Egypt: Memories of a Revolution
Five years on, a reporter looks back on a world turned upside down
‘The Egyptians: A Radical Story’ explores half a decade of revolution and counter-revolution in Egypt, and argues that — far from being over — the country’s unrest is part of an ongoing moment of disruption that has profound implications for us all.
Below is an edited excerpt from the book, recounting personal scenes from the dramatic popular uprising which began on January 25th, 2011, and ended 18 days later with the toppling of former president Hosni Mubarak.
My notebooks are as raw as my memories.
Two of the spiral-bound ones are twisted, their spines dislocated from the pages; when you pick them up, they spill sheets carelessly upon the table. The handwriting is hurried, messy — words have been snatched hastily to the paper amid drumbeats and shouts and gas and flight, and they’ve brought bits of that universe with them: grubby stains, smears of rock dust, strange ink. Pens were dropped all the time in the struggle and new ones borrowed, so sentences appear in different colours and some of them are splotched by teardrops. Many pages are torn, and a few are missing. It’s as if the notebooks refused to stand separate, refused to seal themselves off into tidy organs of record while revolution raged around them.
During those eighteen days in Tahrir, I filled five journals with thoughts, quotes, yelled names and scribbled phone numbers. With most shops closed, stationery supplies were hard to come by so I had to make do with whatever was available. The last notebook is actually an address book grabbed from an empty hotel gift shop, a preposterous-looking substitute with tan stitching across the cover and gold leaf daubed around the edges. Because it was designed for Arabic script and I write my notes in English, I flipped the address book over before using it — inadvertently upending a map of the globe printed on the first page.
I don’t remember when, but at some point during the uprising — maybe in a quiet corner of a field hospital as I waited to speak to a harried, blood-spattered volunteer doctor, or maybe crouched and panting behind a makeshift barricade, gulping down water offered by a stranger — I wrote in big letters across that map: ‘The World Turned Upside-Down’. The words are underlined with such intensity that the pen’s nib has punctured the paper.
Or maybe it was when I found myself sitting alone on the floor of an upstairs room, inside the house on the corner. The house is old, at least a century old and maybe much older, but I don’t know anything about its history, nor do the neighbours I’ve asked. It sits, abandoned, at the end of the alley which leads off from my street, and commands a fine view: the criss-cross flyovers of Abdel Munim Riyad, the terracotta walls of the Egyptian Museum, and the wide approach road to Tahrir. It must have once been a grand residence, for there is a marble staircase — each slab now mottled and cracked, or occasionally absent altogether — and huge tiled windows, the glass in them long broken. On the outside of the building, there are gargoyles peering out of the stucco.
For years, before the revolution started, I walked past those gargoyles each morning and wove them unconsciously into my sense of time and place in Egypt. They belonged to me in a doggedly personal way, the same way that the cigarette kiosk on the opposite pavement and its surly teenage vendor and his ringtone collection and the argument we once had about Marlboro abyad belonged to me, the same way the clothes shop a bit further down Mahmoud Bassiouny Street and its ragged mannequins and hand-painted discount signs belonged to me, the same way that all those things belonged uniquely to anybody who ever moved through that little patch of the city. The same way the stuff of the streets, any streets — their objects, their furniture, their roughage, and all the silly and epic thoughts we individually infuse them with — belong, in distinct and identical ways, to everyone.
And now those same building-blocks that we all use to root ourselves within our immediate environment had been transformed into something else. The clothes-shop shutters had been wrenched off their hinges to serve as a rampart against crude missiles. The cigarette kiosk was a gunman’s shield. And the house on the corner was a guerrilla base, the farthest outpost of a dishevelled, heroic network of defences for the square. Young people smashed rocks against the ground and formed lines to carry heavy bags of stones up to the rooftop, where make-do military commanders — an agronomist, a university lecturer, a mechanic — tried to strategize and marshal all this revolutionary energy. Everything was make-do, because make-do is all you have when you try to make and do something entirely new against the forces of old. I joined the rock-carrying line and pitched in right at the doorway to the house, just below the gargoyles, because like my notebooks I couldn’t seal myself off into something separate, something objective, from the beautiful thing that was happening around me. And then I went inside, and found an empty room, and sat on the floor, and wrote.
Those days turned the wide world upside down, and they turned our own, intimate worlds upside down, and sometimes — amid the adrenaline, and the pain, and the hope, and the fear — it was hard to know the difference.
