Chicago Tribune: Rage Friday: Witnessing Egypt Firsthand

Ahmed Rehab, Executive Director, Council of American-Islamic Relations-Chicago

I am dictating this report from my home in a Cairo suburb over a landline to my assistant in Chicago. It seems that it is the only way to get the word out from under the clutches of a rogue Egyptian government that has no respect for freedoms.

Since yesterday, Hosny Mubarak’s ex-government has done the unthinkable and disabled the Egyptian peoples ability to communicate amongst themselves and the outside world, having shut down access to the internet, mobile phones, and landlines in the entire country, in anticipation of wide street protests Friday (the landlines just opened up).

Today was a day, the likes of which I have never witnessed and probably will never witness again.

Dubbed “Rage Friday,” Egyptians took to the streets in massive numbers all over Cairo, Alexandria, and several other cities around the country directly calling for a regime change. Until recently, while the government tolerated a certain degree of freedom of speech, criticism of Egypt’s 30-year despot Mubarak was unimaginable; those who tried faced swift retribution by the government in one form or another.

And yet today, tens of thousands of people across Egypt were publicly chanting “Down with Mubarak.” The same message could be seen sprayed all over government buildings in the wake of the demonstrations. Decades of muzzling fear have finally been shed.

Having shut down Facebook, where the movement was started and masterfully coordinated, and then all means of mass communication in order to completely stifle the coordination of demonstrations, many wondered if “Rage Friday” would be a success or disappointment. When people make good on their promise, or when things fizzle as they normally do here then the government smiles.

I met early in the day with friends and took a cab to Mostafa Mahmoud Mosque in the Mohandeseen neighborhood for Friday prayers, a mosque that we were told tends to attract activists. If there was anywhere in Cairo where a protest was likely, it would be here, we thought to ourselves. We asked the cab to drop us off at a corner and walked the rest of the way. Sure enough there were police trucks and battalions and armed security forces lined up and ready to go, as there would be in every large mosque in Cairo on that fateful day.

Sitting in the overflow section right under the warm Cairo sun, I listened as the Imam tried hard to be diplomatic in his sermon. He said he supported peaceful protests and sympathized with the public, for which he received applause and a loud “Allahu Akbar” from the congregants (a first for me, usually sermons are not interactive). This was my first indication that this was an activist-minded crowd. He then asked people to be patient and advised that change does not happen overnight, a clear attempt at curbing the protest, probably under instruction from the government.

But alas, no sooner had the prayer ended then a young man stood up and yelled “Yasqot, Yasqot Hosny Mubarak!”, “Down with Mubarak!” Immediately, as if the congregants had all came with the same thought in mind, a thunderous reply came back from practically everyone, “Down, Down with Mubarak!”

Quickly signs and flags came out from under coats and bags and a demonstration was under way.

As we moved on we decided to break through the police security line, trapping us in the mosque vicinity: after all we had not come to demonstrate to ourselves. Finally broke through and pushed into the main square. Onlookers joined and the march headed down the main road. Between 15 minutes, the crowd was in the thousands. As we marched, we would look at the tall residential buildings lining the streets where people were crowding in balconies chanting a chant, “Ya ahalene, Ya ahalene, Ya ahalene, dommo Alena!” “Our People! Our People, Join us!” The Demonstration continued to snowball in size as we headed down to downtown Cairo where we intended to descend on Tahrir Square, Cairo’s main square, and where the heaviest concentration of riot police and battalions anywhere in Egypt.

I eyeballed the crowd, there was an old man with a sign that read “No Dictatorship,” an old woman limping on a stick supported by younger patriots, hippie looking guys, men with religious beards, women in Hijab and others in jeans, even children. The atmosphere was jubilant as if it was clear to everyone deep down that this day generations of Egyptians longed to experience but never did.

Tahrir Square was on the other side of the Nile across from an island. Up until we got to the first bridge, we had faced little push-back from riot police who marched single-file next to us. But no sooner had we gotten there, the police truck from the bridge began to lunge tear gas canisters at the crowd.

Being caught in a cloud of tear gas is a nasty experience. Your eyes tear up, your nose and throat itch, you cough uncontrollably. You feel as if you’ve lost total control of your senses. You have to dash for clean air and squat down trying to control the pain until the effects go away. Being in the front lines, we had to push back on the crowds to take cover at a gas station where sympathetic attendants washed our faces down with hoses, “today we are all with you,” they said.

I would suffer two dozen tear gas fits before the long day was over.

After a short break at the gas station, we went back and tried again. By that time, the demonstration had grown such that there was a sea of people stretching two miles behind us. Crowds from other mosques in the area that had similarly spilled onto the streets had all funneled in. We later learned that other parts of Cairo and other cities in Egypt saw massive demonstrations under an identical scenario.

