The Ticking Clock: An Egyptian’s First Hand Account of the Protest in Tahrir Square

by Taher Medhat

 

In the 1946 Alfred Hitchcock film, “Notorious”, Cary Grant’s Nazi-infiltrating T.R. Devlin scours through a wine cellar belonging to the host of a party which is going on upstairs. As Grant searches for the evidence to implicate his dastardly Nazi host, the viewer is treated to a classically Hitchcockian device: The Ticking Clock. You see, Agent Devlin has a very narrow window of opportunity: as soon the champagne which flows about carelessly upstairs runs dry, the server of said beverage must doubtlessly run downstairs to (where else?) the very same wine cellar in which our hero sleuths about. And with that, the master sets the stage for suspense. A champagne bucket upstairs, an object previously thought by the viewer to be of complete innocuousness, becomes as deadly as a time bomb as it is slowly drained of bottles, signaling the imminent discovery of the protagonist.

The fact that this scene was rattling around my head as I watched Friday prayers drawing to a close on January 28th, 2011, moments before one of the largest protests in Egyptian history was about to erupt, might seem slightly ludicrous, but for someone like me, a film student and an Egyptian by birth, the sequence of events which unfolded at Moustafa Mahmoud Mosque in the town of Mohandeseen, did so with such a sense of grand orchestration, that I couldn’t help think they would make Hitch himself crack a wry smile in his grave.

It began with a Facebook event invite that had a catchy title: “Anger Friday for Revolution Against Corruption, Injustice, Unemployment, and Torture.” Roughly eighty thousand people were classified as “attending”, but the replies of over one million Facebook users were still listed “awaited”. Perhaps that was because there were several virtual farms and cities that needed tending to, and this was no game. Tahrir Square was to be both the physical and symbolic center of the protest, an appropriate decision given that tahrir is Arabic for ‘liberation’. Unlike the previous protest which had taken place three days earlier, this one was planned from the very start to go nationwide. The atmosphere surrounding Moustafa Mahmoud Mosque, which was playing host to several journalists, Egyptian media personalities and eventually riot police, was electric. Around noon, just before the commencement of Friday prayers, soon-to-be protesters glanced around nervously, minding their p’s and q’s, just in case eavesdropping government agents were nearby, surreptitiously blending into the crowd. A handful of well-known Egyptian film stars and directors offered their two cents to anyone with a camera and microphone. I only caught snippets of their conversations; phrases along the lines of “Peaceful demonstration”, “The people want [x]” and “We’ve had enough of [y]” cropped up quite frequently. A few plainclothes policemen were loosely spread around the outskirts of the mosque; so few, in fact, that I became suspicious─ were these people drastically under prepared, or were they wearing an extremely well-crafted poker face? The cynic in me told me it was the latter, and unfortunately for and the hundreds of thousands who took to the streets during this time, my inner cynic is usually right.

For those of you unfamiliar with the peculiarities of the world’s fastest growing religion, prayer in Islam is a highly regimented affair. It’s a coordinated series of bows and prostrations mixed in with recitations of Quranic verses. More importantly though, at least for the purposes of the event in question, prayer ends with the Imam saying the phrase “The peace and mercy of Allah be upon you.” (Why this is important you’ll soon know.)

As prayer begins, I, along with several journalists and women, who are prohibited from praying with men in the mosque (the women, not the journalists, just to be clear), sit on a protracted ledge directly behind the worshipers. Some of them use their Egyptian flags as prayer mats, others pray on scarves, which they clearly intend to use as a safeguard against teargas later down the line. My train of thought is shaken by a tap to the arm; it’s one of my two companions, who motions for me to look in the indicated direction. There they are: dark-clad, single file, covering the entirety of the street behind us, riot shields and all. We don’t have much time to consider where the hell they came from for too long, because the worshipers, now standing, are preparing to go into their first prostration, in which they kneel down with their foreheads touching the ground. They do just that, and as they do, on either side of the men at prayer suddenly now stand an additional two, perfectly formed rows of riot police, having arrived at their posts by what I can only assume is some form of ancient sorcery. I do the math. One row on either side, one directly behind us, plus the front entrance of the mosque; we are quite literally boxed in.

