Opinion

An EU official's eyewitness account of the Egyptian revolution

21.02.11 @ 09:25

  1. By Benjamin Rey

When Egyptians took to the streets in massive numbers on Tuesday 25 January, it seemed to many observers of Egypt's political life that something extraordinary was happening.

  • Anti-Mubarak cartoon. Rey 'It took a painful beating with a stick to understand a simple thing' (Photo: khalid Albaih)

Before being hired by the EU administration, I went out in 2004 and 2005 to study the dynamics of street mobilisations in Egypt and what was left of the country's political opposition. I concluded that the regime had developed sufficiently sophisticated and adaptable techniques to contain protests and had aborted the development of any meaningful opposition party. There was an almost non-existant secular opposition and there was the Muslim Brotherhood. President Hosni Mubarak's Western backers called this stability. Mass demonstrations were not meant to happen anytime soon.

Given my background and considering the potential importance of the 25 January protests for the wider region, I needed to see what was happening with my own eyes. On Thursday 27 January I was in Cairo. Twelve hours later I was on another planet.

My journey through the Egyptian uprising began on a calm Friday morning. At 10 am local time, I decided to go for an observation walk around the now famous Tahrir square. While the plaza itself was almost empty, I counted more than 30 vans of the amn markazi (the central security services) in several side streets. On the square, a group of around 50 baltaguia (thugs hired by the police to crack down on protesters) were listening to a police officer's instructions.

Baltaguia are a key component of the system of repression. In most demonstrations I have seen, they often threatened foreign observers but rarely attacked them. Times change, I thought, when a Scottish journalist told me that he had been beaten up two days before. I had met him in a shabby hotel where I hoped to find a viewpoint on Tahrir. I did find a terrace, but a man warned me that I would have problems if I used my camera, so I left.

The city was getting ready. In Talaat Harb Street, in the heart of Cairo's old European quarter, I saw a truck picking up stones near a construction area - probably to avoid them being used by demonstrators later in the day. A nearby policeman laughed and said: "This is how we build our new country!" I noticed that mobile phone communications had been cut off. Prayer time was approaching and the demonstrations were expected to start immediately afterward.

I heard the first clamours shortly after 1pm in one of the side alleys of Talaat Harb.

About 60 protesters were marching in the direction of Tahrir, only to find their way blocked by the amn markazi and a menacing group of baltaguia. Another crowd could be heard coming from the direction of Falaky square. They joined up and marched on Talaat Harb street. The sight of two large crowds walking from opposite directions and then falling into each other's arms was truly impressive. Altogether, they were between 1,000 and 2,000 people, including women and children. People clearly had peaceful intentions: whenever one or two individuals tried to move barriers or collect stones, 10 others would spontaneously hold them back.

The atmosphere switched the moment the amn markazi began firing tear gas - they did not use live ammunition, but Talaat Harb became a war zone. Each time the gas canisters hit the ground, protesters scattered to seek shelter in the side streets, then regrouped on the front line more angry than before. Local residents helped them by handing out bottled water and fruit.

As an observer, I have always strictly refrained from any intervention. But I did give some eye drops to a young man in bad shape. I was quickly surrounded by 15 others. By the time I wanted to dry my own tears, my 30ml phial was empty.

At the other end of the street, the entrance to Tahrir square, the arrival of black helmets and more tear gas opened a new front. I decided to move away to the popular area between Champollion and Ramses streets.

The scene here was different. Instead of young middle-class Egyptians, simple kids were fighting for control of the street against security forces. There was great joy when the amn markazi retreated. More senior residents were not getting directly involved, but were giving explicit support. This was no longer a normal demonstration - it was a popular insurrection.

Around mid-afternoon, I went to look at Ramses street from the eastern side. Ramses is a long, broad avenue normally filled by a smoky traffic jam. Now it was a no man's land locked off by the police. I found myself at the back of another confrontation. The amn markazi were fronting up to protesters in a single line. At the same time, the baltaguia were picking off demonstrators caught up in the fighting and pulling them away into nearby vans. The enraged pack of baltaguia lashed each one of their new captives with wooden sticks.

