Revolution Revived: Egyptian Diary, Part Two
Granta, 7 December 2011
The second and last installment of Wiam El-Tamami’s diary of the ongoing turmoil in Egypt. Read the first part here.
Monday 21 November
On the metro home, a man (one of State Security’s many informants?) was swearing that he’d just been at the midan and that there was nothing going on, that it was all lies. The people sitting around shouted him down, saying they’d seen the videos with their own eyes, police beating and shooting, setting the square on fire, dragging a dead man into a rubbish heap. Suddenly the whole carriage was ablaze with conversation, everyone talking about Tahrir, and the consensus was that the police are the same as they have always been – brutal and merciless – and that it had to stop (though there was no mention of the hallowed army’s role in the bloodshed). The man got off the metro, silent and sheepish. The revolution was once again at a rolling boil, and we were reaching that point when people were once again behind us. I felt somehow in alignment with things, at rest in a way I hadn’t felt in a long while. Today I had been exactly where I was meant to be.
Abdalla got shot in the night. A live bullet hammered through his right leg, shattering his shin bone. While he was down, they shot him twice more with birdshot pellets, one in his shoulder, one in his thigh.
Tuesday 22 November
I’ve never seen the square so charged as I did on Tuesday. It was a little after midday and there was none of the milling around that characterized even the headiest days of the ‘first’ revolution. In January and February there was the humour, the signs, the rings of song and dance, the explosion of creativity, the smiles and sense of camaraderie. Today people were marching, chanting, stony-faced and resolute. By late afternoon it was packed, one of the most crowded days the square had ever seen.
We’d marched to the midan from Mustafa Mahmoud mosque, along the same route marches had taken on the 25th and 28th of January. We chanted Yasqut Yasqut Hokm Al-‘Askar – Down Down With Military Rule. We chanted Fil Tahrir Fi Nas Betmoot – People are Dying in Tahrir. We chanted Horreyya! – Freedom! – four rhythmic claps and arms stretched wide into the air.
We called on onlookers to join us, asking why they were silent: had they got their rights, did their brothers not die? The reaction was reassuring. A lot of people had come out to watch, some cheering us on from their balconies. When we chanted The revolution was once again at a rolling boil, and we were reaching that point when people were once again behind us. Inzil! Inzil! (Come out! Come out!) a young man at a window pointed to the baby he was cradling with a smile and a shrug, but pumped his fist to let us know he was with us in spirit. Many stood on the pavement, filming the march with their cameras and mobile phones. Some faces were inscrutable, but I sensed none of the hostility or disdain that constituted the usual reaction to demonstrations in previous months. By the end of the march, our numbers had swelled.
We went to the hospital to see Abdalla. He had been brought in the night before, but had to wait eight hours to go into surgery. Ambulances screeched in front of the Accident & Emergency entrance nonstop, hauling in scores of critically injured protestors from the square, but the ones who would die if they were not operated on immediately – the ones who had been shot with live bullets in the head or chest – had to be seen to first. He waited in a line in front of the operating theatre – one out, the next one in.
It was a relief to see that he was still able to smile and joke, despite being dizzy and nauseous from the anaesthetic, despite the two metal plates that were now in his leg and the long weeks of recovery to come. I was amused at how, even under these humbling circumstances, this gawky man-boy maintained his strangely princely manner. ‘Excuse me, I’m about to vomit,’ he would announce before leaning over the side of his bed and doing so carefully into the bin; and, ‘I bid you goodnight’ in an ironic classical Arabic, before his eyelids drooped down.
As we left the hospital a small crowd had gathered around the television in the lobby. Tantawi was giving a speech. No admission of responsibility for the bloodshed; he’d ‘accepted’ the puppet government’s resignation; the elections would go on as planned, despite calls for a postponement, despite the fact that many parties and candidates (but not, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood, who were conspicuously absent from the demonstrations) had suspended their campaigns in protest. His eyes were sunken, his voice higher-pitched than I had imagined. I realized I’d never heard him speak before. There were lines lifted word-for-word from Mubarak’s first speech ten months earlier, the familiar weak protestations that he had never sought power. We’d played this tired game before – best of three? I was happy to see that everyone watching was waving him away in disgust. A middle-aged woman called out at the screen, ‘You’ll go too, just like the one before you, you’ll go.’
