown with six more walls, and all the walls they built were turned into views from submarines, fantasy beaches, trompe l’oeils, and miragelike street scenes.
They were beaten. Just as they were beaten on 25 and 28 January, the Security Forces were beaten in Muhammad Mahmoud and retreated behind the walls the military had provided. By the end of the Battle of Muhammad Mahmoud, SCAF head Muhammad Hussein Tantawi had pledged that elections would start on the twenty-eighth as scheduled; he had accepted the resignation of Essam Sharaf ’s cabinet, and he had transferred the Maspero case from the military to the civilian courts. My sister ended her hunger strike. All talk of the people and the army being “one hand” was over, and it became mainstream to chant “Yasqot yasqot 7ukm el-3askar”—Down, down, with military rule.
From CAIRO by Ahdaf Soueif. Copyright © 2012, 2014 by Ahdaf Soueif. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.