Salma in the Square
At 33, Salma el Tarzi has never known any other leader. Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt with such ruthless authority many call him The Last Pharaoh and very few dared to do anything other than quietly comply with his administration. Criticism, dissent even whispered disagreement would risk attracting the attention of Mubarak’s henchmen, summary imprisonment, torture, even death.
Now all those years of resentment and bottled up rage have exploded. Social media has fuelled and accelerated the movement for change and a crowd ebbing and flowing in the hundreds of thousands has made Cairo’s Tahrir Square the centre of the revolution.
And there from day one, rallying her corner of the people’s protest is Salma, crying out for Hosni Mubarak to relinquish power and for democracy to take his place.
“It’s so beautiful and so ugly at the same time. Everyone in this square is walking with their backs straight for the first times in their lives, and you can see it in our posture, if we are not limping because we’ve been beaten we are walking with the posture of our heads held high.”
SALMA EL TARZI Protester, Tahrir Square
In this portrait of a revolution and one extraordinary participant, reporter Mark Corcoran follows Salma’s personal journey and her stoic, excited, expectant and at times fearful resistance.
“Personally, my fear is if it doesn’t work out I’m going to be kidnapped, I am going to go to jail and I’m going to be tortured to death, this is my personal concern and this is the concern of all the people.” SALMA EL TARZI Protester, Tahrir Square
During this challenging assignment, the Foreign Correspondent crew have had their moments in the maelstrom as well. Corcoran and his crew were attacked when pro-Mubarak mobs were unleashed on the square and later producer Greg Wilesmith, cameraman Craig Berkman and a local support staffer were detained by vigilantes and later military police.
CORCORAN: In this immense urban jungle of 18 million people, all roads now lead to just one place – Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Tahrir means liberation. (February 1) We’re here in the chaos to chart a course through this erratic revolution and to seek out those who may play a role in the future.
Well this is what Egyptians are hoping will be Hosni Mubarak’s day of reckoning. Organisers are planning for more than a million protesters to gather here in Tahrir Square to peacefully depose the man they regard as the last pharaoh of Egypt. The police are nowhere to be seen today. It’s still the army very much in control. They’re rallying everybody down these narrow channels and handing out flyers to the people saying that they have every right to protest.
And the list of grievances against President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign is long: rising poverty, outrageous corruption, rigged elections and endemic police brutality. Today the mood is more party than protest and women play a prominent role in driving this spontaneous revolt.
SALMA EL TARZI: (Crowd is chanting) “Come on! Come On! Come On! Rise up, oh Homeland!”
Until last month, 33-year-old Salma el Tarzi was an independent documentary maker.
SALMA EL TARZI: “I physically became involved on the 25th. I just saw the demonstration in the street. I went down. I never came back until now, I never went home”.
CORCORAN: She’s abandoned her camera and embraced the mantle of revolutionary, now a de facto leader through sheer force of personality.
SALMA EL TARZI: “Basically this is our group. It’s a group of people who met by pure coincidence three days ago”.
CORCORAN: They’re drawn from all walks of life. Muslim and Christians, Secular and the devout, professionals and factor workers. It was the typically brutal police response to Salma’s first day of protest, which spurred her into action.
SALMA EL TARZI: “What they do is that they shoot on the ground so the capsule explodes and then all the bb metal points they just fill your body”.
MAN IN CROWD: (showing a man’s injured back) “What’s this from? What’s this? Did it come from God?”
MAN WHO WAS SHOWING HIS BACK: “I am one of tens of thousands of people injured in this place”.
SALMA EL TARZI: “This is Hassan my brother.
CORCORAN: “Yeah and so you were hit by the police were you?”
HASSAN EL TARZI: “Yes with a shotgun”.
CORCORAN: “With a shotgun?”
SALMA EL TARZI: (showing her brother’s injured leg) “So my brother had his two legs full of bb’s. We tried to get some of them because you can’t take him to the hospital because when you go to the hospital they arrest you”.
