I went back to Tahrir Square early morning on Sunday, December 18. I wanted to find Amir, a partially blinded man I had met three days earlier. When we spoke then — none of the occupants of this iconic plaza thought the government would be foolish enough to order a military evacuation of what is now “the heart of the Egyptian revolution.”
But it happened.
The military repression against the latest wave of violent protest in Cairo has been merciless. The military police – the Central Security Forces — used live ammunition and tear gas. Since violence erupted again on Friday, December 16 — only one day after the second phase of legislative elections ended — more than a dozen people have been killed.
On that Friday while witnessing the clash between protestors and the army, I saw a young man wearing Germany’s national soccer team jersey sitting in the gutter of El Kasr El Aini Street, the street of Cairo’s government offices. He was sobbing. His best friend had just been killed. By the end of that Friday, eight people were dead, including three children.
The army’s evacuation of Tahrir Square was incredibly violent. The tents, most of them no more than blankets draped over wooden poles and attached to plastic strings – were burned to the ground. The occupants — who attempted to rescue their meagre possessions — were savagely beaten and arrested. And then beaten again.
On December 18 — when I came back to Tahrir seeking Amir — instead of his tent I found ashes. The revolutionary placards were torn apart and the Egyptian flag that occupied a central place in the protestors sit-in had been removed. I guessed the army has pulled it down and taken it away.
Nothing was left in Tahrir Square. Nobody was there — not even the families of the martyrs of the revolution who had said they would occupy the square until “justice is made and democracy reigns in Egypt.”
And when my camera began emerging from my shoulder bag, three soldiers in combat gear briskly walked towards me. It was time to leave, witnesses are not welcome. Journalists have been targeted by the security forces.
And as I walked away along Talaat Harb Street, towards the Egyptian Museum, I thought of Amir who I had met just three days earlier. Amir — the activist whose right eye was targeted by an army sniper, a rubber bullet tearing his eye apart. He was one of dozens of Egyptian activists targeted intentionally by army snipers during protests.
One of the snipers, Central Security officer Mahmoud El-Shennawy, surrendered himself to the Ministry of Interior a few months ago. He became known as the “the sniper of the eyes.”
Amir, 32, was one of his victims. Amir had lived in Tahrir Square since last August. “This is my home now,” he told me when we first met. “I won’t move till those who did this are brought to justice,” pointing his stained finger at the white bandage covering his eye socket.
We shared tea in Tahrir and we spoke for a very long time. When I was leaving, he grabbed my arm and said something in Arabic to his friend. His friend reached into a plastic bag and then placed in my hands three tiny rubber pellets while pointing into Amir’s bandaged eye. “It is a souvenir from Amir,” he smiled.
Amir was shot in the eye while protesting last November — on the frontline of Mohamed Mahmouad Street — just across from Tahrir Square.
As Tahrir Square, Mohamed Mahmouad Street has become an icon of the Egyptian revolution. Many were killed here too. Many others like Amir were blinded. The walls across the street are a canvas for street art homage to the fallen and the blind. The murals show women and men whose eyes, either one or both, have been covered in white paint.
The blind eyes have become a powerful symbolic element that has galvanized Egyptian society. As one young activist told me “…the blinded ones have opened the eyes of Egyptians.”
That was the case of Asma, an Egyptian from a middle upper class background educated in Europe, who, after seeing those blinded by the snipers decided “to quit to the El-Kanaba (the couch party)” and became fully involved in the revolution.
Many were inspired by blinded activists, by the likes of blogger Malek Moustafa or Abdel Fattah. A photojournalist for El Masry el-Youm, Fattah lost sight in one eye and the other is still at risk. He is waiting for surgery to remove a pellet still inside his left eye. He was shot while filming the November Mohamed Mahmoud Street battle. “I lost my right eye, but the left eye can still observe, photograph and tell the truth”. He still hopes they can save it.But for Ahmad Harara there is no hope. He lost both eyes. The 31-year-old dentist lost his right eye on January 28 last year, at the beginning of the revolution. He was not deterred though; he joined the protest on November 19. That day he lost his other eye. “I would rather be blind, but live with dignity and with my head held high,” he said on a Facebook activist page.
