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I have been asking myself what would be the best way to start this eye witness testimony of the events of Friday 28th in Cairo. But more importantly would my words ever do justice to the events of that monumental day?
You see that Friday will remain with me for some time to come, perhaps for life. It's not just a treasured memory; it's a reminder, a source of hope that I will draw strength from in my time of doubt or when hopelessness shows its ugly face. And though there are many events in our history both present and old that provide the same comfort and inspiration, this one in particular will resonate the loudest, may be because it is where they said it ‘cannot be done', or perhaps because of the nature of the enemy, or maybe it is simply due to the fact that for this one, I was there.
On Thursday the 27th of January I met up with some close friends at a local coffee shop to discuss the events unfolding in Egypt and plan our logistics for Friday's demonstration, which was already dubbed Jummat Al Shuhada'a. We knew that this one was going to be big, we knew that non participation was not an option, and we knew that for this one the security forces were going to go all out. Already those of us that were on selected networks were experiencing problems with their phones and Blackberry Services, and when the news reached us that from twelve midnight on Thursday all mobile phone networks, landlines and internet services will cease to function in Egypt, we knew that Jummat Al Shuhada'a was not just a name but rather a description of the day to come.
If I told you we laughed and joked will you hold it against us? It was surreal, the government was doing all it could to intimidate and deter people from participation, and all we could do was laugh and crack jokes about Mubarak's desperation, and we were not alone. On every table in the coffee shop people were relaxed and discussing politics almost as if they knew nothing else. The people were politicised, they were charged, and the scent of Sawrat Al Yasmin (Yasmin Revolution) had definitely made its way to the streets of Egypt neutralising the stench of apathy and the odour of hopelessness that had festered in Egypt for the last three decades. The ‘domino effect' was well underway.
We had no idea of where we were going, we agreed to meet at 9 am on Friday morning and head out to one of the main mosques for Jummah Prayers.
On the morning of Jummat Al Shuhada'a we decided to pray in Muhandiseen, a popular suburb in Cairo at a mosque that none of us had ever visited and had no idea of how to get to for that matter. However this was a well-known mosque, we were told it's next to Revolution Square, need I say more? We were heading to Revolution Square.
We arrived there early and decided to grab a coffee, "how about some breakfast boys? Could be our last", jokes one of the brothers. The coffee shop was full of young Egyptians from all walks of life. The atmosphere was relaxed and vibrant. Some were carrying cameras, others bags filled with what appeared to be vinegar bottles and fizzy cola just purchased from the local grocers; there was no doubt these were Egypt's young, who since birth have lived under Mubarak's regime and they were here to make their voices heard. These were our fellow protestors and on a different day we would have had nothing in common other than age, but today was a different story. As tips and advice began to go around, the vinegar and fizzy cola began to make sense, this was tear gas proofing; the vinegar to be doused on your scarf to neutralise the tear gas when inhaling the fumes, and the cola to wash your eyes and face from the toxin. See there are no masks that you can buy from army surplus stores here like in the West; here it's old school.
As the Jummah time approached we began to make our way to the mosque, already the security forces were taking up positions to surround the mosque. There was tension in the air; thick, heavy and overbearing. The police were clad in their riot gear and riot vans and fire trucks were positioned strategically for one purpose only: containment.
We took our seating positions on the street as the mosque was packed. And all around us was nothing but a sea of black - black uniforms, black batons and black boots. It was suddenly real. I don't know what I expected that day, things are different when you watch them on the screen; you're somehow braver miles away from the action. To say I wasn't worried would be a lie. Frankly, I thought that I was about to receive the beating of my life. I thought that they would bury us in this mosque.
The Imam began with a joke "before I begin my khutba I would like to ask all of you to switch off your mobile phones", everybody laughed, even the police couldn't resist that one. See the government switched off all our mobile phones for us the night before. It was a good start, well done sheikh. Then he began in earnest. I must admit I was apprehensive at first, I was expecting the same dribble that was coming out of Azhari TV Channel, condemning the demonstrations and accusing the protestors of destroying the country and calling some of them agents. This was the official line of the government sanctioned religious institutions, but people weren't buying the dribble, they exposed themselves as agents of the regime - ‘scholars for dollars' as they say these days.
But as the Imam continued, it was a breath of fresh air; he spoke of the life of this world in comparison to the next, he spoke of justice and speaking the truth, he said for how long must the people suffer, and most importantly he said that today he stands with the youth. The people cheered and clapped as he lifted their spirits with ayahs and hadeeth. He said keep a look out that amongst you there will be some who will try to jeopardise your efforts today with violence, they want you to be perceived as thugs, they want you to seem uncontrollable and violent so that the security forces can justify their violence towards you but I know that you are God fearing and peaceful people who love your country and have had enough of oppression and injustice. You are not thugs and you are not criminals and you have every right to demand justice and God is with you.
