I have a lot to tell about my story: a small story in the great event of the Egyptian revolution. How I started this website/blog and how I created the English page “We are all Khaled Said” working closely with Wael Ghonim who created the Arabic Page. How I focused on international awareness while he focused on internal activitism. I have a lot to talk about, chats and email discussions I had with Wael and many other activists, arranging protests worldwide in support of Egypt, silent stands, 25 Jan preparation, etc. There are many memories to share with anyone interested to know what was happening behind the scenes but I don’t think I am ready to do this now. Mainly becuase the revolution is still happening and yesterday was the anniversary and we are not there yet. I want to tell the story when the story finishes not while it is happening. May be I will tell the story when I decide to close the facebook page and delete this website, may be before then. Not sure yet.
For now, I will start posting on this blog/website smaller parts of my story not the full one. This first post though, is written by one of my English Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said” members/fans. I wanted to publish his post on this website/blog so that it is preserved for history as I don’t know the policy of the website currently hosting it and whether they delete old posts, etc.
The following article is taken without changes from an article written on the website: Daily Kos (www.dailykos.com) and written by an unknown writer calling himself: “frenchman” and who is a member/fan of my facebook page. Link to the original article is here:
I have tried to contact the writer to discuss his excellent account and ask his permission for publishing it with all credit to him, but I was unable to. If you ever manage to get hold of him, please get me in touch with him using the contact page.
All rights reserved to the above mentioned website and writer and I have no ownership of the following article in anyway.
Thu Feb 17, 2011 at 11:32 AM PST
I stop my account on January 31 (for reasons which I will briefly discuss below), so the title really should be “History of the Egyptian Revolution on Facebook – the early days”
As is known: Khaled Said was a 28 year old businessman in Cairo who in June 2010 witnessed illegal transactions between police and drug dealers, quite by accident. He was seized and beaten to death by the police. In response, a Google marketing director, Wael Ghonim created a Facebook page – in Arabic – called “We Are All Khaled Said”.
The “page” we will refer to here was not a mirror of that page, but another page with its own administrator – a person who remains anonymous for his or her own safety – tasked with raising “international awareness” of the criminal nature of the Egyptian government. It appears that the right description is that the English language “We Are All Khaled Said” page parallels the Arabic page created by Wael Ghonim. The admin of the English page says he works with Wael, but that Wael does not know his name. The Admin’s positions on issues parallel Ghonim’s, particularly as regards an insistence on peaceful protest.
Based on what happened with the English page, I infer that the Arabic page flew under the radar of state security, or was not taken very seriously. One reason for this is that the English page was never trolled. From the point at which we join it, this page/thread is caught in a whirlwind of events.
In early December 2010, WAAKS-ENG was still one advocacy group out of the thousands that exist on Facebook. The admin was still discussing the Egyptian parliamentary elections. Newspaper articles from around the world are discussed, basically still in the sense of relaying messages from a free press. The world knows that Egypt’s elections are a fake, and that the government is too unconcerned even to do a very good job of faking. A Guardian reporter named Jack Shenker levels the accusation (a few weeks later he would himself be beaten by police batons).
It’s not clear how many people the English page was connecting up at any time. Certainly it became a major focal point for the organization of overseas demonstrations during the Revolution, and a clearing house for videos and poster designs in support of the protests.
On December 5, a video mashup called Watch The Fraud Of Egyptian Election 2010 appeared on YouTube. (The original was at this address: http://www.youtube.com/…) It’s in Arabic, but it purports to show a series of different scenes in which ballot boxes are stuffed, presumably by NDP employees. The audio is not the same as the video. The audio appears to be drawn from the voices of people who stand (perhaps) outside poll locations and shout their disapproval of something.
The Facebook videos add some pretty cheesy music to their sound tracks at times. But in this case the nervous flitting of the people on screen, and the sound of protesting voices that do not manage to force their way into the frame makes a chilling contrast.
Events soon led the page back to its theme of police brutality. On Dec. 8, a 39 year old father of three was kicked to death by police in Alexandria. Eyewitnesses were arrested and given tales to tell. The page adds a detail that is typical of the tragic-ironic nature of a lot of the commentary – one might even have called it the atmosphere of the page at that time. Mostafa Atteya was being stalked by police working for a bank as debt collectors/enforcers. But Mostafa had paid off his debts not long before. It was all a mistake: “a new Khaled Said” had been killed.