HASSAN EL TARZI: “The Egyptian media as usual, are trying to minimise the casualties because they don’t want anybody in the world to know that they have wounded or injured so many people”.
SALMA EL TARZI: “I’m here now because it’s the first time that I think that it’s a real movement, generated by the people, not by parties, not by anyone who is running after power or after authority. It’s basically the people for the people which I belong to and for once I feel like I belong somewhere, like I belong to this. I can make a change. It’s the first time we really feel that this is our country”.
CORCORAN: The stakes are high. If people power works here, change could sweep away undemocratic governments across the Arab world.
[In the square] Well it’s now two hours after curfew came into effect and there are still huge numbers of Egyptians out here on the streets defying that order. The organisers claim that more than a million people have turned out here today, but look to be honest I’d say it’s probably much less than that, perhaps even half that number.
(Feb 1) It’s now the 8th night of the crisis. Salma is running on adrenalin.
SALMA EL TARZI: “I had a little nap here so I feel fresh”.
CORCORAN: “How could you sleep with all the noise?”
SALMA EL TARZI: “I can sleep like a baby”.
CORCORAN: Social media is the weapon of choice. Mubarak’s regime makes erratic attempts to shut down communication, but it’s too late.
SALMA EL TARZI: “We don’t have access to Al Jazeera anymore. They made a different coding for it for the 10th time and we can’t have access to it. We don’t have phones anymore. This is basically dead” (gestures to mobile).
CORCORAN: “So what have you got on your phone at the moment?”
SALMA EL TARZI: “I use it as a camera. We don’t have Internet, we don’t have Facebook and although we don’t have phones we still are coming by thousands so I don’t think his plan is working very well”.
CORCORAN: Hosni Mubarak appears on State TV and the crowd senses victory.
HOSNI MUBARAK: “The demonstrators have changed from a civilised phenomenon of freedom of expression to unfortunate confrontations, masterminded and orchestrated by political powers seeking to ferment trouble”.
CORCORAN: But there’ll be no panicked midnight exodus for the last Pharaoh of Egypt. He announces he’ll go, but not before Presidential elections in September. For those on Tahrir Square it’s a bitter reality check.
(Feb 2 – To Salma) “How are you? How was last night?”
SALMA EL TARZI: “Cold (coughing) very cold. Sorry (continues coughing).
CORCORAN: “That’s okay. Where did you sleep?”
SALMA EL TARZI: “Here. We slept here”.
CORCORAN: “And what did you think of the Mubarak speech?”
SALMA EL TARZI: “I mean this is not what we want. I think he’s starting to make one compromise after the other, trying to gain time but this is not what we want. This is not acceptable so it’s very hard for us to trust him or to believe him, we can’t even imagine if he stays until October the amount of damage he’s going to make in the country before he leaves because he’s not just going to go and leave peacefully”.
CORCORAN: Mubarak’s speech does its job, driving a wedge into the unity of the opposition.
SALMA EL TARZI: “He’s trying to divide the people. The people at home who haven’t been part of the movement since the start, are losing little bit by bit their sympathy for us”.
CORCORAN: Well it’s the morning after the Mubarak speech and the transformation here in the square has been extraordinary. Yesterday it was a party, a celebration, this morning there’s only a fraction of the number of people here and the mood is now one of fear and paranoia. As you can see, Mubarak supporters and people suspected of being Mubarak agents are being ejected from the square”.
SALMA EL TARZI: “We’ve been going around telling everyone watch out. When someone is doing this we’re going to take him out. We’re not going to use violence.
(on mobile phone) It’s my father on the phone. He’s in Kuwait. He’s telling us to watch out. He’s totally supporting us. He’s telling us to watch out”.
CORCORAN: While the police are universally despised, the army is still widely respected. They’ve taken a kind of heavily armed neutrality in this crisis as both defenders of the state and protectors of the demonstrators. A General delivers this ominous caution to anti-Mubarak protestors.
