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Jan 25, 5 years on: I didn’t go to Tahrir

It’s January 25, 2016, and it’s 12:55 pm and I haven’t gone to Tahrir.

The truth is, not only am I not in Tahrir, I’m not even in Cairo. I’m in a place really far away from Tahrir.

I was in this same place on January 25, 2011. I’m not trying to say that everything has returned to what it was and we’re in the same place we were when the revolution started. I just mean I’m sitting on the same chair I was on January 25, 2011.

Around the same time five years ago, all I cared about was a film we had just finished writing and were excited about shooting. The film, thank God, was shot, finalized and screened last year, and it was a piece of shit. I was also thinking about my work and my future and all that. I wasn’t expecting miracles to happen to me on a personal level. But a lot of miracles changed my life drastically. I was always concerned with Egypt, politics, Hosni Mubarak, Gamal Mubarak and so on, but when I received the call to take part in the January 25 protests on Facebook, my friends and I laughed and talked about the sandwiches and picnic thermoses we’d take with us to the revolution.

Of course I wasn’t going to take to the streets.

I wasn’t going to take to the streets because I was scared of being beaten. I was scared of being humiliated. I didn’t see anything in the world worth going through such a moment. Throughout January 25, it wasn’t a question of taking to the streets or not. The issue was resolved for me. We were looking at the developments in Tunisia and waiting for the unpleasant surprise to happen, for them to regret protesting. On January 25, the Tunisian protesters didn’t seem regretful.

Around 8 pm, I was sitting with my father watching television and we theorized competitively, as usual. As we flipped channels, I saw 20 people sitting on the ground in Tahrir Square, chanting in a trembling voice: “The people want to bring down the regime.” I got up, got my bag and left for Cairo.

Still, I didn’t take to the streets.

When I arrived, I went to the cafe (before you make a decision about the future of your country, you should smoke at least two rounds of shisha). I met my friends and we discussed whether to take to the streets. We eventually agreed to go. The square was full of people. We went when we felt safe. We went knowing it would all be over in half an hour, 45 minutes at most. I remember our trip from Talaat Harb Square to Tahrir Square through Central Security Force trucks, and lines of soldiers and officers looking at us as we naively entered through the only corridor they left open. Just like that. I clearly remember seeing people in the square; their faces had expressions of bewilderment: “Is this for real? We’re really here doing what we’re doing?” I remembered the Adel Imam film Terrorism and Kebab and told my friend, “The end won’t be too happy, but it’s enough that we embarrassed them and made them look ugly in front of the world.”

If we go down today, they can easily disperse us.

Tear gas started and with it the hysteria. We ran, frightened. It was the first time I smelled tear gas. I said to myself that I didn’t want to smell it again, whatever happened. Anger, betrayal and a strong desire for revenge. 

I told you they could disperse us, and they did.

On January 28, we came back to Cairo from the Alexandria launch of Tok Tok, the comics magazine I co-founded. We arrived at noon in the middle of the gangbang.

We didn’t go of our own will, and if we knew, probably we wouldn’t have gone where the clashes were. We had to run with boxes of magazines from Ramses Station to Sherif Street. We saw people being attacked with birdshot. We saw officers running away and leaving soldiers behind. We saw people throwing onions and vinegar to protesters from their windows. And we saw the army “going down to protect the revolution.” We were frightened, of course. Something good was happening, but it could also be very bad, very bad. We went to take a look at Tahrir Square in the evening to see how things had evolved.

Yes, we went down, but in the evening, when things calmed down. 

During the 18 days, I spent the nights at a friend’s house near Tahrir. Each day I went once or twice, sometimes more. Around the square, things were scary. Altercations constantly unfolded between protesters and “honorable citizens.”[1] I was very happy about what was happening and impressed by all the stories I kept hearing about the square. The harmony, the love, Christians next to Muslims. But I was dead scared. Every day passed like a year. Every hour I asked myself, to what end? God only knows what Mubarak will do to us. 

