The battle for Tahrir Square

Recounting a night of violence in central Cairo, when the revolution was at its most perilous point.

Battle of Tahrir

CAIRO, EGYPT — It was late on Wednesday as I slipped off to the Corniche road along the Nile to try to make my way inside Tahrir Square.

I had never seen a revolt up close and in real time, so it was with some trepidation that left the confines of our building after watching rock and Molotov barrages through our window for 10 hours.

The street was empty but for a small army presence – a couple of armoured personnel carriers and some soldiers, most stationed near the Egyptian Museum.

To my left, 300 metres away, a pro-Mubarak crowd rained Molotov cocktails down on the anti-government protesters from an flyover leading from the 6th of October bridge.

In a few minutes, I had made it south to Kasr al-Nil bridge, which empties into Tahrir Square from the west.

The anti-government protesters in Tahrir had arranged a field of debris 40m in front of their barricade to impede the approach of any pro-Mubarak thugs.

Twenty metres beyond, they had strung a heavy electric cable waist high from heavy metal fences on either side of the road, and 10 metres beyond that lay the final barricade, a stacked mix of metal barriers and spiked fences.

Two wooden boards were jammed length-wise across a side path to bar easy entrance.

I hopped down from the road and walked through a grassy park, approaching a small squad of men guarding a nearby path that led around the main barricade.

I held my hands up, palms out. They asked me for identification, so I showed them my US driver’s license. I also told them that I came from Al Jazeera.

Unlike the pro-Mubarak people, the Tahrir protesters have a passion for our network.

“You tell the truth,” one of the guards told me.

Another member of the group patted me down and apologised for the inconvenience.

“It’s for security,” he said.

‘Remember my name’

I approached the Kasr al-Nil barricade from behind, cautiously, and asked permission to take pictures.

Rocks were stacked in piles around the street, and Molotov cocktail bottles sat next to one another near a tree.

I was referred to the “boss” of the checkpoint, a man with a lengthy black beard, a white, bloodstained headwrap, and a heavy grey peacoat spattered with blood.

He introduced himself as Hossam Eid al-Sharqawy and took hold of my shoulder. He told me time was short and that I should take pictures quickly and go.

He had blunt words for Egypt’s president, whose two rounds of concessions and promise not to run again have failed to placate protesters.

“Hosni Mubarak kills his own people,” Sharqawy said.

“Remember my name. If I die here tonight, you will tell our story.”

I told him I would, then photographed the barricade and continued into the square.

The chaos taking place to the north at the Egyptian museum was inaudible.

The square was peaceful but eerily empty; just 24 hours earlier, hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters had staged what might have been the largest political demonstration in Cairo’s history, a show which likely prompted Wednesday’s violent response.

Men prayed on a large banner laid out on the pavement.

It carried the two words that have become the slogan of anti-government protests from Tunisia to Egypt: “Game Over.”

Farther into the square, small groups huddled around fires and inside tents.

The jubilance that had turned the square into a giant campground just a day before was gone; people now feared being overrun and killed by the surrounding pro-government mob – many of them reportedly hired thugs.

Apocalyptic scene

As I progressed toward the fighting near the museum, the appearance of the square became more apocalyptic.

The roads were carpeted in broken rocks, making it hard to walk.

Men with crowbars and long metal rods – probably stolen from the construction site at the nearby Ritz hotel – chipped away at curbs to make projectiles for their comrades.

In the distance ahead, the orange glow of the street lights and the continual Molotov cocktail fire lent an air of medieval combat to the front lines of the fight.

The closer I got, the more frenetic the activity among the anti-government protesters.

Men and women hustled up huge bags of rocks. Another group dragged a metal barricade into a new backup position.

The source of the cacophony that had been echoing off Cairo’s streets and through our window was revealed: Protesters behind the lines were rhythmically banging on metal fences in a primal drumbeat to keep the crowd’s spirits up.

On a apartment balcony overlooking the front lines, two men crouched and threw rocks at the pro-Mubarak crowd.

I knelt down behind a cement post around 20 metres from the barricade.

Fiery Molotovs streamed down toward the pro-Mubarak crowd from above my head as the government supporters on the flyover above me responded with their own.

The anti-government barricades lay just out of the throwing reach of most of the Mubarak supporters, but occasionally an energetic rock barrage would slam against the metal sheets separating us from them.

Anti-government protesters launched their own rocks from behind the barricade; it was impossible to see where they landed.

Other men crouched between the metal sheets, in the shadows, making sure the barrier stayed up and occasionally sneaking a glance out.

What they saw was no-man’s land.