YOUSSEF TAHA: (ABC Translator) He was telling a protestor that he wants to calm things down to avoid having anything remotely like a civil war as in Lebanon previously or in Yemen or elsewhere and that people here inside the square do not own the square and they should not have any control over the square and therefore they should not be able to decide who gets in and who doesn’t”.
CORCORAN: Salma’s Facebook revolutionaries aren’t the only ones here. We set out to meet one of Egypt’s best known opposition figures, Ayman Nour. He’s out there somewhere in the square but before we can make contact, the regime strikes back. Hordes of Mubarak supporters storm the square and all hell breaks loose.
State television demonises the international media for fanning the flames of the revolution. For this pro-Mubarak mob stirred up by the government propaganda, all foreign media are seen to be spies. In reporting this story, dozens of international and Egyptian media workers are bashed, stabbed, tasered and in one case shot dead by pro regime vigilantes. We’re targeted and dragged down a side street.
Well for us the riot ended badly. All members of the Foreign Correspondent team were basically set upon by the mob. I was punched and kicked to the ground. It felt like being at the bottom of a very violent rugby scrum. I lost my wallet, my passport and my phone was also taken. Eventually we were rescued by a café owner who’s brought us here to his café and it’s now battened down against the mob outside.
Back in the square a brutal and at times bizarre clash is waged. Hundreds of protesters are injured, several killed. Trapped by the pro Mubarak mob, we move to another hiding place – an art shop – until the fighting subsides. It was Alaa Abdullah and his brother who saved us.
ALAA ABDULLAH: “I see you get beaten and you had blood. And I tried to protect you and bring you to our place to make sure you calm down and to make sure you are safe”.
CORCORAN: Now there are no buyers for Alaa’s paintings or his ancient pharaohnic perfume formulas. The uprising he says has shattered the family business.
ALAA ABDULLAH: “We pay our rent, we have workers to pay and we have family to support. It doesn’t matter how much you make, there’s not any profit, there’s not any income”.
CORCORAN: Our saviour reveals himself to be a fervent Mubarak supporter.
“Now from here, behind closed doors, we can hear the mob down on the square. It sounds extraordinarily violent down there at the moment. What do you think of the protest? What do you think of the anti Mubarak rally?
ALAA ABDULLAH: “Mubarak is not going to the second election. He said, “I will leave the chair in the peace and the quiet but I want the country to be safe first and make sure everybody is secure and safe”.
CORCORAN: “What could happen to this country if Mubarak leaves tonight or tomorrow? Would there be a war, a civil war?”
ALAA ABDULLAH: “There can be war – more than Palestine, more than Iraq, more than Afghanistan. There’ll be war. Mubarak keeps this country at this moment, safe”.
CORCORAN: It’s the mantra of the regime: Mubarak offers stability. The alternative is chaos and yet it soon appears that war has already been declared. Salma and her friends are down there somewhere fighting for their lives.
(Overlooking square from balcony) Well it’s now seven hours since this all started and we’ve retreated here to the relative safety of this hotel balcony. The situation is now completely out of control. We’re hearing a large amount of automatic weapons fire, Molotov cocktails are being thrown. We have two groups actually fighting it out across the rooftops, hurling Molotov cocktails at each other. And of course in the middle of all of this is the Egyptian Army sitting in their tanks doing absolutely nothing.
Against the odds the protesters survive, beating back the Mubarak loyalists.
(Feb 3) Next morning there’s a tight cordon around the square. We can’t get in, but Salma slips out to meet us. Her mood is grim.
SALMA EL TARZI: “At a certain point I have to admit that I had a moment of doubt. I was so tired, I was so exhausted there was a guy in front of me with his brains all over the floor and we were literally putting it back in his skull and throwing Betadine over it and that’s it”.
CORCORAN: The Internet is restored and Salma frantically works her Facebook page.
SALMA EL TARZI: “I mean this guy is telling people that are coming in with supplies to watch out because the thugs are standing in the front and they’re pretending they’re us, so beware when you go in”.
CORCORAN: Social media is an invaluable revolutionary tool, but it also leaves an edible electronic footprint of who said what. A kind of easy finder for the secret police.