At this point the page shows an almost clinical fascination with the details of the murder, like forcing oneself to view a corpse. A video from ikhwanchannel shows testimony from a man who is said to have washed Atteya’s body for burial. Fractures and abrasions indicate the man was dragged (behind a truck?).
While the name of this channel has an obvious meaning, it is now bringing out video from various earlier days of the protest, especially the process whereby the Square was taken over and held. The fact that this video is a few days old does not mean it has no more interest. Ikhwanchannel’s videos of the Square are much closer and much more detailed than TV coverage ever managed to be. They are of permanent interest.
Perhaps the approach of the Christian holiday season kept things quiet on the page after that. Shortly after Christmas there was a post about “Khaled Said’s court case” in which flyers defamatory of Said were distributed by people working for the police.
The next day, Dec. 28, the page reported that Mohamed El Baradei had published an article about Egypt’s “repressed democracy” in the Washington Post. Certainly seems prescient, although at the moment he didn’t appear any more willing to take center stage than the Ikhwan themselves.
Then the admin doesn’t post again until January 7. The occasion: “New Khaled Said in Alexandria.” Elsayed Belal, arrested at the New Year, has been tortured to death by the Amn Al Dawla. It does not seem necessary, at this point in the story, to question the details that the admin receives. They are elements in a narrative that is being recounted by more and more people. We are not required to see the Facebook page as original or causative in all circumstances. There is a strong current of resentment and despair inhabiting the traditional society, the civil society, what remains of the middle class, many professional people, and so on.
Presumably, if the secret police knew about the Facebook pages, it simply did not see them as anything more than a place to vent.
Again, the details of Belal’s death by torture are zoomed in on, in another posted video, in a way that is quite clinical, not hysterical at all. We see men talking in measured tones, one senses an undercurrent of fear, they handle a dead body which we see only in glimpses – until we see a gruesome dead bearded face.
There are hardly any likes for this. Perhaps Muslims thought it was improper. Most videos that depict the dead or those who are killed come with apologies and warnings. This story seems to have broken early enough on January 7 to be followed by other events, and thus other posts. A few hours later, the “We are all” story plays out in a typically gruesome fashion. Belal’s brother is arrested. And the admin begins to speak a slightly different language. I cannot determine at this moment whether it is simply that the context changed, and the admin described that change…or if the admins found that mere description led them to quiet imperatives: “We have to stop this. We have to unite against torture and these killings.”
One person commenting expresses a bit of skepticism against this change in tone: “OK so we’re united…and then what?” A comment worthy of a liberal blog, for sure. But right after that, Assem Elsabeeny says: I think it’s time really, a revolution? Civil strikes everywhere. People will get arrested, people might die but NO PAIN NO GAIN.” This startlingly American turn of phrase is the first openly revolutionary statement in English. From this point, the people who are murder and tortured are brought extremely near, and the closer the page goes to them, the more the theme of witnessing turns toward a protest. Somehow the page forces itself not only to look at the results of torture but to study them, as a way of coming to terms with the need to place oneself in danger deliberately.
Belal’s death was not the result of police involvement in drug crimes like the death of Khaled Said. There had been a New Year’s bombing of a Christian church in Alexandria; A police operation essentially fingered Belal for it. The community of “Salafists” in Alexandria was under suspicion; dozens (the page posts the first Al Jazeera English clip we have seen) were rousted, including Belal.
At this point I will intrude my own “knowledge” just a little. I recently translated a fairly large book about Salafism. Suffice it to say that almost everything that is recounted in the West about Salafism is ludicrously off base. It’s really a style of preaching that is quite conservative; it became popular over the last 30 years and got its start in Yemen. But considering the West’s demonization of Salafism (due to a connection with al-Qaida that is also fictional), one can easily imagine that the Egyptians were keen to provide Americans with reports on the investigation of “Islamist” bombings.
The Belal story gets legs from the persecution of the family. First his brother and brother in law are threatened. Then the family is trapped in their own house by the police, and prevented from meeting with representatives of the court (prosecutors). On January 9 the admin says bluntly: “Egyptian police are acting as criminal gangs.” Within hours, the admin reports: “We are starting an international campaign for…Elsayed Belal.” A very typical call is issued to people who can do things, like getting the media to cover the case, or doing graphic design for a flyer. National politicians, Ayman Nour and Mohamed El Baradei, are mentioned in posts around this time. The next day, January 10, an acceptable poster design is posted. The admin says “Enough!” as if a large number of designs were submitted. “We are all Elsayed Belal.” A title that seemed not all that inspired throughout 2010, a straight-up substitution of me for the dead person, now seems to be an effective way of temporarily submerging one’s own desires into a figure of duty, a dead person who could have been you.