The marches broke through police lines on 25 January, again and again, in Shubra, and Sayeda Zainab, and Giza, and Ramses; so many marches and so many broken police lines that everyone’s geography — the security state’s geography, the protesters’ geography — got smudged. Those were the first hours, and for some they were perfect.
‘My dream is to live like this, breaking through police lines,’ a young man called Ahmed told me, grinning. He worked in a bank, and I met him for about twenty seconds on the corner of Qasr el-Ayni, as we surged back and forth through the tear gas, backing away when the police lines charged, then reforming and charging ourselves to repel them from the square. I never saw him since.
He was one of hundreds of Egyptians I would meet in the following days, weeks and years in the din of street-fighting, where there is no time for a proper chat, no time for in-depth interviews, no time for sober analysis. Just two strangers, a pair of lives intersecting at a revolution and finding a way to help one another with no questions asked or explanations provided; just a few words exchanged, and — if I was lucky — the barest of biographical details. The revolution has provided Egypt with millions of these moments, tiny irrepressible political grenades that detonate inside the imagination and make you look at the people around you, and the systems you live under, and your power to change them, with wiser, brighter eyes.
Youssef, a 25-year-old filmmaker, provided another of those moments soon afterwards, when the security forces retreated from Tahrir and — for a few hours — el‑shari‘ lina, the streets were ours, and I went wandering around the square, drinking it all in. ‘I don’t belong to anything, just Egypt,’ Youssef told me, unprompted, as we passed each other on the grass. ‘Here, we are in the centre of everything.’
The Egyptian state could not leave its people at the centre of everything for long. Communications were patchy, so in the early evening of that first day I left Tahrir to find a working computer and file my newspaper story. When I came back out into the streets at Abdel Munim Riyad, a vehicle nearby was engulfed in flames and something had shifted; a human wave was rolling out from the square and crashing towards me, and before I could move it had swallowed me up and there were shouts and bodies everywhere, and then the briefest, eeriest emptiness as it thundered past and left me standing alone on the tarmac.
Then, suddenly, two men — burly, leather jackets — were on me, a blizzard of punches and kicks. They hauled me from the ground and frogmarched me behind police lines, slapping the back of my neck with metronomic regularity. As we walked, other security agents milling about — strutting, sweating, puffed up with their reclamation of this space from the interlopers — took turns to run up and aim flying kicks at my stomach. They took me to their makeshift holding pen, one of dozens that must have sprung up across the country that night. This one was the ground-floor lobby of an apartment building on the edge of Abdel Munim Riyad, right next to the cigarette kiosk, opposite the house on the corner. Other captured protesters were also being shuttled towards the doorway, where two lines of central security forces waited with sticks.
One by one we were made to run, stumble and crawl through a gauntlet of beatings to reach the lobby inside. The furniture of the familiar yanked into something new. As I ran, stumbled and crawled, those gargoyles looked on.
We were made to stand silently in a line facing the wall; any who tried to turn around, or sobbed too loud, or recited Quranic verses, or ventured a shout of defiance would have their heads smashed from behind against the brickwork, or were simply dragged away. The rest of us just stood, and waited. Eventually we were told to sit. Then they hauled us outside again, one by one, back through the gauntlet, and into a dark green police truck, banging our heads on the metal frame as we were forced in. It was dark inside, and stacked with a heap of humanity, bleeding and bruised. Someone heard an officer count us: we were forty-four in all, herded into a space that could comfortably fit no more than ten. The heavy metal door swung shut and was locked behind us, and then, after a pause, the truck began to move.
There were no windows, just a handful of thick metal grates through which orange streetlight would occasionally stream and dance across our faces. They had taken the wallets and phones of most of us back in the lobby, including mine, but a few had somehow kept their mobiles hidden and my dictaphone was still in my pocket; I took it out, and began recording. Despite the violence, people were excited, giddy even. Those who collapsed from the suffocating heat were helped to their feet; messages of support were whispered, then spoken, then yelled from one side of our mobile jail to the other.
‘The police attacked us to get us out of the square; they didn’t care who you were, they just attacked everybody,’ a lawyer standing next to me, Ahmed Mamdouh, said breathlessly when I asked him to speak into the recording device and explain what was happening. ‘They … hit our heads and hurt some people. There are some people bleeding, we don’t know where they’re taking us. I want to send a message to my wife; I’m not afraid but she will be so scared, this is my first protest and she told me not to come here today.’