We raised our hands in dua, we prayed and immediately after the chants began. The protestors mobilised.
They chanted " Al Sha'ab u'reed isghat al nizam (the people demand the end of the regime)"
They chanted "Bar'ra (out)", "Imshy (go)", ‘' Haramy (thief)" in reference to Mubarak
They chanted "Kifayah, Haram (Enough, transgression)" in reference to 30 years of his despotic rule.
They called on their brothers to join them, they called on the army to join them, they shouted "ya Rab", all this in the face of the security forces that could do nothing but look on. There were young, there were old, there were women, children, I even saw a woman in crutches and a man in a wheelchair, there were people from all walks of life, celebrities, businessmen, the middle-classes and the poor united for one goal: Mubarak must go. If anyone was scared, the fear dissolved into thin air as the chants thundered throughout the square. The police became insignificant, their batons looked like straws and their barriers became flimsy cobwebs pushed to the side by the roars of the crowd. Our numbers began to swell up as more and more people were joining our ranks as we pushed through the barricades to make the long march to Tahrir Square. This was a peaceful orderly demonstration organised by the desire for justice, stewarded by the pain of its participants. This was quite simply a culmination of 30 years of shocks, terror and oppression that had pushed a nation to the brink of despair, but it survived, it has woken and it is now demanding retribution.
We marched in our thousands, we chanted, we brought Cairo to a halt making our way to the first bridge after an hour of peaceful and orderly procession (we needed to cross two bridges to get to Tahrir square). All along I was thinking surely this is it, the police are just looking on, they can't handle the size of the demonstration. Little did I know that they had something planned; they were waiting for us at all the bridges leading to Tahrir Square, where they could effectively control and contain us in the bottlenecks.
As soon as the first bridge was in sight we saw the US-made tear gas canisters propelled through the air, the air was thick with smoke, those on the front lines were rushing back through the crowd, some unable to breathe others coughing violently, some were complaining that they couldn't see and people began to attend to them and congratulate them on their courage. And as they recovered others took their places, pushing forward and so on and so forth. Even some police took off their uniforms and joined the demonstration, the people cheered and shouted takbirs.
There was no stopping the people we had to get to Tahrir Square we had to take the first bridge. So we proofed our selves from the tear gas and pushed forward to claim it. After approximately 1 hour of pushing forward the people commandeered three armoured riot buses and two vans that were stationed at the bridge. So far the security forces have only been using tear gas and water canons and the occasional riot van trying to run over the crowd, an experience I won't soon forget as I found myself a target of one. It's amazing what we discover about ourselves at times of great peril. I for one found out that when it matters I could outrun a riot van.
We continued to push forward on the bridge and came across twenty or so riot police that had retreated (the ones that abandoned the armoured trucks when we rushed them). Some demonstrators turned their anger towards them, others protected them saying "they are from us, if they don't know better we do " and the crowd left them alone. This was the nature of our protest, despite the pain and the anger our humanity prevailed and we remembered our brothers even though they forgot us.
After we took the first bridge we continued for another mile marching peacefully until we came to a square before the last hurdle; bridge two, our entry point into the symbolic Tahrir Square (Liberation Square).
Here events took a nasty turn and we faced the full might of the security police; truncheons, tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, and live ammunition from snipers placed on roof buildings.
People began to drop around me, and the screams for doctors began to echo in the air. My self and one of the brothers with me ran to assist. This man on the floor had five holes in his chest. He was screaming in pain, falling in and out of consciousness, his pulse was faint and it did not seem that he would survive. His friend began to scream for an ambulance and the people formed a circle around us to protect us from the rubber bullets and the security forces. The irony was that the first to our aid was a police sergeant who rushed to assist with a police car. We did not know what to do, surrender this man to the same people who shot him or let him die in our arms. We decided to put him in the police car but some of the protestors wouldn't let us. See such was the animosity for the security forces they were not to be trusted. Accounts of disappearing wounded were circulating far and wide: injured that never made it to the hospitals, or those that were dead on arrival despite minor injuries, and those that were simply thrown in alley ways to die from their wounds. Yet what could we do, we could only hope that this officer was decent and God fearing, but still the crowd wouldn't let us. Then I saw an ambulance rushing to the square, so I let go of the brother and ran after it since there were five of us holding him. I reached the ambulance but the driver did not want to wait, he had just placed a bullet wound victim in the back, there was no room for another, I pleaded with him and wedged my arm in the door so he couldn't close it. Others joined my protest with the ambulance crew until the rest managed to bring our first victim through the crowd, but he still refused. The friend of the first victim now carrying him alone began to weep and scream "hai moot, hai moot (he'll die, he'll die)" and supported his friend on one knee as he released his right hand to slap the ambulance driver. It was a scene that cannot be forgotten. Finally they conceded and put him on the ambulance floor and began to resuscitate him all along shaking their heads saying he's gone. They drove off. I never asked of his name, I wish I did, he was another innocent victim of Mubarak's regime, one of many but I wish I knew his name if only to tell accounts of his bravery.
