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Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Volume Two December 2022.
The Road to Tahrir Square, short story by Nagat Ali.
Translated by Michele Henjum.
The Road to Tahrir Square
Like someone writing on water. That was the situation for anyone who criticized corruption in the last years of Mubarak’s regime.
We were in one valley and the ruling regime was in another, boasting with confidence that Egypt was living one of the most splendid ages of democracy and freedom of expression. Many of us knew full well that Mubarak had given the people freedom of speech in the manner of “let them have a good time,” and in return deprived them of their right to live a dignified life.
I had started waking up each day with a fright. The fear came from my anticipation that a great eruption was about to happen, but I didn’t know where the fuse of the revolution would be lit. Would it come for example from the hungry people filling Cairo’s streets or from the intellectual elite, divided amongst themselves, the majority of whom were content to theorize inside air-conditioned rooms?
I thought perhaps the revolution would come from the youth, as they are always the vanguard of the nation, especially university students—but where was the university? It had collapsed like all the country’s other institutions.
Hope edged me forward a little, while following the well-known Egyptian Kefaya (“Enough!”) movement that began in the summer of 2004 and shook up the stagnant waters of political life at that time.
I was optimistic despite the elite character of the movement, as it was formed of a group of intellectuals, university professors and lawyers that opposed the principle of extending Mubarak’s term. They also stood firmly against attempts that were in full swing inside the palace for the president’s son to inherit his rule. At the time Mubarak came out with a comic statement when asked in an interview about his opinion of this movement: “Look… I could just as well get people to come out saying “Not Enough!” The response of his adherents was even funnier: they sought to make another opposing collective called “Permanence for the sake of Prosperity.”
Anyone walking in the streets of Cairo a few months before the revolution would have been convinced that hunger had driven many poor Egyptians mad and their patience had run out. Workers that had been laid off by some companies started to carpet the sidewalk outside the buildings of the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council for many days in January, at the height of the cold, while the honorable representatives in the People’s Assembly passed beside them in their luxury cars without even taxing themselves with the burden of glancing in their direction.
The successive protest movements that had become common in Egypt became messages of hope to everyone who loves Egypt and feared its collapse. There were the Ghazl el–Mahalla workers striking in 2008, whose successive actions and strikes cleared the way for other workers to find ways to protect their rights—later the April 6 Youth Movement joined their strike in solidarity. I said to myself at the time, maybe this is the beginning of a larger revolt. Maybe it’s the beginning of the road.
The Tunisian revolution came to give us Egyptians hope in the possibility of changing the ruling regime in Egypt. The people’s anger had reached the point of no return and was about to erupt, especially after the rigging of the last parliamentary elections in 2010 and the removal of every semblance of the opposition from Parliament.
The calls to demonstrate on January 25 started on the “We are All Khaled Said” Facebook page set up by Egyptian activist Wael Ghonem as well as from the April 6 Youth Movement page.
My Egyptian friends spread the news of the announcement on their pages. Some commented that the choice of this day as the date of the revolution coincided with Egyptian Police Day and would be a form of protest against the brutal practices of the police apparatus against Egyptian protestors. Others rallied around the day enthusiastically saying: We’re not less than Tunisia. But we also had those who laughed at the whole thing, saying there was no such thing as a revolution by prior appointment. It would be no more than a day where the traffic in Cairo’s streets was held up.
I woke up in the afternoon under the pressure of a headache and high temperature. It seemed to be the first signs of a cold. Before eating anything I called a friend working as a journalist to ask her: Are there demonstrations in Tahrir Square? She told me that demonstrations had left from various neighborhoods in Cairo, and they were all going to meet in Tahrir Square. I said to her, ill and embarrassed, “You mean everyone went and I’m still at home? I must come immediately!” I ended the call with her and called another friend, an activist living in Shubra near our old house to find out where the demonstration leaving from Shubra heading to Tahrir had reached, in order to join them. She told me they were now at the edge of the Tahrir Square. I said goodbye quickly saying, “I’m on my way!”