It was at this point that I started thinking about Hitchcock’s Ticking Clock. Having attended Friday prayers as a child, as I assumed almost everyone else sitting outside the mosque had done at some point, I knew the precise moment at which they would end and, by extension, the point at which we would become fair game, so to speak, of the riot police. Judging by the look on my fellow, would-be protesters’ faces, they had had a very similar thought process leading to the same eventual conclusion, albeit perhaps not in the context of a mid-40’s Cary Grant film.

The surreal quality of the whole scene makes for a perfect juxtaposition of Hitchcock in my head ─ one more prayer verse recited, one less bottle of champagne ─ A ‘Ticking Clock’ playing to a live audience, who we simulate the inevitable chaos that is about to unfold. It’s the last bottle now, the final prayer position: on the knees, back straight. The riot police loom over us menacingly, their posture in sharp contrast with that of the worshipers, and twice as many. This all being a Hitchcockian set piece, I think that this is a paradigm of visual foreshadowing of the events that are about to take place. And then, the phrase I’d heard countless times before cuts through the air like a razor, and takes on a new meaning: “The peace and mercy of Allah be upon you.”

Adrenaline has an uncanny ability to play with one’s perception of time. At least, this was my initial assumption when I pondered the speed with which the events of the next couple of hours seemed to transpire. Upon watching the footage from Moustafa Mahmoud Mosque the following day, though, I saw that my version of events, their brevity of time between which they occurred, was surprisingly close to the truth. There was indeed just a split second between the Imam’s pronouncement of that key phrase, and a yell from somewhere behind me that was to be the rallying cry of the protest: “The people want the fall of the regime!”  And it was, to be sure, barely a heartbeat before every voice in the police-bordered square roared those eight words, releasing thirty years of rage along with them. And what came next was indeed like a choreographed Bollywood dance, the type where an unremarkable group in the street spontaneously breaks out into the kind of routine that should doubtlessly take weeks to perfect.

Suffice it to say that as surprised as the rest of us over our display of sequenced solidarity, the riot police had no choice but to let us loose onto the streets.  So we marched. For how long I can’t say, but dull moments were few and far between. First, and most apparent, were the people. Everyone in Egypt seems to know everyone else, an astounding feat in a country of roughly eighty million people. I suspect that many of my fellow demonstrators viewed the day’s events as a cheap alternative to the local nightclubs they would have otherwise had to pay an absurd cover charge to enter. In between the chanting, friends ran into friends and formed temporary parties which would inevitably become disbanded by way of teargas.

I fear the almost hypnotic, yet comic quality of the day’s chants will almost definitely not translate onto the page, but bear with me nonetheless. Egyptians, as it is well known throughout the Arab world, have adopted a sense of humor vastly superior to that of our neighbors. Fittingly, public events give prospective comedians a chance to test their mettle, a veritable stand-up open mic night. A Revolution Against Corruption, Injustice, Unemployment, and Torture™ might seem to many to have a certain incongruity with this concept, but then, you’d have had to have lived in Egypt to ‘get it.’

The chant went like this: “Susanne [our first lady], tell your man a bag of lentils costs ten pounds; and the land in my backyard is worth half a pound.” (The English translation, as I warned you, rather drains that of humor, but rest assured it was a crowd favorite.)

If the picture I’ve painted so far seems incomplete and strangely devoid of violence, I’ll do my best not to disappoint. Our numbers grow as we continue through the streets, coming finally upon Ramses Square, a largely unremarkable place connected to Tahrir Street (not to be confused with the now famous square) through Galaa Bridge. Some of us don surgical masks loosely around our necks; but most do not think it necessary. We cycle through a series of chants and happen at this particular moment to be stressing the “peaceful” aspect of our peaceful protest by shouting “Silmiya!” (Peaceful). Imagine our surprise, then, when several heads in the crowd turn skywards, regarding with a sort of vague curiosity the eight or so canisters of tear gas being lobbed in our direction. Those of us with masks at the ready don’t quite suffer the full impact of the stuff. The rest…not so lucky.