After many attempts, and amid thunderous chants, waving flags, sounds of tear gas being released, and people running for cover, we finally stormed the bridge, “Kobry el Galaa”. We were joined by Egyptian actor, Khaled el Sawy, and director, Khaled Youssef, in the front lines as we marched passed abandoned armored vehicles to the second bridge, Nile Palace Bridge, which would prove even tougher. Towards the end of the bridge Tahrir Square in sight, the tear gas came down in smoke around us. We retreated back to the middle of the bridge and waited for an opportunity to start again. Smoking canisters that made their way toward us would be swiftly picked up by brave souls and chucked into the Nile.

When the call to prayer came from minarets across the banks of the Nile, we lined up on the bridge and prayed together. The soldiers respected our prayers and waited. After we finished, the shelling continued. We could see droves of protesters on other bridges across the Nile at a distance and we knew all of Cairo had come out. Our hopes of storming to the other side of Nile Palace Bridge faded when armored trucks and riot police moved towards us sending tear canisters down like rain. The crowds were forced to retreat, chanting nationalist slogans and singing the national anthem all the while. This marked the moment that upped physical resistance with some youth bravely risking their lives to allow us to come through. Many came back bloodied after being beaten down by police batons and rubber bullets, some unconscious. The injuries were many, the fallen would be carried to safety and others would take their places.

The crowds tried alternative routes to Tahrir Square but to no avail. There were heavy congregations of riot police everywhere, and the tear bombs quickly followed. In tense moments, they would attack us with rubber bullets in cartridge shots.

Throughout the day, protesters insisted on protesting peacefully. When some of the more rowdy members would try to vandalize street signs or lamp posts, others would hold them back while the crowds would chant, “Selmeyh! Selmeyh!” “Peacefully! Peacefully!” But often, the brutality of the riot police would be met with much frustration.

“Is this a government that can call itself decent?” yelled one protester. “We ask for our rights in a peaceful, civil, demonstration, and their only response is violence.” Indeed, as hard as it was to believe, despite much of Egypt shaking under the might of popular protest, the President had yet to utter a single word in a public statement- only riot police.

We continued our attempts to storm Nile Palace Bridge until sunset. It was a numbers and perseverance game. As the numbers grew and the police got tired, we were able to make gains until we finally stormed it. Large crowds had to jump off the street-side of the bridges and charge the side roads for that to happen. The bridge was still teaming with people, when the shelling from Tahrir Square started. People tried to rush back but there was nowhere to go. There were moments when I resigned myself to death by stampede. My friends and I had to shake down a large iron fence to allow people to run for cover.

Finally, by nightfall, we succeeded in getting to our target, Tahrir Square; Cairo belonged to the people, probably for the first time ever. Egyptians were second-rate citizens in their own country under the colonialist-controlled monarchy. The 1952 military coups liberated Egypt from foreign occupation but started a new era of local despots. If Mubarak was to fall tonight or anytime soon, this would be the first time Egyptians ever experienced true independence, where the people, not autocrats, called the shots.

Tahrir Square was a sight to behold. Dozens of abandoned armored vehicles had been torched, fires were glistening under the night sky, smoke filled the air, loud booms from the last remaining battalion of security forces that had retreated to a safe distance could be heard, the people knew this was it. The chants grew louder as protesters climbed up the large statues and waved their flags. The police, while notorious for its brutality and corruption, had conceded defeat, and the army was called in to protect the citizens in their absence.

The seat of Mubarak’s monopolizing party that ruled 97% of parliament and the presidency was torched, an action that I do not condone, but who’s deep symbolism is not lost upon any Egyptian. After eight painful hours ended with a resounding success, we started the long way home. There were no riot police or any police in sight. We could see the tanks rolling in over the bridges into downtown Cairo. We heard about the successful demonstrations all over Cairo and Egypt. People were hugging, dancing, and chanting. This truly had to be the end.

Or was it? We heard that Mubarak remained in denial and was calling for calm, an indication of how out of touch he was from the people- still. Worse yet, Mubarak’s military chief was in Washington apparently asking the U.S. government for help. It would be a travesty if the U.S. government chooses to support this out-of-business dictatorship against the people’s push for self-determination. I hope that all my fellow American’s back home reading my blog call on our government to do the right thing and support the Egyptian people’s push for true democracy.

Reflecting on the way back, I thought of my parents. I thought of my kids whom I don’t have yet. Today, if nothing else, Egyptians proved their backbones. They proved their courage and creativity. They rose up as one voice and one hand and earned dignity for themselves and respect from the world.

Today showed me the Egyptian people’s true fabric, how much people loved and cared for one another. I thought about all the random acts of kindness and creativity throughout the difficult day. Shops on the past of our march would rush out free bottles of water for people. Strangers would share their limited personal supply of vinegar for others to wash the tear gas out of their eyes, and people would buy boxes of biscuits and pass them around to help others keep going. Even the police were not spared civility; members of the police who strayed away from the back would be treated well and told, “you are our brothers and fathers, you are from us and we are from you, we are all Egyptians, we are doing this for you too.” They replied, “we are with you in heart, we are just following orders.”

As I stood there in Tahrir Square, I thought of the meaning of the word Tahrir: liberation. The irony neatly summed up the ordeal.

Read More From Ahmed’s Blog HERE