A Cairo journal

Philip Ó Ceallaigh

Philip Ó Ceallaigh

23 November
Late afternoon, into town with Hussein, metro carriage full of chanting flag-waving teenagers. On the wall maps, Mubarak metro station had been renamed Martyrs. Mubarak’s police state had been replaced by Field Marshal Tantawi’s military dictatorship. It was not the country I remembered from six years before. People were not afraid to raise their voices now. We got out at Tahrir. Vendors on the platforms were selling surgical masks against the tear gas. Everybody was buying. I did too.

At the top of the stairway, where the passage opened to the Square, someone blocked my way, demanding ID. I pushed past and kept walking. I didn’t get far. One person trying to grab hold of me became, very quickly, a crowd. I couldn’t tell if they were protesters, plainclothes police, or one of the mobs the police employ. I tried to keep my feet as I was tugged at. I could see Hussein several metres away, also surrounded, and then I couldn’t see him, and felt hands trying to push into my pockets, where my own hands were clamped over my wallet and phone. I had no idea where they were trying to drag me, or why, or if they even knew themselves. I had triggered something – paranoia or anger, excitement or just curiosity – and the crowd was growing. I could see mobile phones aloft, filming me.

And I could see, as though in a dream, Tahrir Square, transformed. I remembered it as a sea of noisy vehicles, a convergence of major roads: in scale and chaos and noise, essential Cairo. I’d cross it each day using the network of tunnels beneath it, where the city’s two metro lines intersected. Now the vehicles were gone, and the Square looked bigger than before, and the darkening sky bigger. Over the heads of the mob I saw the Mogamma – fourteen storeys of Stalinist architecture, dominating the Square. Eighteen thousand civil servants are employed there, but all the lights were out.

I remember one face in particular. That of a short muscular man who gripped my belt, bad teeth bared in rabid determination. In another context this would have been funny. But I was in a fix. This was the bloodthirsty Arab mob we all knew from television. I was about to be ripped apart by a bad cliché.


I’d arrived that morning at 3 a.m., on an almost empty plane. I dislike arriving in big cities in the dead of night, and the one that took shape below as the plane descended, dense and shadowy, home to twenty million, was a monster. I was in awe – as I had been when I came here first – that such a thing could even function. Cities the size of Cairo and Beijing and Mumbai have never existed before. What happens when they fail?

I taxied out to Maadi and woke up my old friend, Hussein. His apartment was on the twenty-fifth floor of a tower block. Years before, when he was a student, we had shared an apartment just off Tahrir. Our old neighbourhood was now the site of running battles between protesters and riot police. Dozens had died, trying to restage the revolution that in January had overthrown Mubarak and, supposedly, ushered in democracy. It had soon become apparent that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), in charge of overseeing the democratic transition, was intent on clinging to power.

We sat in near darkness, talking, as the sun came up. ‘The elections are meaningless now,’ said Hussein. ‘The army will have a veto over any legislation or constitutional change parliament proposes. The military will nominate its own budget and there’ll be no civilian oversight over how it’s spent. Since January, over twelve thousand people have been convicted in military courts, tried in secrecy, thrown into jail. They still torture people. They’ve done everything they can to create violence, like the Maspero massacre last month.’

On 9 October, marchers protesting the burning down of a church had been attacked by the army in the centre of Cairo, and twenty-eight were killed. Video evidence and autopsies show that at least twelve of the victims were run over by armoured personnel carriers. The victims were mostly Coptic Christians, but there were many Muslims on the march as well. State-controlled TV did all it could to turn the incident into a conflict between Muslims and Christians.

‘They tried to stir up religious hatred. They couldn’t do it, because no one believes anything they say. The elections are meaningless now. The real struggle is on the street.’

The sun was rising. The call to prayer, electronically amplified, rose from the surrounding mosques, each cutting over the other, as I fell asleep.


I began to discern faces in the crowd, and this calmed me a little. As well as a mad dog or two, and an unsuccessful pickpocket, there were people with beards who looked like they prayed a lot, and studious intelligent faces, people of different ages – in other words, everybody was there. And I realized that there a was a tug of war going on. Among those surrounding me were people who had observed my distress and were trying to help me. But with so many people gripping me at once, they were getting in each other’s way. The shouting continued.

The people of Cairo like a bit on noise, a spectacle, an argument, and even when it sounds ferocious there is a good chance that an element of theatricality, and even humour, is involved. Now that it was clear I had no bombs, and was probably not a foreign spy, I sensed a shift in mood. The crowd desired a dramatic reversal. A young man, holding my hand, translated for me.

‘He’s a journalist!’
Amen! said the crowd (or something like that).
‘I have come here to see!’ I said, tapping just below my right eye.
Aha! said the crowd.

The crowd was still swelling and I was still being filmed. Now a brother in their struggle, I seized the moment and began to shake hands with strangers. I felt the crowd ripe for a proclamation and I wish I could have delivered one worthy of the occasion. With the right words, they would have hoisted me onto their shoulders. I could have led them into battle. (To the east of the Square, a battle was at that moment taking place.)

‘Get me out of this,’ I said to the young man doing the translating.

The crowd budged and gradually lost interest as I regained contact with Hussein and we were escorted out by a small group. They kept apologizing.

Then Hussein and I were on our own, walking one of the streets near the US embassy, lined with armoured cars. There would be no rioting there.

‘That was my fault,’ I admitted. ‘I misjudged that. It’s an old eastern European scam – someone pretending to be a cop wants to check your documents, then your wallet … I feel bad for pushing that kid out of the way. He was smaller than me, too … A student probably, doing his bit for the revolution. He was taking the trouble to talk to me in English.’

Hussein recalled how, shortly after the January revolution, he had travelled to Europe, and the one thing people had wanted to discuss was the assault on a CBS journalist in the Square. ‘She was attacked by a Mubarak mob. It has been a regime tactic for years, to sexually assault female protesters. This was the kind of thing people were trying to change. When the regime did it to Egyptian women it wasn’t news in Europe.’

We had looped back and were approaching the Square again. Hussein bought an industrial gas mask with a carbon filter from a vendor and urged me to do the same.

‘I don’t intend getting that close.’
‘Sometimes it just happens.’

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