SALMA EL TARZI: “Personally my fear is that if it doesn’t work out that I’m going to be kidnapped and I’m going to go to gaol and I’m going to be tortured to death. This is my personal concern and this is the concern of all the people who have been very, very active in communication”.
CORCORAN: We’re finally on our way to meet one of Hosni Mubarak’s most famous opponents – the man we were seeking when attacked by the mob. The regime ruthlessly crushes political opposition. Activists are killed, gaoled or exiled. Now the survivors gather to draw up political blueprints for a post Mubarak Egypt. They’re led by 46 year old lawyer and politician, Ayman Nour. He’s struggling to keep pace with the protesters.
AYMAN NOUR: I cried… I cried with joy and faith that Egypt is still alive and capable of giving birth to heroes like the youths in Tahrir Square”.
CORCORAN: Nour and the officials of his Tomorrow Party are busy figuring out how to harness the youthful, leaderless energy of the square and he’s in no mood for negotiation.
AYMAN NOUR: “I said to Mubarak, go. Game over”.
CORCORAN: Feted by foreign diplomats and media, Ayman Nour is a contender for the top job. He’s endured the wrath of the regime – attacked, fire bombed and gaoled for his efforts.
“When he eventually does go, will you be running for President?”
AYMAN NOUR: “Why not? I was runner up from among ten candidates in the 2005 election, which was the most ferocious and most rigged. I spent four years in prison as a price for my achievement in that election. So if my Tomorrow Party and my supporters nominate me then I will run for President”.
CORCORAN: “President Mubarak has announced he intends to stay in power until the next election in September, so what happens now?”
AYMAN NOUR: “I don’t think that would be possible. I don’t think this is an option. He hopes it will happen but President Mubarak remaining in the forefront of Egyptian political life would complicate it very much. I believe that he will disappear very soon”.
CORCORAN: (Feb 7) Back on Tahrir Square, day 14 and the people’s forum now looks more like a refugee camp. Wounded are everywhere. Medics say twenty people have been killed and thirteen hundred injured, defending this symbolic round-a-bout. Many also fight out of financial desperation. Nearly half of Egypt’s 80 million people live on two dollars a day or less.
“How are you? You guys are still here fourteen, fifteen days”.
SALMA EL TARZI: (Under blankets lying down in the square) “Hassan is reading the morning paper”.
HASSAN EL TARZI: (waves)
SALMA EL TARZI: “There were so many people panicking. We were like, no no it’s just shooting. These are just gunshots”. (laughing)
“I want democracy which is something that I personally never had. I’m 33 years old. Mubarak was in rule since I was three. I’ve never had democracy, I don’t know what it is. We want to be able to vote properly. We don’t want the emergency law. We don’t want to feel frightened by the government. We don’t want the oppression, we don’t want all of this. We want to have freedom of speech. We don’t want journalists to be taken to gaol. We don’t want to be scared to say something. We don’t want to be scared that they track us on Facebook or our mobile phones for saying what we think”.
CORCORAN: At the barricades a cloak of exhaustion has settled after days and nights of fighting. Hidden among the ranks, are members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood – the wild card in the struggle for power in Egypt. The Brotherhood is a formable political and social movement. Founded in the 1920s it’s the oldest and largest opposition group in the country. Some fear the Brothers are simply biding their time and may eventually sideline their secular comrades and seize power. But today at least they’re regarded as valuable allies.
“An alliance of convenience? Your friends of convenience?”
SALMA EL TARZI: “Yes for now”.
CORCORAN: “And in the future?”
SALMA EL TARZI: “I don’t know, it really depends. I don’t know. I speak for myself. I mean if the Muslim Brothers take over most probably I’ll be down there starting another revolution, you know what I mean?”
CORCORAN: For Salma Tahrir Square has become the defining experience of her life.
SALMA EL TARZI: “My father is extremely supportive. This morning he said all my life I thought that I’m the one responsible for protecting you and your brother and now I feel so small, I feel you are protecting all of us.
