That Black Wednesday [Notes from the 18 days of Tahrir]

Tahrir looked like a battlefield. Men on horseback and camels with whips and swords, later labeled by media and activists as “state-sponsored thugs,” charged at an unarmed crowd. It was as brutal as it was “medieval,” and its aggressiveness was in direct proportion to its surreality — at least for those who were caught up in the violent fighting that ensued that afternoon.

Egypt's Battle of the Camel

Egypt’s Battle of the Camel

The events of February 2, what protesters came to call Black Wednesday, came less than 24 hours after then-President Hosni Mubarak’s emotionally charged speech in which he conceded to some of the Tahrir demands. Just before midnight on February 1, Mubarak, in an almost imploring tone, called upon Egyptians to remember his “accomplishments” and the fact that he was a celebrated war veteran, and promised reforms in addition to not running another term. He would stay in his post until the autumn elections, however, to oversee the reforms.

Many sympathized and a rift opened in public opinion on whether or not protesters should stay in the square.

That Tuesday night, rather ominous signs of the split could be felt in the square. People listened to Mubarak’s speech before midnight and a certain uneasiness followed. Numbers dwindled. Some left the square convinced that they should come back, while others were plagued with a sense of uncertainty about whether to be patient for another six months. To sit in Tahrir or not to sit was the question —the confusion there was echoed in households across Egypt.

Ayman Mohyideen, Al Jazeera English’s Cairo bureau chief and lead correspondent, said that he had noticed a “different attitude” on the square as he was leaving on Tuesday night, following the president’s speech. “Just the atmosphere. The rumors started to circulate that pro-Mubarak supporters were going to come to Liberation Square,” he said. “Even the military took a different posture. They became a little bit on the defense. You [could] feel it in the air.”

That night, Egypt Today spoke to people who said they were tipped off by relatives in the police force that the scene would get violent and that “thugs” would start heading to Tahrir after midnight. Mohyideen himself left the square after hearing from protesters and fellow journalists that there were “troublemakers” out looking for him by name; the next day, after the violence broke out, people came to his hotel, chanting against Al Jazeera.

As Mohyideen and his TV crew were walking out of the square from the eastern exit, near the Egyptian Museum, they saw “like a hundred people on motorcycles, pro-Mubarak supporters with sticks, coming down and circling around, in a mob style atmosphere, chanting ‘He won’t leave.’”

“They were all young men, all on motorcycles, with flags, with pictures of Mubarak and sticks,” Mohyideen says. “It became very suspicious. It was a kind of coordinated and orchestrated mob reaction, which I’ve seen in elections. It had all the hallmarks of some kind of concentrated effort by these people.”

Similar mobs were seen in neighborhoods near Tahrir, marching toward the square. Nour Ayman, a protester in his early twenties, says that the sight was concerning, but not realizing how events would unfold he put his faith in the army, which remained neutral for the most part.

“I thought to myself, the army wouldn’t let anything bad happen to the [pro-democracy] protesters. They would never allow a confrontation,” says Ayman, who was on the front line near barricades by the Egyptian Museum. That view changed when he “saw the guy who threw the first blow at protesters.”

As Ayman remembers it, a mixed group of citizens — women and men, from upper and lower socioeconomic classes — were approaching and rowdily protesting in support of Mubarak, when suddenly a man from the back of the crowd started throwing “random objects” at the pro-democracy demonstrators. “Batons, sticks, pieces of plastic, things that are not lethal flew at us,” Ayman says. “Those who looked like they’re from the educated middle-class among the pro-Mubarak crowd left the scene and those who looked more aggressive, more like thugs, stayed.”

The chain of events progressed fast and random scuffles turned into violent face-offs that resulted in bloodshed. Flocks of “pro-Mubarak supporters” started seeping into the square from all directions. “We were surrounded, exits were cordoned off,” Ayman says, “and we had no choice but to defend ourselves.”