Two young men outside the hospital’s front door were giving out cloth masks. Even a couple of miles from the midan, the effects of the tear gas were felt, and as we got closer our skin began to sting, our eyes to stream. We walked in, trying to get away from Mohammad Mahmoud, to a place where we could catch a breath, but the gas seemed all-pervasive, even deep into the square. The cloth surgeon’s masks were no good now: we fumbled with our black plastic masks, strapping them on and trying to inhale as we picked our way through the landscape strewn with people stumbling around, faces red, eyes streaming, some coughing and gasping for breath. I felt nauseous. The strange thing was no bombs had been fired directly into the square, and there was none of the white smoke that accompanies them. Some said it was just the wind blowing the gas our way, but it felt too persistent to be a gust of wind. A girl, tears coursing down her face, was saying, ‘This gas is different, I swear, it’s different even from yesterday’s.’ A woman told a man that she was five months pregnant, that she had been helping out in Mohammad Mahmoud, and her doctor had just told her that the gas she’d inhaled could cause serious harm to her baby. Hala suddenly felt weak: she seemed barely able to stand and complained of stomach pains. We walked her out of the midan, along Kasr el-Nil bridge, to put her into a taxi home. Along the way we saw a teenage boy passed out, his friends crowding around him. At first they were trying to revive him with water and pats to his cheeks, but as his face began to turn blue, they scooped him up, clumsily, all limbs, and rushed off in the direction of the field hospital.
When I got home I stripped off everything I was wearing, including socks and underwear, and rolled it all into a ball. I pushed it into the washing machine and took a shower. Then I went online. On Facebook and Twitter people were talking about the gas. I read an article that claimed that the metro ventilation openings scattered throughout the square had been used to disseminate it. A friend of mine had set Even a couple of miles from the midan, the effects of the tear gas were felt, and as we got closer our skin began to sting, our eyes to stream. up a task force to investigate this new gas. He suspected it might be CR – a carcinogen, banned in the US for riot control, lethal in large doses. ‘The U.S. military classification for this chemical agent,’ I read on Wikipedia, ‘is combat class chemical weapon causing serious side effects for humans.’ My smiling profile picture seemed incongruous with the increasingly grim news. The following day two friends would report coughing up blood, and a doctor at the field hospital in Tahrir – a young woman named Rania – would go into a coma and die when the hospital was directly hit with round after round of the gas.
All night long I thrash around. Into my dreams seep thoughts of toxic gas, and I wonder, in a paranoia that half-sleep magnifies, about my hair, long and tangled and snaking around me, my hair that I have not washed because it was late and cold and I was tired, about my hair contaminating the pillow and sheets and the covers I pull over my head.
Wednesday 23 November
It has become normal for a friend like Hala to turn ferocious, suddenly, on the phone, saying God curse them all, God take revenge, before I used to have a bit of sympathy for the lower-down officers but just look at the facts – one side is fighting for a cause, the other beating and shooting and brutalizing and for what? Just to follow orders? They’re monsters just like their bosses, their hearts are just as blind.
For some reason I don’t feel anger.
The hospital again, then back to the midan. Word on Twitter is that they’re arresting people around the entrance closest to us. We buy medical supplies but distribute them among our backpacks instead of carrying them in boxes and plastic bags. I remember now the image of medical supplies confiscated and thrown into the river in early February, I remember how people were detained for carrying even large quantities of food in the vicinity of the square. We have to plan our entrance carefully. We take a taxi, then veer off left just before the entrance, and get out to walk through the back alleyways. We jam on our gas masks, mine is too tight and choking me, but there was no time to mess around with it. We walk to the first field hospital on the way. We’re about to offload all our bags when a doctor appears. That’s enough, he says, taking just a few bottles. He says it’s better to give a few bottles to each of the field hospitals if they need it, and asks us pointedly keep the rest with us until tomorrow. ‘Otherwise they will be abused,’ he says in English. I’m not sure what he means. The square feels strange, threatening. It’s only 10 p.m. but it feels far too late to be outside. We stumble through it, breath short, eyes blind with gas-tears, and it feels like a warzone, huge piles of rubbish, the haze of gas and bonfire smoke, young men with bandaged heads and arms in casts lying on the edges under thick rough blankets, sirens, sirens, the incessant scream of ambulance sirens, and as we go down into the underground, hordes of young men are coming towards us, heading the opposite way up to the square, young guys in goggles and cloth masks and gas masks, some with scarves covering their faces, looking like an advancing army.
