I DELAYED POSTING THIS BLOG ENTRY BECAUSE THE POLITICAL CLIMATE HERE WAS TOO RISKY. NOW WE CAN SPEAK.
Last Friday, January 28, 2011, I was in Cairo's Tahrir Square headed for the university campus. There were hundreds, maybe more than a thousand, police wearing riot gear standing holding up shields. The university buildings and fast food restaurants in the area of the square were closed. I waited in the vestibule of a building that was open along with a few Egyptians and a couple Chinese journalists. There were other spectators standing in buildings around the Square watching. Here are a couple photos I took that morning.
One Chinese journalist who was standing with me said one of her media crew had her camera taken by the police. I heard another journalist had their camera smashed on the ground. I saw someone I assume was a camera person (because he had a large rectangular-shaped shoulder bag shaped like a TV camera) being lead away by the arm by a plain clothed police officer. I saw another person being arrested and lead away by two other plain clothed police officers, each dragging him by an arm.
While we were standing there, we saw two times when a few hundred police marched away in a hurry in one direction then another point where 5-8 large personnel carriers drove out of the Square in another direction. I later saw TV coverage of hundreds of police facing masses of protesters on the bridge headed toward Tahrir Square, so I assume one of the police departures I saw from the Square was headed there.
After about an hour, the Square emptied out quite a bit. One of the people I was standing with in the vestibule of an open building, an older Egyptian man named Mohammed, motioned that he was going to walk out of the Square and invited anyone else in the doorway to go with him. I said I would go with him, so off we went. We walked through the police barricades and past the riot police leaving the Square. Here's a photo I took the block after we left the square.
After walking some blocks out of the square, we encountered numerous groups of hundreds of protesters trying to get to the Square from different streets. Mohammed and I were trying to keep to the periphery of the protest groups, but then things changed. The police started shooting tear gas at the protesters and the hundreds of protesters in front of us started running toward us. We ran too.
Mohammed and I took shelter in various buildings when this happened. Mohammed didn't speak any English but his Arabic was immensely helpful to me because he could talk quickly to the men in the doorways of buildings who would then let us in when the teargas got bad. Protesters took refuge in some of these buildings too, especially after the police started shooting protesters with rubber bullets.
There were about 8 or so of us taking shelter in one building. Three women came in coughing and coughing, trying to get out of the tear gas, as did a few men. They were holding clothes or anything they could find over their mouths. One man who stumbled in looked awful and was having trouble breathing from all the coughing. He sat in the corner. I gave him my water bottle which he drank some of than passed to another man who was coughing from the gas.
An injured man was helped into the vestibule by other protestors and he lay on the floor for a while. We could hear the shots of tear gas being fired (-- sounds like a muffled loud boom). There were at least 10-20 shots consecutively at one time and other sporadic shots at other points.
Things calmed down after 5-10 minutes. After the women and the young man had recovered somewhat, they returned to the streets.
I went outside to take some photos, but the gas was so thick in the air it burned my eyes after a few minutes and I went back into the building. Someone handed me a white mask to cover my mouth, but the tear gas was very hard on the eyes. I couldn't believe hundreds of protesters were still in the streets, reconvening after running from the tear gas shots, and still trying to walk to Tahrir Square.
When things were calmer for a little while, protesters came up to me out in the street to show me shell casings, injuries they sustained from rubber bullets, and tear gas canisters which said "Made in the USA".
Mohammed and I started walking down the street and within a couple more blocks, there were more demonstrators running away from police shooting tear gas and rubber bullets. Mohammed talked to people working in a wicker furniture-making shop and they agreed to let us come in along with some protestors running away. Here is a photo of a man who came in with us after getting shot with a rubber bullet.
Here is a photo of Mohammed, who stuck with me on Friday helping me get off the street when it wasn't safe.
After we left this shop, Mohammed was trying to help me find a Metro to come home, but all the metro stations in that area were closed so we had to keep looking. It was hard to get out of the center of town because so many streets were filled with tear gas or had protesters marching peacefully one moment, then running from tear gas the next.
I did see a couple men in the group of protesters throw rocks at the police after the tear gas was being shot at the group. Everything else I saw that day from the protesters marching in the street was peaceful.
At one point I thought we were in a safer zone, then we saw one of the police tank-like vehicles zooming down the road swerving in the direction of protesters then firing teargas at them. Here's a photo I took after I ran into a convenience store in a gas station.
Here's a photo I took while running.
After about 15 minutes, we ventured out again in search of a metro stop for me to get home. We had to walk quite a ways because all the metro stations in that area were closed. As we walked, we came upon some police vehicles that had been burned.
At one point we saw a building on fire. As best I could understand from the broken English of people talking to me on the street, it sounded like they were saying that the police had fired something into the building where occupants had been throwing bottles of water down to protesters. Whatever was shot into the window of the building then ignited. I didn't see any of this first hand; I only came upon the scene when it was burning as in this photo.
About fifteen minutes after seeing that building, we saw a taxi cab go by. I tried to get it to stop, but it wouldn't stop. Then another taxi went by with people in it. A few of the young protesters stopped the cab and convinced the driver to take me in the front seat even though he had passengers in the backseat already. I got home right about when the curfew took effect, though I didn't know anything about a curfew being imposed when I was downtown.
I later heard that protesters did get to Tahrir Square later that night and that things were peaceful in the Square as they stayed overnight. There have been protesters in the Square all day and all night, every night since Friday. Tahrir Square, which translated into English means "Liberation Square", has a great deal of symbolic value and has been the focus of demonstrations.
After the day of police activity that Friday, the police withdrew from the streets and the protests altogether and went to the Ministry of the Interior. It's my understanding that they were there all day Saturday and part or most of Sunday, but I didn't go there. That was a site of a lot of violence over the weekend.
Meanwhile, late Friday night the army moved into Tahrir Square and set up their tanks at every entrance to the Square. Since the army is well-loved by every Egyptian I've talked to (and it seems perhaps the whole population), the protesters in the Square were very pleased to have the army there, believing the army would protect them.
Until the horrible events of today (Feburary 2), the protest in Tahrir Square has been peaceful.