Ayman, though, says he refused to even throw one stone at his opponents, his own people. “These were not executive forces loyal to the regime. These were fellow Egyptians, armed, trying to kill us. It’s easier to declare a war against uniformed policemen, but not civilians like yourself. In retrospect, it was naive of me, but I didn’t even feel like lashing back to defend myself.”

Buildings in Tahrir were closed off to non-residents and the protesters — who were unarmed according to reports from journalists and others in the square — were hemmed in.

Ayman denies that Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Tahrir demonstrators were responsible for any violence, as some media reported. He was there, he says, so he saw it all.
“They were just like us, surprised but ready to defend their ground to the death. Some were calling out that the ‘road to heaven and martyrdom is the frontline’ when the violence was at its peak, and people were falling to the ground, dead or injured. But that’s natural,” he says. “When all else fails you, you seek faith in God. I’m not particularly religious, but I was affected in a similar way. When death seems so close, there’s nothing but religion to turn to.”

In a voice tinged with a touch of bitterness, Ayman remembers how “it was all catastrophic in its unfairness. Tahrir was defenseless.”

But if anything, according to eyewitnesses and journalists covering the events of that Wednesday, the ‘Battle for Tahrir’ brought about a shift in perspective. Many who were willing to be patient while Mubarak finished the last six months of his term lost any trust they might have had in the regime after seeing TV footage of friends and fellow Egyptians being pelted with stones, stabbed and whipped, and after hearing the claims that the pro-Mubarak attackers were paid and organized by regime supporters.

On television, Tahrir protesters displayed ID cards they claimed were confiscated from captured attackers, saying these proved the thugs were policemen in plain clothes.
The new government has been receiving complaints and requests to probe into the incident. On February 22, it appointed a fact-finding committee to investigate the events of Black Wednesday and other incidents of violence throughout the revolution.
Social aid efforts intensified and people seemed more eager than ever to help those sitting on the square. This reporter personally observed an increase in blankets, medical aid and food sent to the square over the following days.

“But of course at the time, we didn’t know if we had any legitimacy,” Ayman recalls, and we were hurt by our friends who thought we should have left the square a night earlier.”

After Al Jazeera’s Mohyideen left the square, the TV news channel dispatched correspondent Shereen Tadros to the scene. Like Mohyideen, she was surprised by the demeanor of the pro-Mubarak crowd.

“There was something about them, like they were entranced,” Tadros recalls. “It didn’t look sporadic. People were prodding each other [to urge each other] to shout.”

When Tadros arrived early Wednesday morning, the scene was already tense. Pro-Mubarak demonstrators “who looked aggressive and angry” chanted and waved signs that read “He won’t leave. You should leave,” at the edges of Tahrir, while pro-democracy demonstrators stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a human barrier across the streets feeding into the square. A few hours later, in the early afternoon, rocks were flying across the square from all directions. She says the mood shifted as panic took over and as people dispersed into side streets trying to escape: “I could see people fall into a disgusting stampede.”

Tadros was forced to seek shelter in a family’s apartment on one of those side streets, after the scene got too bloody and the phone networks too congested for her to call in live reports to the news channel.

On that side street, she shared the horror felt by the area’s residents, as she watched the “thugs” loitering near doors, instigating violence, regrouping and building defenses.

Tadros says that before the family took her in, she herself had a threatening brush with pro-Mubarak protesters who seemed ready for a fight after one recognized her as an Al Jazeera journalist.

She spent the night wide-awake on her hosts’ balcony. After midnight, supporters of Mubarak started to come to the door. Tadros recalls that they would ask her hosts to use their balcony “to defend ourselves and throw Molotov cocktails.” They were “very organized and highly aggressive,” and they spent the night “strategizing. They knew what they were doing.”

When the sun rose, there were still clashes on the square, sounds of which Tadros had been listening to as she gave phone reports to her employers all through the night. With a haunted look, she says that “there was no way anyone could have slept through this.” She could hear the “shrieks and screaming” from where she was posted. “I was literally listening to people dying. Honestly, it was heartbreaking.”

I wrote this for Egypt Today magazine in March 2011, it was originally published there.

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