The square becomes home to all manner of unpleasant symptoms; vomiting, fainting, floods of tears and mucus. The veteran protesters among us come to the rescue, providing supplies that would become all too familiar to us throughout the rest of the day: onions, soft drinks, and vinegar, which we had already learned were handy, home brewed defenses against the consequences of tear gas exposure.

Aside from its intended results, tear gas has two unfortunate side effects upon those it’s used against: rage and indignation. When one ceases coughing and wildly stumbling about, the same question always arises: “How could they? And to me, the bastards!” So, to be entirely accurate, it’s perhaps one part indignation to one part bruised ego.

Which all often works to the attackers’ advantage. All it really takes is one or two brave souls, caught in a frenzy of adrenaline, to wildly rush at a barricade, trusting that the crowd will follow. The crowd almost always does. Almost. “Almost”, among the many other lessons I took with me that day, is not a word to be taken lightly.

We rushed the bridge, my friends and I, along with a couple dozen others, in the hopes of pushing back our tear gas-dispensing foes. I know I speak for our entire group when I say our thought process went roughly like this:

“That’s strange, I thought there were more people behind me. Why are the rest all crammed on one side of the bridge?”

“Oh, the other side is full of riot police with batons.  I see…”

“Well, now, why is everyone in front of me putting their hands above their heads and ducking down slightly? Oh, it must be because of that advancing armored military carrier, mounted by a shotgun-wielding cop, who is now firing blindly into the crowd.”

“Is that what’s called ‘a pincer move’, when you suddenly get trapped and attacked from both sides? This newly fired round of tear gas is wildly unnecessary.”

We manage to emerge from the plume of smoke, having received a fair beating, and now initiating a new cycle of vomiting, fainting, running tears and mucus. Some of our number have been sprayed with non-lethal shotgun pellets.

But don’t let it be said that this was the extent of the police’s violence. Hundreds have had their lives taken by senseless, stupid brutality. At the time of writing, it is far from over. The Egyptian Army is attempting, with varying degrees of success, to fill the security void left by the police. As of this writing, looters, crooked cops, and escaped prisoners still roam the streets, defended against by hastily assembled neighborhood watches. (I guess you could say we’re in the Mad Max phase at the moment.)  Mubarak has announced his dedication to reform and has given his word that he will step down in this year’s election. Is it enough? Let me be the first Egyptian to say: I don’t care. I personally tire of local politics. Mubarak steps down, Mubarak grows a ponytail; absolutely irrelevant. Irreversible change has occurred in an unprecedented manner, and the people have shown that they clearly have no issue with taking a few days off work to speak their mind.  Or even to lose our lives. Our fear has vanished, seemingly overnight, and I take a certain pride in my fellow shabaab for accomplishing what earlier generations could not. ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ this, ‘ElBaradei’ that; the speculation is and will remain unceasing, but whoever inherits this mess can take it as read that Tahrir Square will always be open.

I apologize, dear reader, if you came this far expecting a political treatise or a cadaver-filled adventure rife with looters and international intrigue. Your local news will surely satisfy your need for both. I will, however, conclude by mentioning The Ticking Clock once more. It is a slow-burning one, to be sure, set to go off sometime in the fall. My inner cynic (optimist?) tells me that Mubarak does, in his own bizarre way, care about his country. It seems, however, that much like the novice psychic who overtime becomes to believe in his own fraudulent abilities, he has become a devotee to his own cult of personality. Is that a touch naïve? I hope for our sake it’s not. Tick-tock, Mr. President. Tick-tock, Egypt.

 

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Taher Medhat is an Egyptian film student who studied film at City College in San Francisco, and is currently living in Cairo. For more on Egypt, click here.

 

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