Documentary of the Egyptian Revolution of February 2011. “Arab Spring” Protests in Tahrir Square, Cairo following the Tunisian uprising

Egypt Cairo uprising Feb 2011


I had traveled through Egypt for the month of April in 2010 and had been so moved by the experience that I decided 2 months later to move there indefinitely to learn Arabic.

More than that though was my desire to learn about and experience Arab and Middle Eastern culture for myself: the language, the customs, and the religion. I was skeptical of the Western medias typical portrayals of the Middle East and Islam. I had met so many people who harbored ignorant and oftentimes racist opinions of a culture and religion that they knew nothing about.

After coming home briefly to Detroit for the holidays I again arrived in Cairo in mid January of 2011, ready to continue my studies, with absolutely no idea that in less than two weeks I would be caught in the crossfire of a violent and historic Egyptian revolution.

Tuesday, Jan. 25th

I was staying at a hotel downtown off of Mohammed Mahmoud street just a few minutes from Tahrir (liberation) Square. Tahrir Square is where the famous Museum of Egyptian Antiquities is located among other things. The hotel was located on the 6th floor of a tall building and there was an impressive view of the dusty Cairo skyline. It was around 5:30pm and looking out over the rooftops I could hear quite a bit of noise coming from the direction of Tahrir Square. Though we could not directly see the square because of the tall buildings and billboards surrounding it, it sounded like a large crowd, and I could clearly hear various rallying chants that were generating.

I asked the owner of the hotel what was going on and he said they were protests that the Egyptian youth had organized opposing the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Having seen small scale strikes and protests in the US and Spain and not anticipating the magnitude of what was in the works I was intrigued but didn’t think much of it beyond that.

Wednesday, Jan 26th

The next day I again could hear the crowd from the hotel in Tahrir Square, but louder now. And there were a number of other guests out on the terrace talking about what was going on. The TV was on with a live report from Al-Jazeera the Arabic news channel covering what was going on.

Later in the evening we could hear the crowd growing more agitated and afterwards what sounded like gunshots. What we were hearing was the Egyptian police shooting tear gas into the crowd to break up the protests. We could see the haze of smoke from the tear gas rising over the buildings surrounding the square.

Soon after you could see a lot of black smoke rising over the buildings from the square, afterwards an ambulance came from the square. On TV we saw live footage of a fire the protesters set in the center of the square. It was what was creating the smoke that we were seeing.

egypt revolution graphicShortly after from my room I heard a thunderous commotion coming from the direction of the square. It was a mixed sound composed of sirens, many large vehicles, random gunshots, and the shouts and commotion of a large amount of people. When I ran out to the terrace I saw a horde of police dressed in riot gear, helmets with clear visor shield, batons and small arm shields, 10 or so gigantic police trucks and assorted other vans and cars. The whole entourage took up the entire street, they seemed to be evacuating the Square. As they slowly moved up the street the police at the tail of the entourage on foot and from the hatches in the top of the large trucks were also firing tear gas and throwing rocks at the crowd of protesters behind them who were right on their heels. Through the haze of tear gas I could see the protesters were rolling what looked like the large newspaper kiosks from the square turned on their sides, trash dumpsters and other objects ahead of them. Using these objects as shields against the rain of rocks and tear gas projectiles the police were shooting at them, while at the same time throwing rocks and molotov cocktails amongst other things.

egypt uprising graphicThe police passed on the street under the hotel and went to the end of the block and rounded the corner. On the adjacent streets in this district there are various government and military buildings. After the trucks rounded the corner the riot police then turned to face the protesters who were steadily creeping up behind them, now tapping out rhythms with sticks on the the drum barricades and the trash dumpsters one of which had been set ablaze which they were pushing in front of them. Some were picking up and throwing back the newly fired tear gas pellets fizzing in the street which the police were firing into them.

You can see the heavy clouds of tear gas clearly here, the effects of which we all were experiencing, your eyes and throat itch, it makes your nose run and if you attempt to rub it out it only gets worse. Tear gas was generally in the air for the next few days and even when you could not see it you could feel it on your skin and in your eyes.

egypt uprising imageAfter a brief lull the police rushed the protesters who had followed them up nearly all the way to the intersection right in front of the hotel. They forced most of the protesters back back in their first push except for a brazen few who held their ground, throwing rocks. Then driving them back the police moved in to remove the barricade obstacles the protesters had rolled in front of them, taking them back behind their lines so the protesters could not use them again.

The clashes continued for the next few hours with the protesters surging from the square with rocks, fire and new barricade objects pushing the police back and then the police reclaiming the ground gained by the protesters pressing forth with tear gas and rocks. You can see the new barricade objects the police have taken from the protesters and have now blocked off the intersection in the street. You can see towards the end of the next video in the lower left hand corner and the upper right hand corner the debris on the street where the hungry police earlier had taken advantage of the lull to loot the two fruit vendor stalls on either corner of the intersection.

