Jan. 25 will mark the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution that was sparked in Tunisia a few days earlier. This was the first time in history that millions of Egyptians marched into the street to claim their country back. No public place symbolized this revolution for dignity like Tahrir Square.
Tahrir Square (Liberation Square) is a major public focal point in downtown Cairo. It combines all of the contrasts of Egypt — from the Egyptian Museum to the Hilton Hotel — and is surrounded by elegant buildings that were styled as the Paris of the Nile. It also has the biggest public bus station, where thousands of Egyptians congregate every day on their way to work or returning home.
The square gained its prominence in the 19th century when another Mubarak — Ali Pasha — was commissioned by Egypt’s ruler at the time, Ismail Pasha, and charged with remodeling Cairo. And so it was named Ismailia Square. The square’s name was changed to Midan Tahrir (or Liberation Square) after the first Egyptian Revolution of 1952.
The square has been the traditional gathering place for Egyptians with a grievance — from the bread riots of 1977 to the protests against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The square had been the symbol of the Egyptian regime for years, at least until the 1972 general strike, when the midan (square) became the focus of the student movement and opposition to the President Anwar El-Sadat’s regime.
On Jan. 24, 1971, Cairo witnessed a dramatic escalation in the confrontation between students and the Sadat government. Students discovered that the leaders of a sit-in at Cairo University had been arrested. Some 20,000 infuriated students (I was one of them) headed toward central Cairo, where security forces failed to disperse them and stop them from reaching Tahrir Square.
This was the first time Sadat had to face street riots, and it set a precedent that he never forgave or forgot. I had just moved to Cairo from a small village in the Delta. I had never participated in any meaningful way in politics. They announced in school that there was a general strike in Tahrir Square, and against the wishes of my parents and the rest of my family, I decided to go — not to participate in the general strike, but simply to be there.
I walked the short half-mile from my house through Qasr Al-Eini Street. People were coming from everywhere. There was no chanting, no conversation, just slow steadfast movement, as if something big were about to happen.
Once I got to the square, there were already thousands of people gathered. We congregated at the center around the most elegant public fountain in Egypt (which is no longer there), surrounded by 10,000 students, chanting, joking, talking. A cold night was falling; the air was thick. Students started climbing walls and posts, bringing down advertisements and billboards and pictures of Sadat and his family, all of which were consumed by a huge campfire.
It was like Woodstock, without the drugs and sex. As the night wore on, the big crowd broke into smaller groups of people with different grievances and different interests. They broke away from the center, where the hard-core protesters were. And the farther you were from the center, the more inclined you were to leave on your own.
As people trickled out of Tahrir Square, you didn’t notice this attrition. But the crowd that had earlier numbered in the thousands was now a few hundred. These were the hard core; they had no plan to leave. I wanted to see it to the end; the square was surrounded by thousands of national security forces and riot police. People could leave, but no one was being allowed in to replace them.
At about 3 a.m., a high-ranking police official approached the crowd, and from a short distance he gave his order via a loudspeaker: The crowd had seven minutes to leave the square. The crowd cheered in a show of defiance.
Everyone looked at one another to feel the mood. It was tense. The organizers asked the crowd to sit close to one another and hold hands in confrontation against the police forces. At this point, you had no option but to stay with the group. Rows of police equipped with riot batons and full gear started moving closer. The group chanting grew louder — “Belady … Belady” — to rally everyone to stay.
The security forces seemed undaunted and kept getting closer. “We are all Egyptians, we are all Egyptians,” chanted the crowd, although no communication was taking place. “They don’t speak our language,” a protester joked. The stakes were so high, and one’s own survival now depended on everyone else’s.
Suddenly, without warning, all of the lights in the square went off and tear-gas canisters were sent flying everywhere. Security forces charged.
No degree of patriotism could keep those hard-core protesters together. You lose your sense of place. You don’t know who is next to you. Your connection with your group breaks down. Now all that is left is to run away from it all.
I was terrified. I saw a young female student I didn’t know tremble and fall inside the public fountain. Five or six security officers descended on her, beating her with a brutality I had never seen before. I stopped and dragged her away, and we both ran away. But we never spoke and I never saw her again.
That day — Jan. 24, 1971, at about 4 a.m. — was when I realized that in Egypt, our government eats its own children like wolves. My sense of Egypt was never the same again.
Ahmed Tharwat is host of the Arab-American TV show “Belahdan,” which airs Mondays at 10:30 p.m. on Twin Cities Public Television. He blogs at Notes From America, on www.ahmediatv.com. Follow him on Twitter @AhmediaTV.