Most of the protestors now wear swimming goggles (I diligently packed mine in my camera bag when I head to Tahrir Square). However, as one protestor told me “…they are now aiming at the knees.” It has — perhaps — a less powerful symbolic meaning. “And they are getting more professional snipers, they are good,” he said.
He was right, I saw endless number of protestors with patched knees, some of them with dry blood on their legs. “Be careful, they are also targeting reporters aiming at their cameras.” I thanked him in Arabic and remarked his American English accent. “I lived in the US, American accent here is not good.”
Mohamed Mahmouad is now a dead-end street.
The army has deployed barbed wire and placed Pharaonic sized concrete blocks to stop protestors storming government offices located in the vicinity.
A day before the violence erupted once again last week I strolled this street for several hours. It was quiet then. Two young well-dressed men, no more than sixteen or seventeen, asked me to take a photo of them against the wall. One of them pointed to the corner of Mohammed Mahmouad and Al Amir Kadader Streets. “I saw people dying here,” he said. “Bad, very bad,” he said.
The concrete blocks form a defensive wall covered in anti-government graffiti. It has become the backdrop for endless photographic shots. “Freedom will come,” Amr an accountancy student from Saudi Arabia translates for me. He also translates the cursing of an old woman who blames foreign reporters for the problems of Egypt.
A young couple holding hands, just coming out of the nearby trendy Cilantro café that miraculously has its windows intact after the confrontations, stop to pose against the wall, as posing against of a major historical landmark. And perhaps it is.
“Our lord created the Egyptians to accept government authority. No Egyptians can go against their government,” wrote the celebrated writer Alaa Al Aswany in his fiction The Yacobian Building.
Perhaps the young lovers posing against the wall of Mohamed Mahmouad Street were trying to capture the historical moment when Egyptians stopped accepting the government’s authority.
It is a historical moment that Omar, an Egyptian Canadian, didn’t want to miss. “Like many Egyptians abroad we are here to witness and support the revolution,” he said. He too is taking photos of the concrete blocks of Mohammed Mahmouad. “Mubarak is gone, now the military has to go, we want true democracy and so far we keep on moving back to the old system,” he said. “The revolution is not over and I won’t be heading back to Canada until the revolution is over.”
While I see him fading into the distance along Mohamed Mahmouad Street, a group of six children — perhaps 10 years old — are trying to climb the concrete walls. It’s a risky game. The first to reach the top chants anti-military slogans. “Look, look,” said one of them signalling me to look through a gap between the massive blocks. Military personnel in full gear line up on the other side of the wall, as if waiting to attack or to be attacked.
Only days before the military evacuation of Tahrir Square, activists were certain that Tahrir, the “heart of revolution was untouchable.”
None of them, including a 28-year-old engineer who has joined the protestors, thought that the government of Kamal Al-Ganzouri would try to evacuate Tahir Square by force.
“If they touch Tahrir, all Egyptians will come to fight,” he told me on a coolish winter evening in the square. The young engineer, who had his name written on his arm as an ID in case he was arrested, was wrong. Tharir was touched.
And while many have marched in the last few days to protest of the shocking violence used by the army, some Egyptians want the end of the protests.
“I support the revolution, but it is time to get back to business,” Hussein, a young Muslim financial adviser told me. “Those in Tahrir are not revolutionaries,” he said echoing Kamal Al-Ganzouri when he called the activists “counter-revolutionary forces.” The young financial adviser told me: “This is the wrong way to do things, I wish the protestors would end the protest and go home.”
His friend Akram, also a young professional, tried a different version about the protestors. “Most of the people there are ultras,” he said referring to the soccer fans of Zalamek and El Ahly, the most popular soccer clubs in the Egypt. The ultras became cannon fodder in the earliest days of the revolution, on January 25 and 28. Violent and with skills learned in soccer pitch against the police, the ultras became the “army” of Tahrir. Asmahan — a Muslim activist who joined the conversation said this was nonsense. “The ultras left long ago, I haven’t seen them since the football season restarted,” she said. “Those in Tahrir were hardliners and most of them are poor people, they have no where else to go.”
I’m not sure whether Amir was a hardliner. I know he was poor, one among the 50% of Egyptians living under the poverty line, but with more wisdom than most. Only a few hours before the violence erupted last week he told me: “… everything is unclear at the moment, no one knows what will happen next.”