The following days brought more news about the persecution of the family of Belal. We see the dead man’s mother: fully veiled, she resembles the mother of Khaled Said and almost every grieving mother. The family is placed under house arrest; the dead man’s widow, pregnant, loses the baby.
The night of January 11 brought news from Tunisia. Police had fired on demonstrators. The admin is still stating principles: Human Rights have no boundaries, no borders and no races.” The “We Are All …” theme is worldwide, not just Egyptian. The next day: “Injustice breads (sic) extremism and terrorism.” This post has some curious features. The injustice done to Elsayed Belal gets transferred, as it were, to his two year old son. It is necessary to protest to prevent the injustice from being perpetuated through a desire for revenge on the part of the coming generation. Action is not just right; it is now necessary. We are not extremists or terrorists at all, but if we stand up for human rights the police will say we are terrorists and then have the right to kill us. This attitude is very similar to the attitude taken by Wael Ghonim, recounting his own interrogation at the hands of state security. His reaction seems to have been based on a strong fear, not so much of death, but of false accusation. He is NOT an extremist, NOT a terrorist. Mental exercises of this nature are required in order to set at zero the significance of news generated by the regime. One must stop listening to that source. And if one does stop, one risks having the regime speak louder, through its police.
The admin is doing the equivalent of a Kantian ethics check, verifying his or her good faith before acting. Wael Ghonim will tell the story, on January 7, of having argued philosophy with the world’s last medieval torturers. “I am not a traitor, I am not a traitor…” Ghonim repeats this many times in the Dream TV “release” interview. And the admin, in speaking of extremism and terrorism, was deliberately upending the 9/11 paradigm as enforced, really, by the United States…whose features are well known.
On January 15 there is another torture death highlighted, and another step forward in the run-up to action. The talk is of Tunisia, and the encouragement given at a very crucial moment. The seed of revolt gets some rain in the desert. “Our message to our Tunisian brothers and sister (sic): well done and congratulations on winning your freedom…. I can see the dawn of freedom in Egypt coming, can YOU see it? Do you want to be a part of it? & help in creating it???” Mona Rahmy commented: “YES WE CAN INSH2ALLAh!” Iman Hassan said: “I wish all of us Egyptians can do something…”
It seems a little grammar Nazi-ish to comment on the errors that some posters make…but it is important for establishing who they are. Their English is very good, though not perfect. More than anything they are used to it – used to “world English”, to making English do what you need it to. So there is no hesitation in its use. If there is a novice’s tendency in their English, it is that of sticking to abstract concepts. The posters, even though this is the English page, are mostly Arabs, mostly Egyptians who want to have exchanges in English.
I have to think back over my exposure to the Tahrir Square crowds to identify them. Were they wearing baseball caps? Was there something vaguely American about them? I’m guessing that they were small in number, included some children of rich Egyptian families who were tech-savvy. This description could also fit a number of those who followed the Arabic page, since it probably informs the English page frequently. The problem is that of determining the makeup of the protest crowds, and also getting clues about the “distributed leadership” of the initial protests.
But not to anticipate too much – the Admin an hour later said “Tunisian Police is just like Egyptian Police.” This plain equivalence led another hour later (on Jan. 15) to the first call for a day of protest: “Activists from all over Egypt have now agreed to make the 25th January, the day to start Egyptians’ peaceful uprising against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment in Egypt. Stand up for your rights Egyptians. To our International friends: Support us please in every possible way to make this day a success. 25th… January is the official Egyptian Police day (in which they celeberate torturing us). Do you want to be part of change in Egypt? & help creating it?”
So the choice of the date was a joke on the police. This is a turn from tragic irony (in which one can do nothing about one’s fate) to comic (but one will try anyway). January 25 just happened to be suggested. Hmm, what is that day noteworthy for? “Activists from all over Egypt have now agreed” to undertake something that is called a “peaceful uprising” even before being called a protest. On the flyer shown in a pic: the faces of Khaled Said, Elsayed Belal, and two other torture victims. Again, “international friends” outside Egypt are appealed to; this page will focus on world coordination.