War zone

Abdel Moneim Riyaad Square, an open space that had once served as a cramped artery of traffic toward Tahrir in one direction and Ramses Square – the main train station – in the other, had become a war zone, covered in rocks and dotted with the fire of petrol bombs.

An army personnel carrier sat 75 metres away, facing us, doing nothing as pro-Mubarak protesters milled about, throwing rocks and taking cover behind bridge support pillars.

Above, it was hard to discern spectators from rock throwers.

Most of the onlookers eventually withdrew, leaving only dozens of Mubarak supporters dodging projectiles, gesturing angrily and throwing rocks.

Every time an anti-government protester managed to land a petrol bomb on the bridge above, a cheer went up from the barricades, accompanied by joyous cries of “God is great!”

Eventually, the anti-government lines began to advance; skirmishers in front of the line became braver, throwing rocks and petrol bombs with little or no cover.

Loud gunshots rang out, likely from the personnel carrier in front of us, which had been surrounded by pro-Mubarak men.

It was hard to tell exactly when, but at some point the anti-government protesters outflanked the Mubarak crowd on the overpass.

‘Take the bridge’

Shouts of “Take the bridge!” rang out along the line. The anti-government crowd began to advance past the metal sheets, and the Mubarak supporters fled.

Men dropped their rocks and bowed their heads to the ground in prayer.

Others began to immediately scrub the pro-Mubarak graffiti off of the monuments that had, for around 12 hours, been occupied by the government crowd.

On the overpass, a tank roared toward the direction of the retreating Mubarak supporters, flooding the air with fumes.

As I stepped back through the barricades to Tahrir, a group of men dragged someone inside.

I tried to take pictures but was told to walk away. It was unclear if they were detaining a pro-Mubarak supporter or bringing back one of their wounded.

Inside, men gathered in groups to assess the victory. Others walked back motorcycles that they had captured. One held a bloody Egyptian flag as he returned.

A crowd across from the Egyptian Museum pressed in around a wounded man. Doctors carried him away, leaving a puddle of blood on the concrete.

One who remained, dressed in a white coat and a cotton mask, told me that the man had been shot in the head by Mubarak supporters, but that he still had a pulse.

Behind me, a another crowd gathered around a bloody, wounded man who looked completely unresponsive. They carried him away.

I ran into a 22-year-old man named Mohammed Hassan, a blogger, activist and self-described “revolutionary” carrying a stick.

He showed me a catapult the anti-government protesters had erected at a side entrance to the square, which he said they had used to launch flaming debris at the approaching crowd.

I watched as three men tested its tension.

Bandaged face

Further into the square, Hassan led me through a human chain and down the steps that lead into the Sadat metro station.

On the rubbish-strewn stairs, several bloody men sat nervously. The protesters told me they were captured Mubarak supporters.

One man, allegedly a former employee of the defence ministry, had his face nearly completely bandaged, but made a great effort to explain to me that he was not a lover of the government.

It was hard to watch; every few seconds, he seemed overcome by the pain and stopped to gently touch the wounds on his head.

He denied being paid or ordered to come. “It’s my creed,” he said in English.

As I stood in the makeshift prison, more people were dragged down the steps.

Some fought back and were shoved against the wall by anti-government protesters.

A skinny man, almost a boy, with a bleeding head wound, pleaded with the captors and tried to convince them that he hated Mubarak.

Another young man, more calm and less wounded, was accused of using a police handgun to fire on the protesters.

The anti-government protesters could not find evidence that their captives were government employees, either from the police or the interior ministry, but they promised me that others were.

An official from the defence ministry checked on the condition of the alleged former ministry employee, they pulled him up the stairs to turn over to the army, though the protesters assured me the army was simply releasing the prisoners they gave them.

Metallic drum beat

I left the prison and headed back to the Kasr al-Nil barricade, navigating a chokepoint made of turned over cars set at sharp angles.

I exchanged a few words with the men I had met on the way in; one told me what name to use if I wanted to come back.

Then I climbed through the wooden barricade blocking the path to the side of the wall and left.

As I approached our building, a soldier climbed down a tank and halted me. He found my camera in my pocket and demanded the film.

I had removed the memory card and hid it, and though the soldier at first indicated that I should go with him to his commander, I finally convinced him to let me go, losing only my battery in the process.

Back inside, dawn was beginning to break over Cairo.

The protesters had reformed their barricades, in preparation for the pro-government attack which would come just hours later.

The metallic drum beat never halted. Deep in the square, the crowd remained.

Follow Evan Hill on Twitter: @evanchill

Source: Al Jazeera