Liberated Tahrir is Occupied Again
Sunday, February 13
What began in Cairo on January 25 after Friday prayers – the liberation and subsequent occupation of Tahrir Square by anti-government protestors – looks like it’s about to end today. Symbolically at least. For the moment, I’m heartbroken with the same grief and frustration that was on the faces of the most determined and unwavering protestors. It’s 11:00am now and I just got home; there is still a core group of encircled protestors sitting and standing in the small space that has been left to them and the central garden remains untouched.
At about 7:30am a troop of army soldiers marched in, two to three hundred soldiers in all, and more military police. Many officers. All the street barricades had been taken down yesterday, and traffic was moving normally through the Square, as “normal” as is possible with tanks and armored vehicles still flanking several of Tahrir’s entrances. And shrines of images and garlands and wreaths to the martyred set up on the street in at least two different spots. In minutes, the soldiers circled the central garden and every other area where people had been sleeping in communities that would appear to be squatter camps to people in Europe and the US. Some protestors were still asleep, wrapped in a blanket, inside their makeshift tents. Protestors inside the main garden were urging me to photograph what was happening – their eviction. Soldiers stood facing the central garden while the protestors faced them. For ten minutes that I was at this spot, the soldiers avoided eye-contact with the protestors.
Most of the anti-government protestors had already left over the course of the day yesterday. Several hundred still remained, maybe a thousand at most, bunched into the central garden and two other main areas. The soldiers and military police also surrounded the stage (and people around it) that had been set up by the Muslim Brotherhood, the first to appear and last to be taken apart. The speakers on the PA system urged the protestors to remain calm and keep the peace: “No one is to antagonize any soldier.” “We are one people.” “Everyone is to remain calm,” the speaker exhorted, but only “Our brothers who were arrested yesterday have all been freed,” was acknowledged with cheers by the protesters.
I discovered that the Sadat metro station was open for business today, the first time in two weeks. Still, some of its exits remained unusable, full of the trash and debris from the previous weeks. One had the shell of a smashed and burned car waiting for you as you reached the top of the stairwell.
By around 8:30am the crowd consisted of as many onlookers as protestors: Mostly commuters on their way to work and journalists observing the last stage of this phase of the people’s revolution. The soldiers remained like a khaki frontier in between, and the distinction between these two groups of Egyptians could not be missed: Outside were sharply-dressed men and women on their way to work, their clothes ironed and flashing colors in the early morning sunlight, their faces clean and bright and well-slept. Many passed by nonchalantly; some stayed for a few minutes holding mobile telephones focused on the people inside the soldiers’ encirclement. The army’s eviction strategy was working well: the protestors were now the minority, if not in numbers then in spirit; they were preventing “normal” life from returning; they’d already won and should go home to their families. These snippets of conversations I heard marked a turning point that had begun yesterday.
Behind the stage, the mood was grim. Those urging calm did not seem especially convinced with their own statements, and their expressions were disconsolate and demoralized, in shock if not in mourning. Two young men were in a rage, flailing, crying, pleading with their comrades not to let it end like this. I’ve seen the same kind of grief at funerals.
These two men felt betrayed, and my mind imagined that some tacit agreement between the Muslim Brothers and the army had already taken place (and it wouldn’t be the first time that an arrangement like this is made between the Brotherhood and the government): Today would be the last day that protestors would camp out in Tahrir and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members and supporters consisted of the majority who remained, were responsible for making sure their supporters left in an orderly fashion. Or else. Of course, this is all conjecture on my part.
The soldiers were working at the corners of the Square, on both sides of the central garden, which for the time being remained encircled but untouched. They were removing everything. The metal stakes that had been improvised as tent pegs were wrenched from the ground, tarps and plastic sheets detached and rolled, tents collapsed, blankets piled on a tent and hauled away. Protestors were trying to negotiate to no avail, but I saw an army officer kiss the forehead of a man, a gesture of appeal and an attempt not to use force and authority. The two officers I focused on were not pleased to carrying out this task. But in thirty minutes, this corner of the Square was cleared, and protestors were scrambling for their few possessions, or standing in disbelief, some still wrapped in a blanket.
The speakers blasted one of the nationalist songs of the 1960s that I’d heard so often in the last two weeks, and especially the evening of Mubarak’s resignation. Protestors near the stage began to dance and wave flags, but there were no more than fifty. I’d made portraits of some of them; many now inside had fought on the front lines during the siege of Tahrir. They had put their lives at risk to protect the Square and the revolution and the people inside; they had seen fellow fighters fall fatally or receive a debilitating blow; they had remained alert at the barricades when others were enjoying themselves; and they had slept on the asphalt next to or underneath the tanks when the army tried to close in.