I looked around me and I thought I was far enough away to do some discreet filming. I thought there was little risk. But I was wrong.

When a solid hand gripped my arm, I knew what would come next. A group of five or six men quickly stripped me of my wallet, my camera, my phone and my passport. My assailants repeatedly slapped me on the nape of my neck with the palms of their hands (a well-known police practice, not only painful but also meant to humiliate people).

I did not speak in Arabic but instead I tried to say in basic English that I was a tourist. Every word I spoke was followed by more blows and insults. "He's lying, this dog is from Tunis!" one of them shouted. They dragged me into the middle of the street and began hitting me with sticks on every part of my body. I fell on the ground and tried to protect my head. I decided to take the beating patiently, thinking it could not get much worse than a rugby maul. I believed that nothing terrible would happen and that my passport would somehow protect me. A few - endless - moments later I was thrown into a van.

To my surprise, I was greeted by a group of cheerful young Egyptians who were in the best possible mood despite being in much more serious trouble. They asked me what happened and if I was OK. They insisted that I took a seat even though about 20 of them had to stand. These people faced at least one night in police cells and more beatings. If they were lucky, the security forces would then dump them in the desert on the outskirts of Cairo. But they treated me with great care, as if my well-being was more important than theirs.

I was quickly released and given back my passport, but not my camera, phone or wallet. I wandered around trying to find a safe way to get back to my hotel. In downtown Cairo, I walked through empty streets littered with rocks like some kind of post-war battleground. I reached my hotel, just next to Tahrir square and the Egyptian museum, where the bulk of the fighting had moved. I was exhausted. I watched another clash, on Mahmud Bassiuni street, through my window, with gas canisters flying around under my nose.

Later in the night, I saw an enthusiastic crowd of several thousand people chanting next to a tank. The police had left and the army had taken their place. The soldiers were being greeted like a liberating force. It was mystical - the army is a pillar of the Mubarak regime, but the protesters had no doubt that it was on their side. I still felt uneasy - the sound of shooting continued through the night and I could see fires on Tahrir square. I felt as if the insurrection had somehow passed over me, that it had taken the city's core.

On 29 January, the city woke up to a smell of burning embers.

It was still a full two weeks before President Mubarak abdicated on 11 February. But within hours of daybreak, tens of thousands of people poured into Tahrir square: teenagers sitting on tanks and waving flags, families and their children taking photographs with soldiers next to the burnt-out shells of police vehicles. In the background, you could see the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party in flames. These were the symbols of a defeated regime. These were the images of a Liberation Day.

Every Egyptian citizen on the square that afternoon seemed to feel a sense of history and unity. Three decades of frustration melted away. Everything seemed possible and everyone believed that President Mubarak had no choice but to go.

I was struck by the show of genuine citizenship: people organised themselves into groups to take away garbage, they started regulating traffic and preparing neighbourhood watch patrols for the night-time. In such a moment, even a neutral observer cannot but feel profound empathy for a movement whose demands reflect the universal human aspiration for freedom and dignity. It was more than enough to heal my little cuts and bruises.

Back in Brussels, my friends and my EU colleagues asked - quite legitimately - why I put my head in the lion's mouth. And I do confess I chanced too big a risk on Ramses street.

But it took a painful beating with a stick to understand a simple thing. The same simple thing that many political scientists failed to see just as they failed to anticipate the Egyptian revolution: that fear had vanished, that the young people of Egypt were filled with an unprecedented feeling of solidarity, self-sacrifice and historical duty.

I left Egypt about 10 days before President Mubarak stepped down. But it was already clear that these events, whatever might come next, would at the very least forge the identity of a whole generation. The Egyptians reborn in Tahrir square are people who will not bargain away their new-found pride and dignity - their revolution.

Benjamin Rey is an EU official. The views expressed are his own