Later he told me: ‘As I was being dragged in, a police general said to me: “Do you think you can change the world? You can’t! Do you think you are a hero? You are not!”’ We swayed silently for a bit, letting the throb of the truck’s engine and the moans of the injured wash over us. ‘I think he’s wrong,’ said Ahmed, finally. ‘I think we’re changing the world right now.’
We wended our way at high speed through the city, each sharp turn and bump in the road flinging us wildly into the floor, ceiling, walls and each other. With no windows, navigation was hard but others were able to spot an occasional identifying landmark through the metal grilles and realized we were heading out of town, into the desert. On more than one occasion, the truck stopped, the single door was opened, and armed police appeared at the entranceway, shouting into our throng for ‘Noor’.
Noor was the son of Ayman Nour, a prominent political figure who had challenged Mubarak for the presidency in 2005 and been thrown into jail for his troubles, becoming something of a cause célèbre at the time. His prominence in influential diplomatic circles meant that the arrest of his son was likely to provoke more trouble for the Mubarak regime than it was worth; orders had seemingly come down from on high for Noor — and Noor alone — to be released.
But Noor, with a dignity and calm that moved me deeply, refused to leave unless all of us were freed alongside him. Frustrated, the officers swore and slammed the metal door shut again, and we continued our journey into the unknown. Before that evening I had never met Noor, though I have since come to know him as a committed and courageous revolutionary. I’ll never be able to tell if his insistence on remaining with us that night saved our lives, but two and a half years later — after thirty-seven prisoners locked in a police truck suffocated to death when an officer threw a tear gas canister inside — I began to think it might have.
By the time we reached our destination — state security headquarters in Obour, a satellite conurbation deep in the desert fringes — the heat was unbearable and many of my fellow prisoners were in a bad way. Some had lost large amounts of blood, and others had fainted. One was struggling desperately to breathe; those with medical experience shouted at everyone to give him space and some air, and warned that he was slipping into what looked like a diabetic coma.
For an hour we hammered on the insides of the now-stationary truck and screamed out, ‘Help, a man is dying in here’; for an hour we were met with nothing but silence, interrupted only by short bursts of rhythmic banging on the truck’s outside walls — the security forces trying to disorientate and intimidate us. Then commotion, and the truck began to tip violently from side to side. In the frenzy, a resolution was made to charge at the door if it opened at any stage, no matter who or what was on the other side. We heard the lock turning, and those at the front steeled themselves for a leap into a different kind of darkness.
A police officer appeared and for a moment we all locked eyes with him; then he made a grab for the nearest inmate and began to haul him out for another round of beatings. With a cry, we surged forwards and knocked him flat, before spilling out past the watching troops and into the desert night. The diabetic was carried from the truck. With their quarry fanning out across the sand and cars rapidly approaching — Noor’s family had got wind of his location and sent out a rescue party — the police reluctantly withdrew back into their security building. It had been only a momentary insight into the underbelly of Mubarak Country, the briefest of windows on to a violence that was commonplace for thousands of Egyptians stuck on the wrong side of the police state. But it brought home to me what was happening that day, what was being fought against and how fiercely that enemy would defend itself.
That night, the state newspaper al‑Ahram ran a front-page story describing the many visits made by ordinary members of the public to police stations throughout the day in order to hand bouquets of flowers to officers and thank them for all their work. Such is the absurdity of power on the brink of collapse: its most violent impulses are exposed as the froth drains away, and so are its most comical unrealities. On the outskirts of Obour, we found ourselves many miles from home, shorn of money and mobiles, with no idea of what was happening back in Tahrir. But we knew we were free. And we knew that something colossal had started.
The building that stands at number 26 Ramses Street is twelve storeys high. We’re not sure exactly what floor houses the central internet exchange — the place which fibre-optic cables carrying virtually all of the web traffic between Egypt and the rest of the world run into — and we don’t know exactly how those cables were shut down. Engineers could have tampered with the software mechanisms that manage the network, or they may have simply turned off the power to the massive router banks which the system relies upon to stay functional. Either way though, shortly after midnight on Friday 28 January 2011, someone at 26 Ramses Street found a way to hit the off switch.
We like to think of the internet as something almost intangible, and thus inexplicably robust — no single person, or government, could ever reach all those infinite nodes and lines, those humming servers and vast grids of data; no single entity could ever turn out all those lights. But in Egypt, someone did. Within minutes, citizens of one of the most densely wired, technologically advanced countries on the planet were digitally severed from the rest of the world, and from each other. It didn’t matter. They came out and made a revolution anyway.