It was towards the end of the evening that one of the police colonels came up to the hotel and was drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and talking on his heavy large walkie-talkie looking phone while monitoring the ogling clashes out on the street below. Later he was out in the lobby talking with Mohammed who works the night shift at the hotel.

Thursday, Jan 27th

Protesters gathered again in the morning in Tahrir and the clashes continued throughout the day. The protesters pressing out from the square and up our street amongst others fanning out from the square. During the clashes it was risky to go out on the streets, especially being a foreigner, not speaking the language, etc. I had been fortunate enough to have gotten out early in the day and had found fresh bread and cucumbers, green peppers, tomatoes and some oranges and had some spices and olive oil in my room. Bought enough for myself and other guests in the event the chance to get out did not arrive again.

cairo protests imageThe clashes continued all day and again, like the night before, went on into the early morning. Around 3am the clashes intensity waned, and while some protesters chanted slogans and beat out rhythms on various found objects, others were swarming around the police barricades. At this point it was not violent, there seemed to be some type of heated dialogue happening. They must have reached some type of agreement because shortly after the police and the majority of the protesters retreated. You can see in the next video at about the 10-15 second mark a bunch of debris and paper scattered on the street up in the left hand corner of the screen where the police looted another small vendors streetside stall stealing all the drinks and food he had stockpiled, scattering the debris and various documents in the street.

cairo protests graphicIn the next few hours some protesters lingered and set a police pickup truck which they had stolen earlier in the day on fire. They propped up the hood with a big rubber tire and lit it ablaze, stoking it with cardboard and other found garbage. Somebody set the rear from underneath on fire as well so it burned from both ends. Passersby ran by skirting the adjacent building fearful it may blow up as thick black plumes of smoke rise from the vehicle. You can hear the news on TV in the background.

FYI, The car didn’t blow up but at a couple of points when the fire was consuming it you could hear large amounts of gas or air from the tires suddenly venting.

The police chief came back to the hotel again today and me, the owner, some of the hotel workers were conversing in the lobby. The chief was tired, Mohammed told me he had been awake for the last two days straight. The atmosphere was a little tense because the protests had been picking up intensity since Tuesday and was said that Fridays protests were going to be the largest yet. The police chief lit cigarette after cigarette and he plugged the earpiece of his phone into my ear and handed me the big walkie-talkie, it wasn’t turned on so there was no sound, then he gave me his police beret and Mohammed translated while the chief joked to me in Arabic that tomorrow he would give me his uniform, telephone, etc. and that I would go out and do the police duties and he would stay in the hotel and sleep. He was a serious man and he was trying to ease some of the tension everybody was experiencing. Being a policeman has got to be hard work, especially when there is a youth uprising in the streets. Later that night I saw that the police chief had crashed out on the sofa in the lobby of the hotel to get some needed rest.

On the TV was live coverage of everything going on, a large part of it happening right in our vicinity and down the street in Tahrir Square spanning over to Nile and the Kasr Al Nile and the 6th of October bridges. There apparently had been a lot of people arrested. There was footage of police dressed in civilian clothes who had attended the rallies dragging scores of protesters one by one into unmarked vans and hauling them away. There was also footage of similar protests sparking in Alexandria and other cities in Egypt. Hillary Clinton’s face frequently popped up and her message was translated into Arabic.

Early morning trying to connect to the web I found it didn’t work. Mubarak and Egyptian government had shut down the 4 internet servers in Egypt as well as mobile telephone services. Apparently this move was to combat the youth who had largely mobilized via the internet using Facebook among other sources. Cutting off mobile phones too to cut off the protesters communication with one another. Since most businesses (at least in our area of town) were closed except the few local vendors who had been open in the early hours to get food to people I was completely cut off from communicating with family or friends outside Egypt.

Friday, Jan 28th

tahrir protests imageGot out early again Friday morning as I had heard that it was going to be the biggest day yet as it was also a prayer day and the youth had decided to seize the moment. Passed the police chief asleep on the couch still on my way out. Short video shot of our street in the morning with some traffic and locals moving away some of the blockades so cars can get through. At the 10 second mark you can see the demolished fruit stand which the police looted the night before.

Looking for places for food I spotted big tanks at the entrance to Tahrir square so I went down to check it out, there was a small group up early (or still out from the night before) chanting slogans. Behind the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities there was a large building on fire. Had a interesting conversation with a young boy who approached me when he saw me with my camera, he had cuts on his face and a bandage on his head obviously had been taking part in the protests. We spoke in broken English/Arabic and he seemed proud of his wounds. He wanted me to keep filming what was happening.

cairo revolution graphic
On the opposite corner of the square on Kas’r el Aini street there was a row of huge tanks. Later I read on the news that the military had secured Tahrir Square. An interesting note which I didn’t fully understand at the time is that the protesters were celebrating when the military came in, and the military was not suppressing the protesters.