Perhaps the government had begun to focus on the Khaled Said movement; the next day (Jan. 16) they were trying to get ahead of events by dangling the prospect of lower food prices in the state media. And for the first time, the Admin seems to consider the possibility of connection equably; we did this, and now they are doing that. An hour after this post, the Admin states simply: Egyptians believe their turn is coming [after Tunisia]. Commenters predict that the security forces would brag about their ability to handle things; one already compares Mubarak to Czar Nicholas II! And as proof that the Arabs had not abandoned their English page completely: an Arab poster writes: “I want fell free in Egypt its dream I know”. The desire to “feel free” would be mentioned by Wael Ghonim and by many who were about to become protesters,
The next day, a man sets fire to himself in Cairo. A similar act had ignited the Tunisian protests. It takes 5 hours for video to reach the Facebook page. Two hours later, the English page is calling for worldwide demonstrations in front of Egyptian Embassies. New York, Bologna, London and Madrid opt for January 23, Sunday.
At noon on Jan. 18, the English Admin observes: “Some members believe that a peaceful protest in Egypt will not do much. All our protests are peaceful and legal ones. If you have a different opinion please feel free to say it, but I have never and will never call for or support a protest anywhere unless it is 100% legal and peaceful. I understand people may disagree.”
A comment posted under that statement:
Amina Sabine Mohammed
I agree with Assem Elsabeeny.
100% legal and peaceful. Ok, so some thousend or one million people go on the street. ups, my husband (he is from egypt) told me today Mubarak will not accept any protest. So you can not go on the street at all…, becouse it would be illegal.
If you want a change, you need millions of people going on the street. And when the police comes, you should not go one mm back! And if they attac you, it is you human right for self-defence. You should not attack anyone, but you must be willing to stand up for your goal and you should never ever go back. You must carry out your goal and be willing to do everything, that essential.
It is your right to protest, and if they want to stop you, dont go back!
Its your right!
I beliefe it is possible like in Tunisia. But you must be willing to act like the tunsian and to be succesful.
30 Years of Mubarak is enough! How much suffering egyptian people need to stop him??
I make du’a for your country/people, that you can make a change!
Wallahi, if I were a men, I would coke to egypt to support you.
I hope you could understand, what I wanted to say, my english is not very good.”
A few hours later, plans are being made for protests in major cities worldwide on either Sunday or Tuesday. On January 17, Facebook observed in its faceless fashion that “We are all Khaled Said created an event.” The page would create many of them. Protests in front of Egyptian Embassies or consulates on Sunday in New York, Bologna, London and Madrid. What about you Canada? “…we have few interest for Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa? Can you comment on this post to say which one you can do please?” On one hand, there is no doubt, on the part of the Admin, that a call for protests in world capitals will be heard (perhaps he feels the half-million followers of the Arabic page behind him as well). On the other hand, there is always room for DIY: “If we haven’t posted about a protest in your country and you want to arrange one, just go on Sunday infront of the Egyptian embassy and protest….Make sure you send us photos…” (Jan. 19)
And a few minutes later, advice that would be capital in many situations soon to arise: “If you got to the protest in your country and there weren’t many people there, don’t leave. More people might be coming later or protesting in a nearby place. If not, protest even if you are by yourself. You are a group even if you are one. Just do your bit and don’t worry about others….” I quote this post at some length because it is an example of what I have called distributed leadership (and also of what military tacticians would call unit initiative). In PR terms, one protester is a protest, as long as there are photos, and that adds another city to the world list. But even more, there is the likelihood that others are coming, will come, may even be at another location: “Just do your bit…” In other words, in the absence of direct social support, rely on the network. Carry your iPhone, check the page – more information will be forthcoming. Other commenters ask for a model for flyers to be handed out to passersby. If your group doesn’t show up, recruit one.
The WAAKS-ENG page has a particular sense of humor, which shows up in a post on Jan. 19 featuring a short video called “The camera is my weapon”. “On the 25th January, Egyptian protesters will carry their cameras as their weapons. They will use cameras to capture every policeman who will attack peaceful protesters…(and then we will) show it to the world. Have you got your camera ready?” The video simply shows some hunky Arab guys walking over rough terrain with cameras, with some pregnant-with-foreboding movie music in the background (I cannot identify the film). The music swells to a crescendo and the Arabic titles are in synch with the music’s tempo. The last frame shows JAN 25 slightly askew, as if the events that were about to transpire would shake loose even printed letters on a page.
On January 20, the Admin posts a photo that might have been cited by the many, many talking heads who throughout the Revolution asked what the protesters’ demands were. The photo shows an elderly (although not frail) man being bent double and frog-marched by plainclothes police. The Admin says; “We have official list of demands but this photo summarizes them all.”