Twelve hours later, I was sitting with an eye surgeon outside el-Istiqama mosque in Giza, waiting for the end of el‑zuhr, the midday prayers. His name was Dr Gihad el-Nahary, and he told me he was here to liberate his country. ‘I missed my chance to revolt before,’ he said with a playful smile. ‘I’m not going to make the same mistake now.’
The streets around us were hushed and stiff, lined with police truck after police truck, so many they looked like toys. Inside the mosque, and on the grassy hillock outside it, the faithful worshipped. From atop the motorway flyover that ran level with our position and among the huge stone pillars below the security forces watched, and waited. Soon the sky would be fat with smoke and tear gas, shouts and explosions, sirens and whistles. But that moment, just before the prayers ended, was still, completely still. ‘People don’t just live on bread, they live on liberty,’ said Gihad. He was fifty-two years old and he seemed unnervingly peaceful and content, his eyes half-closed and face thrust up to the sunlight, as though he’d been waiting for this his entire life.
Later I heard many Egyptians use those exact words to describe their feelings that day, but Gihad was the person who seemed physically to embody the sentiment most completely. ‘We don’t need leaders, we are the leaders,’ he added, eyelids still shuttered, head angled to the sky. They were the last words he spoke to me. Immediately afterwards we were shaken by an almighty bang, and a roar went up from the crowd: el‑sha‘ab, yureed, isqat el‑nizam. ‘The people, want, the downfall of the regime. The people, want, the downfall of the regime.’ It has an irrepressible sonic energy of its own, that chant, and it sent us hurtling down the hill and into the streets.
When I remember 28 January, it is as a triptych. The first panel is Haram Street, the long avenue that connects Cairo to the pyramids, and on this day it is a war zone. Scattered by security forces who are spraying death from the main road, protesters are regrouping in the backstreets behind Haram and chanting wahid, itnayn, el‑sha‘ab el‑masri feyn? — ‘One, two, where are the Egyptians?’ They are calling to those watching from their balconies to come down and join them, and many do; some of those that can’t, throw down bottles of water instead and yell support.
A group of kids rushes past carrying a bucket of black paint to throw at the windscreens of armoured police vehicles on the main road; they want to blind the security forces, just like the security forces keep blinding us with gas. People are wheezing, staggering and trying to acclimatize to unfamiliar surroundings — after the surges forward and the brutal firing back, groups have been dispersed and no one can find their friends or family any more. And yet no one is isolated because everyone is shouting encouragement at each other, sharing water and tactics and rumours. Mobiles aren’t working, so there’s nothing to tweet, nothing to post, only a street to win.
We edge forward, on to an overpass; some young kids are breaking rocks off the kerb and running across a rubble-strewn no-man’s land right up to the police, who rise out of hatches at the top of their vehicles with guns in their hands and take aim at those approaching. It’s surreal, this tableau with its farcical imbalance. The protesters are ragged, and bare; the security forces, on the other hand, are all straight lines, swaddled in thick plastic, glass and metal. When the shooters emerge from the hatches they look like part of the machine, inanimate cogs being snapped up into place and back down again with a push of a button or a pull of a lever. It’s hard to believe they are humans, like us, and that despite all the weaponry and body armour their hearts must be pounding and their heads swimming in disbelief, as ours are. These policemen can pick out one, two, three protesters at a time from their hatches, but more and more keep pouring out of the backstreets and suddenly there are too many to aim at and a driver panics, slamming the vehicle into reverse and skidding wildly around, sending the hatch crashing back on to the shooter’s head.
No one has taught these kids how to do this, how to use nothing but speed and rocks to outmuscle an armoured platoon bristling with rifles and helmets and shields and trucks and canister after canister of tear gas — so much tear gas, forever mushrooming inside our lungs and choking us from within — but they are making do, and winning, and gradually the crowd is learning and copying and advancing, and the police are in retreat. From up here, crouched behind some twisted railings for cover, I can see the whole Cairo skyline, and in every direction there are streamers of gas and columns of smoke twisting high into the air.
‘Wake up Egypt, raise your voice — your silence is what kills us!’ the people around me are chanting. ‘We are change!’ I crouch and I wonder. No internet, no mobile, no way of knowing — except by that skyline, and the story it tells. Across the capital, and across the country, I realize, the things I’m seeing here are being repeated, again and again.