True, I went several times, but I never slept in the square.

The situation worsened. Camels charged in and Molotovs were thrown. Killings became consistent, targeted and concentrated. Videos spread fast. Certain forces moved the scene in certain directions and it stopped being spontaneous. Rumors that Mubarak had left spread through the square all the time, as did rumors of a dragon eating protesters in nearby Bab al-Louq. 

I was never on the front lines, and I never threw a stone. 

Mubarak left to good riddance and we danced until the following morning. I hugged a female friend who I used to only shake hands with. Flowers blossomed and all became well. We would start worrying tomorrow. But tomorrow came faster than we imagined. Bad news started coming. Virginity tests, the army electrocuting people on Qasr al-Aini Street. Mohamed Mahmoud 1, 2 and 3. Motorcycles carrying dead bodies. People we knew dying.

Fuck.

What’s happening is wrong. There’s something wrong. This isn’t what we agreed on or planned for. Wait. We weren’t planning anything in the first place. What would we plan for, anyway? We’re not intelligence officers sitting behind desks producing reports on the level of people’s satisfaction with the president. We’re not officers training soldiers every few years on resistance tactics against possible revolutions, or arranging among themselves to guarantee that no coup, God forbid, would ever happen. We’re not commanders of Islamist groups separated from reality and sitting in a guidance bureau[2] to calculate what would happen if we participated in this protest or that sit-in, how many of us would die and how many seats in Parliament we’d win against those we sacrificed. We’re not businessmen deciding where and with whom to invest depending on the future of this or that regime. We’re a bunch of kids, sick of all those mentioned in this paragraph, not wanting to be like them and not wanting tomorrow to be like yesterday. Enough with stupidity.

I went to Tahrir on April 6, 2008, because I was young and had no clue. I didn’t know anything about the state or the regime or the Ministry of Interior or the Brotherhood or anything. I thought that by going to Tahrir I would have done a revolutionary act, with all the void meanings that expression connotes. I didn’t know back then what security would do to me if I was arrested. I didn’t know what the intelligence meant or what military security meant or what C28[3] was. I didn’t know people could spend 500 days in pretrial detention. I didn’t know what forced disappearance and physical extermination meant. I didn’t know anything, and the reasons for me to go to Tahrir were far fewer than they are now. What happened since, and what I’ve learned, has made my desire for this regime’s end grow bigger every day. 

What I want to say is …

I didn’t go to Tahrir because I wanted to go, or felt like going, or loved going. I went because circumstances made me go. I didn’t know what going there would lead me to, or how it would benefit me. There is, of course, a set of values I love the revolution for, and that gave me continuous hope for it. It’s an utterly glorious human act when someone says “no” for the sake of their dignity, or because they feel they deserve better, even if it may cost their life. It reminds us why we’re humans, not pigs driven to eat and piss. It reminds us that we’re self-respecting humans, regardless of our vested interests.

People who took to the streets in 2011, 2013, 1977, 1936, 1919 and 1917 and all the other times, they went down because they had to — they had no other choice. Taking to the streets doesn’t necessarily mean something positive or negative all the time. It means something is happening in the country that’s calling for action. The years between each mobilization are mere attempts to delay the next mobilization, or to plan its best use. Every generation of Egypt’s rulers has tried to keep people at home for the longest period possible. And this is precisely the heart of the problem: The utmost ambition of those ruling us is not to raise citizens’ average income, or have the best healthcare system in the region, but to make sure you don’t take to the streets. So if you don’t want to take to the streets, don’t. Let the ceiling of your ambition be that no one hits or humiliates you, just like me and so many others sitting under the blankets today, waiting.

It’s 2:27 pm now. Let’s see what will happen between now and 8 pm today, or tomorrow, or in another couple of years.


[1] The term authorities used for citizens against the revolution or the revolutionaries.

[2] The Muslim Brotherhood’s governing body.

[3] The military prosecution offices.

AD