Walking up our street from Tahrir Square I saw all the stores along the street leading out from the square had been looted: Pizza Hut, KFC, another little restaurant, the windows were all broken in the university on the other side of the street.

cairo revolution image
Shortly after I got back to the hotel as anticipated things intensified. Tanks and protesters streamed up our streets. Hordes of protesters from behind tanks and various found shields, strips of metal, clashing with police who along with tear gas, and rock hurling, were now firing on them with guns that blasted rubber bullets.

This went on for hours, at one point about 20 protesters from the street came up to the hotel and broke in the front door, they wanted to throw rocks from the 6th floor at the police below, the owner of the hotel confronted them telling them that he had foreigners in his hotel and that only over his dead body was he going to let the protesters come in. They argued really loudly the protesters told the owner of the hotel that “he was not Egyptian” (even though he is) and that they were going to come back and set the hotel on fire. Afterwards they managed to get on the roof and they threw stones at the police on the streets below, then the police saw them and began firing up from the street at them, hitting one of them and injuring him. The protesters then brought the injured guy down to the hotel again and tried to get the owner to let him in claiming he might die, the hotel owner told them that if he dies it will be outside the hotel and not in it.

tunisia revolution graphic
I spoke with a number of people who felt that the protesters should have the right to voice their opinions but who were angered by and could not understand how destroying the common workers property, lighting cars and buildings on fire, and looting the local businesses furthered their cause in any way.

The clashes continued into the night, worsening by the hour. The protesters pressed the police farther up the street and in the evening controlled the area below the hotel. About 10pm they set another car on fire, then two buildings a little ways up from us. At about 11pm they set the ground floor of the large 7 floor building next door to us on fire. Only a narrow trash littered alley separated our building from theirs. We were filling buckets of water and hurling the water out the 6th floor window to put out the flames and keep them from catching our building on fire as well. The owner of the hotel, two Egyptians, some terrified kid and his girlfriend from Washington DC who had packed all their bags and had been waiting downstairs god knows for what but had decided after an hour to come back up, me and a waify Polish girl did that for hours. Smoke streamed up from the alley and into the hotel. The owner went downstairs to throw water across from the 1st floor. I should have got these things on video but unfortunately was too busy to do so.

tunisia revolution imageLater after we got the flames down to a manageable size and the alley was wet enough so that the sparks weren’t going to catch on some arbitrary Egyptian litter I went back out on the balcony and there were tanks coming up the street, the protesters were swarming around the tanks cheering, others standing in front of them waving their arms trying to get them to stop and when they did they jumped on top of it and were trying to convince them to drive down the street towards the police stronghold. Eventually the tanks surged and pressed on through the sea of people surrounding them on all sides and continued up the street. I kept thinking with all the overexcited people swarming around the tanks on all sides and climbing over it that one of them was going to get accidentally run over, which fortunately did not happen. I got this on video but it is a bit dark to see, you can hear the tanks though and then the police flex their muscles and everyone flees.

libya revolution graphicDuring the course of events the hungry protesters had broken into the corner shop, breaking the lock and peeling up a corner of the the big sheet metal grill which covered the entrance and stole all the food and drinks. After that they broke into the coffee shop next door but it looked like the owner was there and he was fighting with them trying to keep them out, he had a real big guy with him there too and I think he managed to keep people out, at least for a while. Then they broke into the Mobile Phone shop next to that and then the radio shack across the street. I saw them carrying big boxes full of stuff out of those stores, others with garbage bags full of phones and adapters. Friday night into the wee hours of the morning people in the street were carrying all sorts of stuff looted from a variety of places on our street and other nearby areas. Some with computers, phones another with a pair of keyboard stands. Next video is late night guys looting the mobile phone shop and then something gets their attention and they rush over across the street where the radio shack which was also being looted is located.

Friday seemed like it went on forever. It was where the experience changed quite drastically from Wednesday and Thursdays relative excitement of witnessing a historic Egyptian uprising albeit from the dubious safety of a 6th story balcony to being a potential victim of a very real situation quickly spinning into chaos.

Saturday, Jan. 29th

I didn’t sleep very well that night despite being quite tired. I remember going out onto the balcony just after dawn and seeing a few people carrying baseball bats out picking through the rubbish in front of the mobile shop. And then I heard the sound of a woman screaming, she screamed for about 5 minutes straight and the guys with the bats ran around the corner to see. It wasn’t screaming like she was being attacked but it was screaming like she had just found out somebody close to her was dead or dying, or it could have been that she was seeing for the first time some irreparable damage done from the night before, maybe to her property, maybe to the area in general, the burned buildings, cars, I’m not sure. Whatever it was it was the kind of agonized screaming you don’t forget.