The second panel of the day’s triptych is at the Nile, when we tried to cross towards Tahrir. Closer to the square, I find out later, a monumental battle is raging on Qasr el-Nil bridge; demonstrators sat and prayed as they were pummelled by water cannon, then rose up and fought as they were riddled with bullets. But where I am, on Galaa bridge — Qasr el-Nil’s twin sister, which connects the other side of Gezira Island to the western shore — the ground has already been liberated and the security forces pushed back. Only two police trucks remain, along with a handful of abandoned and hugely outnumbered conscripts.
As the protest crowds converge on them, there is terror in their eyes; they retreat inside their vehicles and barricade the door. Earlier I had seen a fleeing amn el‑markazi (‘central security forces’) soldier drop his helmet and shield as he backpedalled away from protesters, only for those advancing to pick the items up, surround the young man, and hand them back. ‘We are not your enemy,’ they told him. ‘We are like you. Join us.’ But here the mood is different; protesters have died to win this little patch of street and force open a path for marchers in the west of the capital to converge upon Tahrir — just as many have died all over Egypt to win their own little patches of street and prise the regime’s fingers from the country’s asphalt. Many of those still standing are wounded and angry, and some want revenge.
The crowd is pressing closer to the trucks and arguing about what to do; some are urging restraint, others are baying for payback. The doors may be locked but eventually they will be forced open, and clearly no one from the state is coming to the conscripts’ rescue. The conscripts yell through the windows that they will come out and the crowd quietens and tenses; I look around at hundreds of faces — sweaty, dust-smeared, blood-streaked — all trained intensely on the door. The lock turns and the door swings open, and there at the doorway is a man — a young man, as young and scared and hopeful and defiant as the rest of us — who has stripped off all his armour, all his weapons, even all his clothes but for his trousers and a plain white vest. We can see that behind him, his colleagues have all done the same: an act of submission, a plea for clemency.
A couple of hotheads in the crowd lurch forward, but others hold them back, and we all wait for the man in the doorway to speak, a tiny bubble of silence holding firm for a fleeting moment in a city echoing like never before with noise. What must be going through his head at that moment, as he looks out on the crowd, and the river, and the country burning beyond, on his world turned upside down? ‘I am not afraid of you,’ he begins boldly and I can feel the crowd stiffen, but then his voice drops and he looks around and picks out someone to talk to, an individual to lock eyes with. ‘I am afraid . . . of losing my job and ruining my family,’ he continues.
And there are murmurs, and nods, because people understand this. They don’t forgive the things the young man has probably done that day, and certainly not the regime that told him to do them, but they can feel his pain. ‘Mubarak is in his castle and has abandoned you to your death,’ a woman near me in the crowd shouts back. ‘Give him up and join us!’ There are more nods and shouts of approval, and the man in the doorway is nodding too. But he must get his men to safety, and after much discussion a ragtag but effective double-line of protesters forms to give them secure passage to a nearby police station.
The final panel of my triptych is underground, at least partially. My colleague Dalia and I have been desperately trying to get back across to the east bank of the city to find out what is happening in Tahrir, but on the other side of Gezira every bridge is blocked by clashes. Swimming hardly seems an option — our notes and recording equipment would be drenched, the currents are unpredictable and there are shots ricocheting around the river — but what about the metro? Of course the trains won’t be running, but could we walk through the tunnels?
We flag down a car and beg the driver to take us to a station, any station on the west bank; he lets us in and skitters off at high speed through Giza, passing pockets of utter devastation — debris, twisted metal, burning vehicles — amid long stretches of total calm. Everyone in the city is either hiding or fighting, and barely any other motors are on the road. We reach a station and descend into the city’s bowels. An empty ticket-hall, a deserted pair of platforms, frozen lifts and a few relics of normality — a no-smoking sign, an advert for a mobile phone company — strangely scary because isolated normality only accentuates the apocalyptic.
Dalia and I slump back on a platform bench, and for a moment we are both awash with exhaustion. And then, incredibly, a tingle moves through the air, the one you can just about feel somewhere in your torso before you actually hear it with your ears, the tingle that rises from a metal rail that is starting, very gently, to sing. The tingle that can only mean a train is coming. We stare at each other and then collapse in laughter, because the whole thing is so absurd.
The eastbound train is almost empty as it pulls into the platform, and we don’t catch sight of the driver. Some of the carriage lights are out, others are flickering. Who is running this train, and why, and what dangers could there be further down the tunnel in a city pockmarked with fires and warfare? There’s no time to think it through, so we jump on. The first couple of stations we reach on the Giza side are like the one we boarded at: empty but open, and the train stops at each with a forlorn sense of duty. Then we are under the Nile and approaching Sadat, the metro station directly beneath Tahrir.
