Whether crossing a bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965, or in Cairo in 2011, our struggles for justice share much.
After watching the protests in Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011, from afar, Abdelrahman Ashraf, 34, a multimedia producer now based in Turkey, returned to Egypt to participate in the revolution. Here, he recalls how protesters stood firm in the face of water cannon, bullets and tear gas.
The protests, which marked the explosion of the Arab Spring in Egypt followed mass protests in Tunisia which had culminated in the flight of Tunisian President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali from the country on January 14. Egypt’s protests continued for 18 days until Hosni Mubarak – in power for 30 years – also succumbed to popular demand and stepped down on February 11.
I was working in the newsroom at Al-Hiwar TV in London when the events in Tunisia started in late 2010. We were following the developments there but nobody had expectations of a revolution, the thought of [Tunisia’s President] Ben Ali leaving never crossed our minds. The protests were dismissed as mild disturbances, clashes happening in this neighbourhood or that.
How I envied the Tunisians in my workplace when Ben Ali fled! Many of them were dissenting Tunisians, some self-exiled, who hadn’t returned for years and in their nostalgic dreams, I saw myself and my dreams for my country.
Egypt at the time was a distant dream for me; we’d seldom visit. My father previously was in the political opposition and had spent years in prison. He was a surgeon and board member of Egypt’s Doctors’ Syndicate, but after he was issued with another arrest warrant because of his political activities, he was forced to leave Egypt, unable to return for 20 years.
The amount of injustice in Egypt created anger, poverty and need. An emergency law of over 30 years meant that justice was impossible; at any time a civilian could be prosecuted in a closed military court with no defence. Torture had become so widespread, extrajudicial killings were commonplace. People lived in a country ruled by fear.
We thought wistfully of the hope the Jasmine Revolution brought, while saying Egypt is not Tunisia. Change might be easier for a smaller country, but with the regional importance and ties of Egypt, it was impossible, we told ourselves. Nothing would happen.
Soon, news of events being planned for January 25, National Police Day, started to gain traction. My brother, Mohammed, who was 27, called me, asking if I was going and informing me that he was planning to fly out from the UK to Egypt with my younger brother, Salaheldin, who was 17. I told him I couldn’t take time off work, and I was sceptical that these protests would amount to much.
Everything changed, however, when people went out that day. For the first time, words of defiance filled the streets. The protests were curbed, people went home – but something changed that night.
When I heard my younger brother had been injured by a pellet, it hit home hard. This was no longer just a country overseas, these were my people being fired at, my brother wounded. I handed in my notice and flew out with my other brother, Nour. We headed to Hurghada [a city on Egypt’s Red Sea coast] and told the security forces we were staying at a resort, before making our way to the capital.
Tahrir Square was something else on the day we arrived, January 28, the day now described as the “Friday of Anger”. The atmosphere was unparalleled – people gathered from all walks of life, from liberals to Islamists, to those completely apolitical, all gathered together in one dream. Chants of “Mubarak, leave” rang out defiantly, a perfect moment in Egyptian history, the fear truly broken.
The first time I heard the chants in Tahrir Square – people without fear, making their demands heard loud and clear – that was when I knew it was a turning point in history for Egypt. There was no going back.
As the protests picked up, so did the clashes. We’d camped in the square, listening to slogans we could barely believe were being chanted – and then the thugs arrived. Men on horses and camels barged in, pro-Mubarak thugs attacking the protesters in what came to be known as the “Battle of the Camel” about a week into the protests, firing stones, glass, Molotov cocktails.
A pellet hit my brother, Nour, in the head during that battle. I took him to the field hospital and told him to wait for me there while I returned, but he refused. “If you’re going, I’m coming with you.” As their numbers increased, we put up metal barriers, ducking as Molotov cocktails were thrown, but they were relentless. Within minutes, the person next to me was alight with the cocktail and, without thinking, we all rushed to him, hugging him, putting out the fire immediately.
A piece of cracked marble came flying towards me, barely missing my eye and cracking the skin under it. As my brother took me back to the field hospital, the people around us joked saying a few hours ago you were bringing your brother, now it’s his turn to bring you.
Wounded, exhausted, overwhelmed. Those injured were directed towards a mosque to rest in. All day, we’d been carrying heavy debris, lifting metal barriers, pushing back against the thugs and we wearily headed towards the mosque to catch a few hours of sleep. As we entered, however, there was a man reproaching those in the mosque, quoting verses from the Quran and saying, “have you favoured this temporary life?”
I felt as though I was hearing these verses for the first time in my life; was I going to rest while the revolution was happening? God had given me an opportunity to defend justice, to fight for what was right, and I’d chosen to hide away and rest? I knew then I’d return to the square without sleeping.
Towards the evening, live ammunition had started. The thugs had not ceased firing, and every time we looked to our phones, social media was abuzz with updates and rumours. “They’re coming.” “Everyone in the square will be slaughtered.” “This is the end.”
My parents called me suddenly; they’d received news that my brother, Nour, had been killed [he hadn’t been, he was just injured]. I remember crouching behind a burned bus, as the fire continued around me, comforting my parents and reassuring them that my brother was by my side – while at the same time, certain that we weren’t leaving alive.
Somehow, a system came together. We’d protest and chant in the mornings, and at night set up watch and take shifts. Visibly wounded, sleeping on the floor from sheer exhaustion, people would pass by us and kiss our foreheads, thanking us for our service and looking at us in hope.
I lived a revolution. January 25 was a revolution in every meaning of the word. For the first time ever, we saw a courageousness unwitnessed before, hearing words never before uttered. No matter who you were in Egypt, there were certain things that could never be said – but that day, they were said.
People would not have dared to say Mubarak was corrupt. That there was injustice, that we did not want this regime, to say “Gamal, tell your father, the Egyptian people hate you”. These were words no one dared utter between friends, but they were all said in Tahrir Square. All the demands we made in Tahrir Square, were made openly for the first time.
When we heard the news that Mubarak had stepped down, we celebrated bringing down a regime.
Well, we were naïve; we believed then that we’d brought down a regime, but the reality was we only took down Mubarak. Still, we cried after hearing the news, for even the removal of Mubarak felt so big, like all the efforts had finally paid off, that those we’d seen die in front of our eyes – their sacrifice had not been in vain.
To see that result – that was beyond imagination.
We celebrated for days after – not just the protesters; it felt like all of Egypt had descended to the streets to celebrate, for we were celebrating a country’s future, celebrating hope. We didn’t know then that no revolution ends in two short weeks.
I’m lucky. Not every generation gets to live a revolution, to be part of a fundamental change, let alone for a country as regionally significant as Egypt. We didn’t just witness a revolution, we made it.
What came after, Egypt’s reality now under [the current president] el-Sisi, more than 60,000 reported political prisoners languishing in jail and a sweeping crackdown on political activity and free speech – with all the injustice we see today, I still can’t say the revolution has gone to waste. Because we can never forget, a revolution happened at one point. Change was possible, change is possible, and that lives inside everyone who lived it. This is not something that you can bury or kill.
The one who has lost a loved one, a brother, a child, the revolution for him could never die. Those injured, imprisoned, the families torn apart, they already sacrificed so much, it’s impossible for them to abandon their right.
Just as they were willing 10 years ago to sacrifice their lives, they’d do it again, they’d go out again. On January 25, 2011, something changed irrevocably.
I saw the worst of Egypt. I lived terrible days – but you don’t forget the feeling of a revolution. I was wounded – all four of us brothers were wounded. My story is not finished, and neither is Egypt’s revolution.
As told to Noor El-Terk