In the following words, photos, and videos, Nick Lewandowski ’09 shares his first-hand account of a single day early in Egypt’s recent protests. Nick moved to Cairo in January 2010, working first as editor in the research department at CI Capital Holding, a leading Egyptian investment bank, and then for the economic policy think tank, Global Trade Matters. He left Cairo on Feb. 2, 2011, and is now back in the United States.
For us, the revolution really started on Jan. 28. Michael Kaput ’09 and I were in the shadow of Cairo’s venerable Al-Azhar Mosque, a 900-year-old center of Sunni Islam. Internet connections and mobile phones had all stopped working the night before.
Before we left, Michael’s girlfriend warned us not to get ourselves arrested. She was only half joking. A couple nights earlier The Guardian’s Egypt correspondent, Jack Shenker—a man several of my friends knew personally—had been arrested and beaten by plainclothes police, then trucked out into the desert only to escape with a group of his fellow prisoners.
As soon as Friday prayers let out, a mass of men assembled and began chanting protest slogans. Moments later a crowd of hundreds was making its way toward the three-tiered overpass that led back toward downtown Cairo. It was easily three times as large as a similar demonstration we’d seen near the Ministry of Social Solidarity three days earlier. That had ended in a hail of rocks and mass arrests, and we did not expect this one to play out any differently.
We watched from the second tier of the overpass as riot squads opened up with tear gas rounds…
They were firing out of the open top hatches of armored trucks that were lined up on the left side of the street. Most of the rounds arced high and long over the bridge; a few landed amid the crowd of us scurrying to get down a gently sloping exit ramp. Several hundred yards ahead of us were two more lines of riot police, flanked by another armored car. To escape, we ducked into a narrow side street that was crowded with protesters, bystanders and shopkeepers.
Behind us, a teenage boy urged us to stay and fight the advancing police battalion. “Where are you going?” he shouted. Then he busied himself picking up chunks of shattered sidewalk, his apparent weapons of choice.
Between the two main streets, in the narrow network of uneven alleys that crisscrossed the neighborhoods, we passed woodworkers who were hurriedly pulling a metal sheet down over the front of their shops. They and other craftsmen were trying to protect their livelihoods from the crush of humanity that was pressing into the narrow spaces.
Further down the alley the middle-aged proprietors of a local hardware shop offered us water and chairs. They insisted we stay for tea, and the conversation degenerated into a flurry of polite “no thank-yous.”
We didn’t know it then, but we had witnessed one of the first clashes in what quickly escalated into an all-out battle for the streets of the Egyptian capital, an event that would ultimately lead to the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years.
What followed was a daylong odyssey through a city under siege…
On a wide street near Attaba—a neighborhood that is a crowded jumble of apartments, shops, and open-air vendors—young men hauled dumpsters and steel chains into the street to build an improvised road block. It was an obstacle undoubtedly meant for the ubiquitous olive-colored armored trucks that almost always backstopped the police lines.
Near Cairo’s main train station, a group of men and women emerged from the depressed entry to a metro station, where they had taken refuge from clouds of tear gas.
A young woman carried a limp infant in her arms, a bit of vomit trickling from the corner of its mouth down to its pink jumper. Nearby, a bearded, grey-haired man hurled insults at a squad of police. “Sons of dogs!” he screamed in Arabic, red-faced and inconsolable.
The woman holding the child stood near the police, weeping, pleading for help. An officer took the child from her, while the rest of the helmeted, shield-bearing riot cops stared slack-jawed at the grim result of their work.
Smoke billowed from burning dumpsters underneath the 15th of May Bridge, just a short walk from the Ramses Hilton Hotel. Protesters under the bridge were hurling rocks at police, who responded with a debilitating quantity of tear gas. The itching, burning chemicals were so thick in the air that police detachments near the bridge had donned gas masks.
Even still, the crowds held firm…
In the alleyways near the hotel, increasing numbers of protestors wore surgical masks or scarves. This did little to protect their eyes, however, which had turned a weeping shade of bloodshot red.
While squeezing through the narrow streets, we passed a group tending to a man who had inhaled too much gas. The crowd around him was so dense we could not even see him. “Don’t take any pictures,” one man pleaded, then he insisted we continue on our way.
It was not until we reached the wealthy island neighborhood of Zamalek, resting squarely in the center of the Nile, that we had a sense of the conflict’s full scope.
From the side facing downtown Cairo, we could see protesters on both the 15th of May and Kasr El Nil bridges, fighting pitched battles with government security forces. On the Kasr El Nil Bridge, a legion of police stretched back toward downtown, backed by vehicles. They faced a column of protesters at least equaling them in size. We watched as the crowd advanced along the bridge, pressing the police back. Some picked up live gas canisters and lobbed them back into the mass of shields and batons, where wispy white clouds began to drift up from amid the black uniforms.
Even a high-pressure water cannon failed to drive the protesters back…
Protester Ayman Kamel, a 45-year old doctor, explained the situation. The column had started its journey in Dokki Square, across Cairo, and made its way downtown. At its height, he claimed it contained 100,000 people.
“We’re not fighting,” he insisted, “just pushing against them because there are so many of us.” As Kamel neared the Sheraton Hotel, the tear gas had begun to aggravate his asthma. “So I went into the bar and drank a beer,” he laughed, “watched from the balcony, and then returned to the street.”
He insisted that now that the middle class was on the streets, the protests had reached a tipping point.
Elsewhere on Zamalek we passed a decidedly bourgeois demonstration containing a number of well-to-do young women in designer jackets and sunglasses.
By nightfall, the police were giving ground, and the number of protesters was growing…
People from all over the greater Cairo area streamed toward downtown. The crowd on the 15th of May Bridge succeeded in driving the police off the bridge all together, forcing them back with Molotov cocktails that exploded in pillars of flame against the pavement. A disorganized route by the hated police vehicles followed. One paddy wagon abandoned on the ramp was ransacked. Well below and behind it, next to the Egyptian Museum, another was already on fire. A similar blaze burned further downriver on the Kasr El Nil Bridge.
Feluccas – the small pleasure-boats beloved by tourists – fled the downtown side of the river en masse, a small flotilla making for the relative safety of the Zamalek side of the Nile.
The street clashes gave way to rioting and looting as the night progressed…
In our neighborhood, just a 10-minute walk from Tahrir Square, all three of the street kiosks within easy walking distance were wrecked and plundered. Car windows had been cracked and smashed. We woke throughout the night to the sound of banging metal, breaking glass, and excited shouting.
A military helicopter also began to circle overhead at regular intervals.
In the nights that followed, groups of men took to the streets brandishing sticks, lengths of pipe, axes – in some cases even swords and pistols, intent on defending their families, homes and belongings from the criminal element.
In our neighborhood in Mounira, a nearby mosque announced the names of streets and assigned a phone number to be called if anyone needed help. As darkness fell, our bowwab (doorman), Ahmed, wearing his white skull cap and galabeya, would hold a brief war council with his informal militia before it took up position on the street.
Intermittent gunfire usually crackled throughout the night…
The battle for Cairo probably ended sometime in the evening on January 28th, when citizens of the capital won the right to demonstrate peacefully against the Mubarak government. It cost at least 30 lives and countless wounded, as well as a sum in property damage that will likely never be known. By the time Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president 15 days later, the death toll had risen to several hundred.
In the flurry of media coverage that followed, there was one interview I remember particularly clearly. It was with an Egyptian man who would bring his young son to the protesters encamped in Tahrir Square every day after he finished work. He did this, he said, to show his son what it took to make a better future for Egypt.
It is not a lesson anyone who experienced the Nile Revolution is likely ever to forget.