Dalia and I stand and brace ourselves, but the train isn’t slowing; we hurtle through a darkened platform and from the light of the train we catch a brief glimpse of shadowy figures moving around beyond, across the big expanse of polished granite that connects the different lines, and we can hear bangs. Were they police, or protesters, or looters? In whose hands was the square, and why didn’t the train stop? And then, before we can work out the answers, swoosh — the tunnel shutters our view through the windows once more, and reluctantly we sit back down. We don’t stop at Naguib either, or Ataba. And then abruptly the train pulls into the vast station complex below the Ramses rail terminus and grinds to a halt, the doors sliding open and the carriage’s electrical hum shutting down: a grating sound, then a whimper, then nothing.
Only one or two fluorescent strip lamps in the station are working, and the platform is almost completely dark; from the light of the train we can see there are pieces of rubble strewn across the ground, and broken glass. No one else is getting on or off; in fact there is no other human in sight. Echoing through the air is the sound of distant explosions, but the tunnels are a warren and we have no idea where they are coming from; occasionally a human cry bounces off the walls and it sounds as though it belongs to someone in our immediate vicinity, but it’s just a trick of the ears, and our hearts are thudding.
On the walls above us, the name of this stop can just be made out in large-font English and Arabic letters, illuminated by the flickering bulbs inside the carriage and clouded with swirling dust. This is Mubarak station, and it is devastated.
The driver must still be in his cab, but he hasn’t moved or made a sound and we have no idea if he is friend or foe, whether it is safer to seek him out or to venture alone into this gloom that speaks of something happening, something violent. We decide to step off the train, and take another leap. On the walls above us, the name of this stop can just be made out in large-font English and Arabic letters, illuminated by the flickering bulbs inside the carriage and clouded with swirling dust. This is Mubarak station, and it is devastated.
We cling to each other and crunch across the station concourse, using the light of our otherwise useless mobile phones to plot a path. Our eyes are pricking, then stinging and then scorching as we make for an exit staircase, and we realize that tear gas has been pumped into this subterranean labyrinth. Maybe it is still being pumped in right now, and maybe we are heading directly towards those who are doing the pumping. They might shoot us on sight when we emerge at street-level. But we cannot stay down here, we will choke and eventually collapse, and there will be no one around to help us. As we near the surface the gas is thickening and neither of us can see; we’re blinded by tears and convulsing with coughs, and as we get closer and closer to the street I know we have no choice but to run into the fresh air no matter what is waiting up there, because otherwise we will be incapacitated.
We’re huddled together and stumbling, somehow, into the open, and we can hear the sound-junk of battle all around us, and through blurred and streaming eyes I can see the sky has darkened and night is falling. And now we run together, and we have no idea where we are or what is happening, and we can hear shots but our vision is scrambled from the gas and we don’t know where they’re coming from, and it feels as if the gas is following us everywhere; we run and run and trip and rise and run some more and then, all the energy gone, we crumple against a wall, and cough, and blink, and slowly, slowly, the pain begins to lift.
And we look around at our surroundings and realize we are in the Turgoman neighbourhood, near the central bus station, and that mercifully there is no gas here — just spores still clinging to our clothes — and there is no one shooting at us, and, for now at least, we are safe.
The streets are empty, but a local — he must have seen us from his apartment — has come down to bring us water, and we kiss him on both cheeks again and again and laugh once more, because we are stupidly grateful to be alive. He tells us that a battle has been raging all afternoon for control of the Ramses plaza and the access it provides to Tahrir from the east, and that we must have surfaced from the station just as the police were retreating. And we grab him, suddenly, and ask him about the square — what has happened in the square? Has the square been taken? Who has won the streets?
And he nods and points towards Tahrir which is a mile or so away, and that’s when we first see the huge plumes of smoke rising from the NDP headquarters, which lies just past the square’s north-west corner. ‘The protesters have it, and the security forces are fleeing,’ he tells us. And then he blesses us, and turns to leave. And Dalia and I glance at each other once more and smile, and look back at the twisty columns of smog the NDP building is belching into the twilight. The sun has set on Egypt’s day of rage. El‑shari‘ lina. The streets are ours.
From ‘The Egyptians: A Radical Story’, published in January 2016 by Allen Lane (Penguin Random House). Text and images copyright © 2016 by Jack Shenker.