These are the men I’d been photographing yesterday and the day before, and it had been a long and difficult discussion to gain a little of their trust. Ever since day one of the occupation/liberation of Tahrir, I wanted to make portraits inside the square. When the atmosphere and spirit were of total unity, when there was no distrust among the protestors, I could have started what, in my dreams, was portraits of a revolution. On that day, this incredible joy of being able to trust everyone in your world was overwhelming and brought the best out in people. But I missed the opportunity because Tahrir was quickly full of undercover agents and police – and mistrust. Just before and after the siege, when I took my camera more out of a sense of responsibility than a sense of artistic or documentary impulse, I had wished for it to disappear many times because I panicked that it would make me a target for some of the violence that took place.
Photographing events has never interested me, and there are hundreds of photojournalists who had flown in to Cairo to do just exactly that. Some of them are very good at what they do; they’re intrepid and undaunted, and I’d never put myself in the kinds of situations I saw them in during the siege. That kind of risk-taking doesn’t interest me. Still, when the internet came back, I looked at dozens of dramatic photos of the events around Cairo and other cities that I had not witnessed firsthand.
My major hang up with this profession as a whole is that these photographers feed a system I don’t have any faith in; the images we see published through the news agencies on the internet or in print are akin to the commercial photos that sell us the fashions and products we buy. In fact, these photos are one of those corporate products, the one with the shortest life span. These photos used to show us what the corporate world wants us to see, how it wants us to understand our environment, and it isn’t a view of the world that I believe in. On the other hand, I do not want to dismiss all photojournalism either, and there is a fine line I draw when looking at such images. What I noticed in the last three weeks was that the absolute worst tension and anxiety I experienced in front a TV screen, not on the streets, even during the worst of the fighting. This I will never forget: as ironic as it sounds, tear-gas is probably safer than TV.
I’ve digressed from this morning’s events, so I’ll continue even further: Names remain very important in Arabic. So before January 25, Tahrir Square’s name was full of irony for many of the Egyptians who passed through “Liberation” Square were made to feel that they were implicitly guilty of something since that was one of the pillars of the Mubarak’s regime: a policy of guilty until proven innocent. Especially in matters that challenged the status of the political and business elite, guilty-until-proven-innocent was enforced brutally. The Mugamma, a monumental, Soviet-style, Interior Ministry building that dominates one side of the Square, makes that insinuation absolutely explicit in both architecture and purpose. This building holds a record for every single living Egyptian, thus serving as the bureaucratic heart of the fallen regime. Its weight and mass is that of a faceless, many-eyed, crouching giant and always reminds me of absolute authority, however much that façade has been torn down by recent events. Early on Saturday, January 29, immediately after the second wave of mass demonstrations, I went to Tahrir and photographed the Mugamma; I did not make the photos because I thought they would be interesting but because photographing that building was forbidden.
1pm. As I write people are telling me that small demonstrations are heading for Tahrir to support the protestors. I’m also being told that smaller demonstrations are taking place in different parts of Cairo.
I’d like to end with some thoughts about Tahrir yesterday when I spent most of the time making portraits of the people I’d been speaking to for two weeks; another of the ironies of the revolution is that I’ve met and gotten to know people from every part of the country at Tahrir. By noon, it was full of activity: people sweeping, painting, mopping, making drawings, hauling away trash and debris, setting up a shrine to the martyrs. The weapon of choice was the broom, and hundreds of people were wielding them, working diligently in groups. But there was an obvious split in the crowd between the sweepers who were day visitors or tourists and those who were still camped out there, who until yesterday were on the alert. There were also people carrying signs that smelled like government to me, with slogans like “We have to change before our country changes”. A concert, more nationalist songs, and lots of dancing juiced up the festivities even further, but I was not comfortable the atmosphere. The revolution had become a commodity and people who did not own it, wanted to belong to it nevertheless.
In the middle of this celebration, the army managed to tear down the last remaining barricades that were erected to protect the revolution. At least eight men were arrested when the scuffle on one side of the Square turned into outright clash. At one point, thirty soldiers made a dramatic entrance, running in formation. The day-visitors cheered and raised a hand in the air, the gesture that has become a symbol of “The army and the people are one hand.” Their clapping and cheering (and the concert) drowned out the calls for help by the fighters.
In the previous weeks, whenever an area was under attack, whenever there was an emergency, whenever people needed support or reinforcement, dozens of people would bang on the iron fence (that surrounds the entire Square) with bricks and stones in that part of Tahrir. Indeed, during the siege, hundreds of people on every side of Tahrir banged all night long to boost our spirits. This fer forge fence was erected after March 21, 2003, the first day of the last Iraqi war, when a major demonstration that freaked out the government took place at Tahrir.
The call for help went unanswered yesterday; there is much that needs to be done to guarantee the freedoms and rights that the people of this and every other country so rightly deserve. Writing from Pakistan, my friend Ahmed wrote me that Egyptians stood up for universal values for all of us.