Saturday was quiet compared to Friday, I went out in the morning to buy food, buy my chain smoking friend from the United Arab Emirates some cigarettes. Mubarak was on TV talking about some changes, shuffling cabinet members around it seemed mostly. I don’t really remember Saturday evening but my friend told me I was her hero for getting her cigarettes so there must have been still enough clashes so that there was considerable danger in going out on the streets.

Heard on the news that the protests were spreading into more cities in Egypt and that in Fayoum, South of Cairo some 700 prisoners had escaped from a prison there. More talk too of police in civilian clothes and other factions mixing in the protests, looting, blurring the lines between who was who.

Later Mohammed told me that the police chief was actually a colonel. My friend from the UAE said she hadn’t been sure if he was a high ranking officer or not, I told her to me it had been obvious from the start because for the last two days he had been drinking coffee, chain smoking and talking on the phone from the 6th floor of our hotel while the other guys were out in the street fighting with thousands of angry protesters trying to avoid getting pelted by rocks or set ablaze by a molotov cocktail while attempting to reestablish order.

Sunday, Jan. 30th

In the morning the sun was shining and people were cleaning up the debris in the streets. Mohammed El Baradei the nobel peace prize winner and ex director of the IAEA had made an appearance in Tahrir and there was a celebratory feeling in the air. The clashes had stopped and there were a pair of F16(?) fighter jets circling a wide perimeter around Tahrir, the earsplitting amplitude of the jets flying low over the city made the ground rumble. The sun was out and there were people out beginning to clean up the debris which had accumulated in the streets. The emotional impact and sense of optimism the combination of these phenomenon brought after nearly 3 sleepless and hungry days of practically nonstop clashing on the streets, gunshots, helicopters, tanks and tear gas was profound.

Monday, Jan. 31st

Nobody knew what was going to happen on Monday. A lot of people were optimistic that following Sundays turn of events it would be better. I had read on the news about the huge losses Egypt was suffering financially because of the uprisings. Obviously it was suffering a hit in the tourism sector. The hotel I was in received a whole wave of cancellations, and then all the stores at least in the downtown vicinity where we were located being closed except for a select few who only opened very early in the morning if at all and until their supplies ran out. The lack of internet and mobile phones surely was a problem for a large number of businesses. Then there were statistics on the stock market and other things, panic selling. I was hoping the internet would be back on Monday so that I could write family and friends and work, etc. But it wasn’t. My parents called up which was a relief because I had no way of contacting them, and then my brother too, and they let me know about the US plans to evacuate citizens.

After some deliberation and hearing that a huge protest was being planned with expectations to the be the biggest yet for Tuesday, I decided to get out while I could before things got worse.

Tuesday, Feb. 1st

libya revolution imageI packed my bags Tuesday morning and left at around 8am. The US Embassy had arranged for evacuations to European safe havens for American Citizens. When I got to the airport I found out we were going to one of three places and that we couldn’t choose where. The three places were: Istanbul, Greece and Cyprus. After getting to these destinations we were then responsible to make our own travel arrangements. I spoke with a young couple in line while waiting, an Egyptian man and his American wife who had went to the airport the day earlier hoping to potentially fly out. But in the wing of the airport where the regular (non embassy arranged evacuation flights) were leaving from who had told me that it was swamped with so many people that you couldn’t move. They said people were standing on the conveyer belts and that when they finally gave up and decided to leave it was so jammed with people trying to get in that they could barely get out! The embassy arranged flights were at a different wing and fortunately nothing like that. The whole operation went rather smoothly, though we did have to wait on the runway for over an hour until they decided to load the luggage, but not until we had to go out and identify our bags and then carry them over to the luggage loader. No big deal, I was just happy to go. Some embassies flew their citizens out for free, we had to pay. I ended up going to the amazing city of Istanbul.

egyptian protests imageThe last videos are one of the morning Cairo street from the hotel the morning that I left and the other is a short clip I took while I was walking out to find a cab up the nearby street where I had heard the woman screaming the other morning.

I have strong and mixed feelings about the whole experience. I am proud of the young Egyptians whose stories I have heard and who I saw on the streets and in Tahrir Square overcoming their fears and voicing their desire for change in a country whose government to them has become unbearable. Obviously the time for some type of change has come for them. I also feel for the police who I witnessed fighting endless hours in the streets risking their lives to reestablish order in a country rapidly destabilizing. On a personal note I feel privileged to have experienced firsthand and shared albeit in a minor way the beginnings of this major historical event as it unfolds in the history of an incredible country and culture.

Daniel Shams
Thursday, Feb. 3rd, 2011
Istanbul, Turkey

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