No sooner had the ambulance gone, one metre away there was another body on the floor this time with bullet holes in his back, we left him to the crowd that was surrounding him, rage began to move us forward. At that point one was under no illusion that his life was in Allah's hands, the concept of Ajal tells you that there are so many variables that you could do nothing about just focus on the task at hand, and we did. We pushed and pushed until we took control of the bridge. Every few minutes, four protestors would be running back in the opposite direction carrying a wounded person and the people would chant "Batl (Hero)". Then we heard the Asr Azan and as the call to prayer began to resonate everything stopped and we began to pray in jammah on the bridge dividing it into three congregations. When we finished we raised our hands in dua, and we prayed for victory for the end of the tyranny and oppression, for Allah to make us firm and resolute and some of us prayed for the ‘Ansar' to come to our aid as they did for our beloved Prophet Mohamed SAW.
As soon as we finished our prayers the security forces attacked from every direction, they were even attacking us from police boats on the river below, pushing us back until they retook the bridge. They divided us chasing us in different directions, we were loosing grip and the strength of our numbers was gone, the peaceful protest was disintegrating into violence, and some protestors were throwing stones and rocks into the crowd indiscriminately hoping to hit the security forces, often injuring their own.
They kept attacking, after seven hours of confrontation everything becomes a matter of procedure. So much has been thrown at us that one's mind adapts to the situation, for example you know exactly how many steps you need to take to avoid the effects of the tear gas, or if the projectile flying through the air will effect you based on some quick calculations purely by sight on its elevation and the speed it is travelling, or how many seconds you have when a canister lands by your feet to escape the effects of the gas. Everything becomes procedure.
Finally we were pushed back to the first bridge and the attacks by the security forces were so frequent and powerful that they created a stampede and a further division in our numbers as some protestors got pushed down different roads. I had lost one of the brothers I came with to that latest attack, I could only pray that he was safe and now pushing on a different front. I went looking for him worried for his safety as his mother was waiting at my home. We had to find him.
We looked for him for almost two hours, but still couldn't find him finally we hoped that he made it back to the house and decided to go there to see if he was back or not as things had apparently grounded to a halt on our side. Our only hope was that the push was still strong on the multiple entries to Tahrir Square by the other protestors. When we got back there was no sign of him, we reassured his mother that he was o.k and would insha'Allah make his way back soon. Two hours later our brother was back, safe and sound, elated and told us we took Tahrir Square, see whilst we were looking for him tens of thousands of protestors that marched all the way from Giza near the Pyramids, which is over an hours drive away joined our campaign on the bridge. He told us that he was about to head to the meeting point when a sea of protestors came rushing to the bridge shouting "we walked all the way from Giza and we won't go back until Mubarak goes. TO TAHRIR SQUARE!" And the rest as they say is history.
Jummat Al Shuhada'a was history in the making. It was a day where my respect for my Egyptian brothers became firmly cemented in my heart. I was inspired by their courage, and moved by their determination. It was a day where pharaoh was challenged and was found wanting, it was a day that the masses told the world that we are not afraid to die in our fight for justice. I have tried in earnest to convey what I saw on that unforgettable day, yet I know that my words cannot do it true justice, they will never be able to convey the scent of victory in the air or the sound of the pounding hearts filled with elation and pride, I can tell you of the tears but you needed to have seen them as strangers hugged each other as if they were long lost brothers, I can tell you of the hope and belief I saw on their faces but you needed to look into their eyes and see the sparkle for yourself. No these words will never do justice to that day. I pray that its not all for nothing and that the rest of the corrupt oppressive regimes take heed and know that their time is coming to end, but more importantly I pray that there will be true change and that the momentum continues and we unite as one and live under true justice, Allah's Justice, Allah's System, Allah's Shade.
Your brother Abu Ubaydah
JUMMAT AL SHUHADA'A
Friday 28th January 2011