(crying) It’s overwhelming because there are so many emotions. It’s so beautiful and so ugly at the same time but there’s this feeling of pride. Everyone in this square is walking with their backs straight for the first time in their lives and you can see it in our posture. If we’re not limping because we’ve been beaten, we are all, the posture of the people changed. We are walking with our heads high and this is what we are trying to tell the people in the houses that are telling us that we are ruining the country, that we should stop what we’re doing. For once stop being animals. We are not animals. We have the right to be people and hold our heads high”.
CORCORAN: (Feb 10) The end of day 17, another night and yet another Presidential speech. Will he stay or will he go.
(In the Square) Now the trick is to find Salma in the crowd. It’s building by the hour. There’s a great sense of anticipation here that this could be it, that Egypt…. that in fact the whole Arab world will be making history here tonight.
The hero of the moment is Google Executive Wael Ghonim, just released from gaol, he’s revealed as one of the architects of this Facebook campaign. The regime continues to manoeuvre dangerously behind the scenes. Mubarak once boasted he had a PHD in stubbornness.
SALMA EL TARZI: “That’s weird, that’s a weird number. And I don’t think I’m answering this”.
CORCORAN: “Who do you think it is?”
SALMA EL TARZI: “It might be someone from the regime, someone from the officials”.
CORCORAN: “Why would they be ringing you?”
SALMA EL TARZI: “They’ve been ringing everyone, telling them that we want to negotiate with you. What they’re trying to do is to contact people, try to convince them to go talk to them and then make a declaration that we talked to Salma so people out here have a fight with Salma. You see what I mean?
I have no doubt that we are going to make it. I’m not so sure we’re going to make it tonight and I’m a bit concerned that the people are acting now as if it’s a done deal and I’m a bit scared that this is another of their psychological games that they want to pull us high in the sky and then let us drop”.
CORCORAN: Salma’s instincts prove remarkably accurate. Mubarak refuses to take the hint. He’s not going anywhere yet. There’s shock, tears and anger. Salma’s brother Hassan is worried.
HASSAN EL TARZI: “It appears that we are in very very big danger and problem because we were extremely active and like any undemocratic regime like the dictatorship, like Hosni Mubarak, that will mean that we’ll all be followed up on the next month or two until September if he stays”.
CORCORAN: (Feb 11) Day 18 and Cairo is on knife edge. How much longer can this go on? Will the military turn on the people? The protests are peaceful, the army holds its fire. In the evening more rumours that Mubarak has left Cairo. An official statement is expected but nobody believes it. Then it happens. A dictator is disposed.
VICE PRESIDENT SULEIMAN: “President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down from the office of President of the Republic and has instructed the council of the armed forces to administer the affairs of the country. May God help everybody”.
CORCORAN: People power has prevailed.
CROWD: Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar!
SALMA EL TARZI: “I’m still under shock so I don’t know what to feel. I think I’m going to have a delayed reaction but I really don’t know. I just can’t feel anything right now. It’s too confusing”.
CORCORAN: “What happens now?”
SALMA EL TARZI: “I think we’re going to celebrate for another couple of days! (laughter) I don’t think anyone’s going home now.”
CORCORAN: “Well it’s extraordinary it’s the happy ending that certainly nobody envisaged this morning. An extraordinary moment in both Egyptian history and Arab history. The revolution has won but the big question is, what happens next?”
Few give much thought to what lies ahead tomorrow. The army takes power in a “coup by consensus” with a vow to rewrite the constitution and oversee a transition to democracy. For now, the Facebook revolutionaries will put their trust in the soldiers. In just 18 days, a new generation of leaders has been forged and tempered in the political furnace of Tahrir Square. Salma won’t be joining their ranks. She says her revolution is over.
“What will the future hold for you? A career in politics?”
SALMA EL TARZI: “No”.
CORCORAN: “What are you going to do when this is over?”
SALMA EL TARZI: “I’m going to still make films. I’m sure there’ll be a lot of films to make”.