A Year In Tahrir Square


It was on 25 January 2011, formerly known as Police Day, that a loose coalition of activists, centered on the April 6 and We Are All Khalid Said Facebook groups, took to the streets, leading marches from all around Cairo and converging on Tahrir — Liberation — Square. Their spirits were bolstered by the success of Tunisia’s December/January uprising, and their determination hardened by the self immolation of four Egyptians, who were themselves following the example of the young Tunisian Mohamad Bou Azizi. Few of them dared hope, however, that their march would spark the kind explosive and transformative uprising that it did.

For 18 glorious and terrifying days, Egypt was aflame.

On the evening of 11 February, the 30-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak was over, and Tahrir Square had been etched into the collective imagination of Egyptians and the world, as a symbol of the kind of people power that was, until that moment, almost universally assumed to be a spent force.

It is important to remember, of course, that the revolution did not take place only in Tahrir Square, but all across Egypt, with factories shut down by their workers, police stations stormed by the populations that had so long been victims of their cruelty and corruption, and popular committees formed to defend neighbourhoods from the roaming gags of criminals, some freshly released from the prisons in a desperate attempt by the regime to cause chaos.

Tahrir, however, was the focal point, and the face the revolution presented to the world. As such it has become a place of special significance. Again and again clashes have erupted here between a protest movement that saw Mubarak’s resignation as the beginning of Egypt’s revolution, and a military-led establishment who hoped it would mark the end. Below is a list of the more significant of these clashes.

25/26 February: A group of a few dozen protesters had gathered outside the parliament building following a largely celebratory rally in the adjacent Tahrir Square. They were calling for the ousting of Ahmed Shafik, a prime minister installed by Mubarak as part of a cabinet reshuffle announced during the 18 days. Later that evening the army would cordon off the area and soldiers and military police would clear the area with force, attacking protesters using tazers and batons. The violence then spilled over into the Square. One young woman who made it out from behind the barricade told me that this was the start of the "second revolution" against the army. In a sense she was correct.

The arrest of Amr al-Behery on this night, and then his sentencing to five years by a military court on weapons charges his supporters say are obviously false motivated his friends and those who had witnessed the arrest to form a network that would soon become the No to Military Trials movement. This small group would be important as opposition to the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) grew. It also set a vital precedent: the military, after attacking the protesters and arresting at least one of them, within weeks ceded to their demands and had Shafiq replaced. This pattern of violence preceding partial concessions would become the norm during the military’s bumbling "transitional" reign.

9 March: Armed civilians (who many think were organised thugs) attacked a small tent city established in Tahrir. Protesters rushed to defend it. An Egyptian journalist with whom I had gone to the square decided that he had done enough reporting, and rushed towards the front-lines to throw rocks. He returned with an injured head, and told me how the army had arrived, and been welcomed by the protesters thinking that it would act as a buffer between the two groups and bring some calm to the situation.

Instead, once in striking range, the troops joined the attack on the square, and joined with men in civillian clothes armed with clubs and other improvised weapons in tearing the protest camp down. Some civilians who had gathered to watch, including locals and business owners, angry at the ongoing protests for interrupting their lives and work, cheered the army on. Others took a less supportive view.

As academic Neil Fitch Kelly, who has focussed on the "micro-sociologies" of interactions between protesters and the army, noted, this was the lLast time people chanted ‘el geysh wel shaab eyd wahda’ (The people and the army are one hand — a common chant from the 18 days) in any meaningful way".

This was also the day that the iconic Egyptian museum was used to detain protesters grabbed by the army. Once inside the historic building they were subjected to torture and rape, including the notorious "virginity tests".

8/9 April: The day of 8 April saw the second major Friday protest in as many weeks. Named the Friday of "purging" (sometimes translated as "purification"), it called for a speeding up of the process of reform, beginning with a rooting out of the most corrupt elements of the old regime. The slow prosecution of Mubarak began soon after. The significance of the day was added too by the fact that for the first time, dissident army officers joined protests critical of the SCAF. As night fell and the numbers dwindled the army moved in.

For the first time since the fall of Mubarak, however, the protesters responded in kind, hurling rocks and molotov cocktails at the army — fighting them the way the police had been fought during the initial 18 days. By sunrise, the Square had been cleared — not of protesters — but of soldiers, who had even abandoned army vehicles and metal barricades in their rush to escape the angry mob. These were used by protesters to set up road blocks as they re-established their camp. This aggressive claiming of public space backfired and led to a great deal of public ire directed at the protesters. As their numbers dwindled the barricades were removed, and the camp withdrawn to the central traffic island of Tahrir Square. Within a week this new encampment would also be cleared by the army and many arrests made.

15 May: Protesters commemorating the 1948 "Nakba" (catastrophe), of the mass expulsion of Palestinians and the creation of the state of Israel, who had marched from Tahrir to the Israeli embassy, came under attack from the Egyptian army. Hundreds were injured.

28/29 June: Families of those killed during the revolution, having been invited to attend an honorary celebration of the revolution’s martyrs at the Ballon theater, were refused entry. Scuffles broke out with theatre security. The police arrived and also began to attack the families. This would be the trigger for two days of intensive street fighting that ended with a new, larger encampment in Tahrir Square.

23 July: A march from Tahrir Square to the offices of the Department of Defense in the Cairo suburb of Abbasseya comes under attack form armed civilians — reported by some to be angry residents of the neighbourhood, and by others to be the organised thugs long employed by the Egyptian state to stifle dissent. Injured protesters returned to Tahrir Square, where the sit-in continued.