I put my clothes on and got on the metro at the Hadaiq Maadi station bound for the Sadat stop to join the demonstrations there.
When I reached Tahrir Square I was astounded. I found that the numbers of demonstrators were very large, larger than I had expected, nearly filing the square completely, and increasing as the time went by.
I walked with crowds that were repeating out loud in one voice: “The people want to topple the regime!” Repeating with them in spontaneous enthusiasm, I tried to find something that would indicate something about the demonstrators’ ideology, but the people were very diverse. Most of them were young, belonging to different social strata; that’s what I guessed from their clothes, but most of their faces were not familiar to me. They weren’t the political activists I was used to seeing in demonstrations nor did they belong to some of the cartoonish parties that called themselves the opposition. In some of their faces there was a touch of innocence, and purity that stunned me. I spoke with some of them and discovered that many were students at the American University in Cairo.
Abruptly, smaller groups broke away and returned a little later, bringing back bottles of water, sandwiches and containers of koshary. They began distributing them to those standing around insisting, “You have to eat. The day is still long.”
From time to time, skirmishes broke out between the Central Security Forces and the demonstrators. Each time security sensed that the demonstrators had almost broken the security cordon they had placed tightly around us, they threw enormous quantities of tear gas, causing me to choke.
Time went by and I spotted some fellow writers in the distance.
I kept marching and the chants of the demonstrators—“Revolution til victory! There in Tunisia, here in Egypt!”—then I spotted in the crowd, from a distance, some well-known individuals such as Ayman Nour, Chairman of the El-Ghad party and the journalist Ibrahim Eissa. The writer Mohammad Shoair appeared suddenly. He said hello to me as he pondered the square. Then he showed his pleasure at the large numbers of demonstrators and said confidently, “If the demonstrations continue with these numbers for three days the regime might fall.” I smiled, agreeing with his words despite my conviction that the regime wouldn’t submit that simply and would use every dirty means at its disposal.
I spotted from a distance my friend the activist Viola Fahmy with some journalists. She called out to me and urged me to go with her to her office near Isaaf Station to get something from it. I went with her giving in to her wish, and on our way toward Talat Harb Street we saw a group of Central Security forces, carrying large quantities of weapons and going towards Tahrir Square. I guessed that they were planning to attack the demonstrators and perhaps they were waiting for the numbers of demonstrators to go down as it got later, and thus they would be able to arrest and quash those that remained.
An hour later I returned to the square with my friend and told her I wouldn’t be able to stay the night like she was, with the demonstrators who had decided at the end of the day to hold a sit in, perhaps due to their sense that they and their demands were not taken seriously. The Mubarak regime had looked on the Tahrir demonstrations of January 25 as if they were child’s play and would be over at the end of the day. For that reason it didn’t bother to reply to their demands, the most prominent of which was, as it appeared in the slogan that we raised in Tahrir Square: Freedom, Dignity and Social Justice.
I had to leave Tahrir and go home when it was after midnight, because I had gone out without informing anyone that I was going to the demonstrations. My younger brother might have gone out and left my sick mother alone.
I reached the house close to 1 am and called one of my friends who had decided to remain at the sit-in to check on their situation, but he didn’t answer. I was stricken with worry and decided to call another friend. He told me what the security forces had done. They had arrested a large number of demonstrators after shooting rubber bullets and tear gas and beating them with clubs. He was now hiding in one of the side streets downtown.
*This is an excerpt from the book The Road to Tahrir Square by the Egyptian writer and poet Nagat Ali, narrating her daily life during the January 25th revolution.
© Nagat Ali
Nagat Ali is an Egyptian poet, essayist and a literary critic. She has published the poetry collections Cracked Wall (2009), Like the Blade of a Knife (2010), A Superstitious Creature Adores Garrulousness (2002), Glass Tombs (2019). Ali has written about the Arabic Spring in her book The Road to Tahrir Square: Daily Life During the Egyptian revolution (2019).