Thursday 24 November
The fighting stopped on Thursday. Five days too late, the army decided to build a concrete wall on Mohammad Mahmoud to separate the two sides, as though they, too, were not a party to this. The Minister of the Interior denied that a single bullet had been shot, rubber or live. A press conference with two members of the military junta took place during which they made similarly ludicrous statements. The Confederacy of Dunces. Tantawi appointed as new puppet prime minister a man called Ganzoury who had been prime minister in the nineties, during the Mubarak era, presiding over an honourable roster of corrupt ministers, many of whom were now in jail. Twitter was awash with jokes at the seventy-eight-year-old’s expense: the hashtag immediately assigned to him was \#GanzouryTimes. A group of activists relocated their sit-in to the cabinet building to protest the appointment of a puppet minister to a puppet government. On Thursday morning one of them was run over by a Central Security armoured vehicle.
Friday 25 November
Over the weekend the square became carnivalesque again. Fireworks were set off, their sharp cracks making me jump, my heart hammering in my chest, until I realized what they were. Too raw, still, too close. The march that morning was led by Ahmad Harrara, a young dentist who’d lost his right eye on 28 January, and his left eye on Saturday, 19 November. I saw several young men in the march with a bandage secured to one side of their face, covering one of their eyes. Again, the eyes, again and again, they shoot for the eyes. I had an image of a whole generation of young men wearing eye patches; our children will see them in the street and know why. The Kasr el-Nil Bridge that leads to the square is flanked by a pair of large stone lions on either end. On Friday someone had covered the right eye of one of the lions with a big white bandage.
Talks about a civilian council or national salvation government to replace the military junta were underway and had been for days, but the politicians dithered and dallied in their back rooms. Tahrir was once again howling, and Tahrir was once again leaderless, but this time it did not work to its advantage.
Monday 28 November
On Monday I woke up in a rage about the elections. This past week, new life had been breathed into our revolution, but for that to happen, for public anger to have reached that second tipping point, there was a great pool of blood – ninety dead, at the last count, and eight thousand injured. And now it has passed, and nothing has happened. Now it’s all last week, and people have forgotten. The regime still stands, monstrous and unapologetic. They have fed us this sham of an election, knowing that the span of our collective memory is – for those who are trying to roll the tape backwards, to trap us in an eternal loop of déjà vu – mercifully short.
On Monday I read about the big turnout for the first day of the elections, thousands of people standing patiently in hours-long lines. I read the words ‘hope’ and ‘optimism’, I read about a sixty-year-old woman holding her pinkie aloft, proudly purple-inked, saying this is the first time she has ever voted in her life. I don’t know where the tears came from, but out they poured. I felt like a top that had been twisted tight for one long week, and had suddenly been sent spinning.
Tuesday 29 November
On Monday I raged, and on Tuesday I went to vote. My instinct had been to boycott, and I still feel that was the strictly moral choice. My decision was a response to the call from some activists for the need to fight this battle from within the political arena as well as on the streets. There was also the argument that the only people who were considering a boycott were the liberal revolutionaries, whose chances at a political stake were slim and would not bear further erosion. In any case, I went to vote. It was uneventful. My electoral committee was virtually empty. I looked at the huge ballot paper with its incongruously childish candidate symbols (mango or dustbin or pistol?) and chose The Revolution Continues. I made my mark, going over it several times with my pen, the ink pooling thicker and darker.
I know it’s far from over. I know it will take years. I know, I hope, that things will not go back to the way they were, that we will not succumb to the magic sleep-dust. But I just wonder. I did not know any of the people who died in January and February. It’s getting closer, you see. Every wave will be more violent, will radicalize people who were once far from the front linesDuring the Maspero massacre in October, a young man died whom I later found out to be a friend of a friend. Last week two of my friends were wounded, as well as many more people I know. It’s getting closer, you see. Every wave will be more violent, will radicalize people who were once far from the front lines, as the bullets become no longer an abstraction but real steel in the limbs, the eyes, the heartflesh of their loved ones. I remember on Sunday wanting to ask Hani if he was not afraid to die. At some point in the week I began to understand, and the question became moot.
Two days ago a shipment arrived at Suez port from the United States, consisting of 7 tonnes of tear gas, with 14 more on the way. Today it made its way safely to the storage facilities of the Interior Ministry in Cairo.