1 August: On the first day of Ramadan, with numbers in the square extremely low, a massive number of police and soldiers descended on the square, beating arresting protesters. The army and police would stay deployed in large numbers around the square. One attempt was made by protesters to hold an Iftar (fast breaking) ceremony in the square during Ramadan, but it was brutally dispersed.

One major protest did however take place during the holy month. Following a terrorist attack in near the border that left eight dead, Israeli forces had crossed into Egypt and killed five egyptian police officers, rather than the terrorists. In response protesters massed outside the Israeli embassy. One shot to fame after scaling the multi-story building and removing the Israeli flag, earning him the moniker Flag Man.

9 September: Billed as a post Ramadan comeback for the revolution, the Friday rally failed to draw the kinds of numbers seen during the 18 days, or even on 8 April. What it did draw however, were tens of thousands of intensely committed protesters. On that one day three major marches took place using Tahrir as a launch pad.

One was by far the largest protest organised around the issue of military trials, with thousands marching to the supreme court and, for the first time but not the last, spraying the images of political prisoners onto the buildings walls. Another was a charge, led by the "ultras" — hardcore soccer fans whose history of clashing with the police has been an important asset to the revolution — moved towards the hated interior ministry. Finally in the evening, a march left the square and headed to the Israeli embassy — which they were still angry had not been closed following the deaths of five Egyptians in the cross border raid. Some eventually stormed the embassy and threw documents from the balcony.

9-10 October: This was the night of the Maspero Massacre. A march of thousands of Coptic Christians and their Muslim supporters, called in reaction to attacks on churches around the country, was attacked by soldiers, police and armed civilians, who were egged on by state television broadcasting a false account of the events in which armed Christians were attacking soldiers. Over the course of the evening more than two dozen would die, many from gunshot wounds, and some by being crushed beneath the army’s armoured personnel carriers. Despite becoming an international issue, and a public relations disaster for the SCAF, this would mark the beginning of a deadly new period in Egypt in which force would be more frequently used in attempts to disperse protests.

19-25 November: The day after a large rally, in which Islamists and secular groups came together behind the "one demand" of a prompt transfer from military to civilian rule, first the police, then the military police attempted to clear Tahrir of the remaining protesters. Their use of force, however, this time had the opposite effect, and drew larger and larger numbers to the square. The conflict raged for days, leaving at least 40 protesters dead and thousands more injured. Due to the widespread practice of the police firing rubber bullets at head height, many of these injuries were to the eyes. This transformed the white medical eye-patch onto a symbol of revolution — with people applying them to the faces of statues of historical figures around Cairo.

The intensity of the fighting, the large numbers of people involved, and the intense feeling of camaraderie and fearlessness that gripped the crowds reminded many of the initial 18 day uprising. This fervour managed to shake things up more than previous protests, with the prime minister and his cabinet resigning. During this period at least one important concession was also made by the SCAF, who brought forward their proposed date for presidential elections (and therefore the end of their rule) to the first half of 2012 — when they had previously scheduled for 2013. There is no solid guarantee that this won’t change — the SCAF changed the dates for the parliamentary elections several times before they actually took place — but the date has been latched onto by the press and the emerging political class.

Support for these protests  slumped, as the first round of voting in Egypt’s parliamentary elections approached. Many of the protesters felt that holding elections while people were still being killed in the streets for expressing their political opinion was absurd. The general mood in the square regarding the elections came to be that they were SCAF’s elections, and therefore part of SCAF’s program. Sometimes this theory was augmented by the suspicion that some kind of deal having been struck between the Brotherhood and the military.

This was clearly not the feeling of the millions of Egyptians who did vote however, and their opposition to the elections seems to have cost the protesters a great deal of support from the broader population, who are eager for stability and suffering from the economic disruption caused by the revolution, which compounded the dire economic circumstances they faced before the uprising began.

16-19 December: In what seemed a remarkably stupid repetition of their mistakes in November, the army took a small group of protesters, who had established a camp outside the parliament (they called it #OccupyCabinet, saying they would prevent the cabinet newly appointed by the SCAF from entering to form a government) and transformed it into a large scale street battle involving thousands. The clashes began after one of the protesters, a teenage boy, was taken into the parliament building, where he was beaten and abused, then released. When he told his story to the other protesters, they, enraged, became belligerent. The solders responded by throwing rocks, furniture and other heavy items from the parliament’s upper flaws causing serious injury to the protesters below.

The fighting that followed killed at least another 10 protesters, destroyed a historic scientific institute, containing many historic books. During this fighting, a now notorious incident was caught on camera. A young woman, whose name is unknown and who is most commonly referred to as "blue bra girl", is seen being dragged, stripped and beaten by soldiers.

Through its obvious brutality, stupidity and incompetence in dealing with protests in Tahrir — and with other issues — the military has managed, in just one short year, to destroy the position of seemingly unassailable popularity it enjoyed immediately following the fall of Mubarak.

As the #Jan25 anniversary approaches, there is much speculation as to whether the military will somehow botch this too.

They had announced a plan to hold a military ceremony, complete with medal presentations and martial arts displays in the historic square, but have since apparently realised that such a move would be an open invitation for conflict with the revolutionary youth, who have also promised to show up in force that day.

There is still some nervousness about tomorrow, but increasingly the consensus is that the army will steer clear of the protests, rather than be seen attacking them on a day they have set aside to celebrate what street politics achieved. They couldn’t be that stupid, the thinking goes. Or could they?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.