During the Egyptian revolution, demonstrators marched on Al-Ahram threatening to burn it down, I knew I had to stop them
On Friday, January 28, the Egyptian revolution arrived at the doors of Al-Ahram newspaper, where veteran journalist and war correspondent Yehia Ghanem addressed demonstrators who were demanding that members of the editorial board be delivered to them. After persuading them to leave peacefully, he joined them as they marched towards Tahrir Square. But when the police began firing at the crowd, he had no choice but to retreat to the Al-Ahram offices with the injured. Read earlier instalments in his series, Caged, here.
It was more than an hour later, at almost 5pm on Friday, January 28 – a day branded “Angry Friday” – when the police stopped shooting at the demonstrators who were gathered outside the offices of Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper.
On the third floor of the building was a well-equipped clinic for Al-Ahram’s staff. I asked the building’s security guards to allow me and my colleague, Ibrahim Sengab, to take the injured demonstrators there for treatment. They refused.
So, I ran to the office of one of the top editorial managers and asked him to instruct them to allow us passage to the clinic.
“You must have gone crazy,” he said, panic-stricken. “Do you know what will become of you once this turmoil ends?”
I didn’t have to wait for him to tell me.
“You are going to be crucified for acting like this,” he said.
I persevered, asking him again if he would tell the security guards to let us use the clinic.
“Yehia, it seems you don’t understand the gravity of the situation,” he answered.
“I realise the consequences,” I told him. “I don’t care if I’m going to be crucified tomorrow; there are people dying out there right now and they must be saved.”
I warned him that if they didn’t receive immediate treatment, I would go straight to the international media to let them know what was going on.
“I’m going to hold you responsible for this,” he said, poking his finger into my chest but agreeing to my demands.
When I arrived at the clinic, the injured were already being admitted.
I returned to the street to find that the police had disappeared. So, I marched with the demonstrators towards Tahrir Square and away from Al-Ahram, lest the police return and endanger the building’s occupants.
On the route into the Square, I saw two dead bodies and dozens of wounded. But the scene at Tahrir was even worse. It was in total disarray. There were many wounded. Civilian and police cars had been set on fire; some demonstrators were trying to put out the flames.
But there were no police to be seen.
I later learned that the Minister of Interior General Habib el-Adly had ordered his troops to disperse, yielding the way for the army to take over. From that moment until President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11, 2011, the police were not seen. In fact, it wasn’t until President Mohamed Morsi was toppled on July 3, 2013, that they returned to their normal duties. Many speculated that the removal of the police was intended to punish the Egyptian people and to make them feel as though freedom and democracy were synonymous with chaos and insecurity.
In the Square, I moved from one group of demonstrators to another, as they tried to anticipate the government’s next move.
Military helicopters hovered overhead, sprinkling red liquid upon those below. At first there was panic, as people feared it was some kind of chemical weapon. But we later concluded that it was just intended as a way of marking the demonstrators.
‘Long live the army’
By around 8pm we could make out the sound of heavy vehicles heading towards the Square. Some of those standing close to me grew scared, afraid that the police were returning with reinforcements and tanks. I explained that the sound was not that of tanks but of Armoured Personnel Carriers or APCs, which were used by the army not the police. During years as a war correspondent, I’d learned the difference.
“Do you think the army will turn against us?” the demonstrators asked one another. But no one had an answer.
In the several minutes it took for the vanguard of the convoy to appear, a near total silence descended upon the Square.
As the military Jeeps and APCs approached, I was able to make out the insignia of the Presidential Republican Guard on them. My fears deepened.
While the Presidential Republican Guards are recruited from the army, their chain of command is different. The army takes its directives from the Ministry of Defence, which in turn translate into orders from the army chief of staff. But the Presidential Republican Guards receive their orders directly from the president. Few of those in the Square knew the difference.
Suddenly, one of the demonstrators shouted: “Long live our great army.” Then thousands of others joined in, chanting those words over and over again.
The Jeeps slowed. Dozens of hopeful demonstrators ran towards them.
I still can’t understand what happened next. Perhaps the driver panicked. Or maybe it was intentional. But I watched as one of the Jeeps drove into a number of the demonstrators. Then the driver reversed, hitting another demonstrator in the process, smashing his body against the iron fence surrounding the Egyptian Museum located at the heart of the Square.
Within seconds, demonstrators had jumped on to the Jeep, pullng the driver and three other soldiers from it. They began to beat them. The convoy turned around and left.
A fire at a museum
An hour later, I saw several men break into the main gate of the museum and set the northern section of the building on fire. I ran towards three fire brigade cars parked nearby and drew their attention to the fire that was threatening to consume the museum, even though it must have been obvious to them anyway. They looked at me straight faced and didn’t respond.
When I began to shout, one of them responded: “We don’t have orders to move.”
“Do you need an order to put out a fire a few yards away from you? Do you need orders to stop a fire that is endangering our museum and human heritage the world has entrusted to us?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
Desperate, I ran to Al-Ahram’s headquarters eight blocks away to tell one of the senior editorial managers. He made a number of calls and by the time I returned to the Square, the fire fighters had begun to put the fire out.
It was past midnight when many of us began to notice some suspicious looking people gathering. It is an open secret in Egypt that the security apparatus hire groups of bullies to do the dirty work they’d rather not be seen doing. Dirty work like dispersing peaceful demonstrators. Of course, we used to call them what they were: bullies. But they were suddenly being rebranded by the state-owned and government-aligned media. “Honourable citizens,” they called them. But there was nothing honourable about what they were about to do.
Chronicle of a Caged Journalist is a series of excerpts from an upcoming book.
The views expressed in this article are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.