During Jan. 20 and 21, most posts are concerned with arranging the worldwide protests. There are “complications” with the London protest, but the address of the Egyptian Embassy is posted. The Bologna protest has to be moved to a different location. During this time, comments begin to take on a tone that is not quite serious and not quite joking – I’m thinking of a pirate who draws his sword with insouciance against a whole army of opponents. There is no fear at all, but rather there are attempts to find language that is worthy of the moment. Mona Maher: “we need ur support guys all over the word our date is Tuesday 1/25 to be or not to be”. (An interesting variation on B there or B square.) In the wee hours of the morning of Jan. 22, the Admin posted a video all in Arabic titled “Why 25 January?” The video opens with the photo of the same old man being manhandled (mentioned just above) and goes on to show several scenes of abuse, notably one of a plainclothes policeman repeatedly slapping the face of a man he is holding by the shirt – and the man makes no effort to escape. “Why 25 January? What if this was your father, your mother, your brother or daughter? …For every suffering Egyptian. I’m standing up. No more Emergency law. No more faked elections. No more Corruption.”
On Jan. 23, the Admin publishes 13 photos of small groups outside Egyptian embassies and consulates. The Egyptian flag is much in evidence. After midnight (thus on Jan. 24) the Admin posts a Newsweek article, “Will the Revolution come to Egypt?”The article mentions the WAAKS page and plans for protests. Later on Jan. 24 a video of the New York protest is posted: the protesters introduce some of the chants that will become familiar. They march down a city street, and manage to spread out so it looks like their numbers are bigger. “Well done guys…”
The signs they carry include posters showing the faintly smiling, essentially open face of Khaled Said, which say: Stop Egyptian Police Brutality.
The first post on Jan. 25, again in the wee hours, shows an Egyptian man, about 60 years old, slashing one wrist (but not an artery) in front of the High Court as a protest against government corruption that has held up his government paycheck for four years. The next announces that there will be a protest on Jan. 25 in Paris. The Admin tells people to follow him on the page and on Twitter (alshaheeed). “25th January is our big day.” The location for the final “created event” is “all over the world”.
One possible measure of the strength of the Arabic Facebook page appears only hours before the Egyptian Revolution leaves Facebook and walks out into reality: those who wish to follow event coverage in Arabic are advised to follow the Rassd News Network. Almost 420,000 people “like” that.
The first report posted to the page: “Now: Protests in “Dar el Salam”…Groups of youth are walking around the area shouting slogans: Freedom and Bread are every Egyptian request.” Some of the comments have that strange characteristic of Facebook comments, that is, they seem full of beans and hideously inauthentic, but in the aggregate they manage to get away with it. “Security, justice, equal rights, transparency in telling facts, our minds respects are common rights to every human and those are the minimum requirements to feel that we have a country and that we are people” “ALWAYS hold your head up high, believe in yourself. You are special and gifted, you deserve the best. Fight for your right #jan25 Egyptian brothers/sisters! Regard from Malaysia!”
Then the first reports from Egypt. A photo from an open-air area of Alexandria is posted, showing several hundred marchers. It is noted that Ayman Nour, head of the Ghad party, is leading a protest in “Bab Al Sheria”. A photo from Qina shows a large crowd – but of course, everyone at this point is watching Al Jazeera. The Admin relays a series of TV reports. Protests in the Sinai, a crowd in front of the High Court (which is something I don’t remember seeing on TV). Then comes something like reading off a schedule of protests known but to themselves: “Three marches have started now from: Almunira, Cairo Univ Bridge and Magra AlOyon wall towards Al Qas Al Einy…” From the level of various cities, we are zoomed into a ground-level street map. This was, I guess, the moment (if it happened as has been said) that some 20 protest centers were arranged, and crowds assembled for each, just in Cairo, as a means of outmaneuvering “the police”. The idea, as described in published stories, was to wear out the police, and then break through their preventive cordon in a coordinated manner, so as to take Tahrir Square. Always assuming, of course, that the police did not simply shoot. Wael Ghonim and others identified as “organizers” thought, prior to the protest, that the police would simply carry out mass arrests. Of course from our present vantage we may well imagine that this would only have made the eventual massive manifestation even more energetic.
In any case the police only exercised riot control tactics, not direct deadly force. (To be exact, it seems that the number of dead not resulting from accident did include a few sniper killings in several locations. That may have been a scare tactic.) At that point it becomes a question of numbers. How many police were deployed at any time in Cairo? 10,000? That would seem a maximum, even exaggerated. I don’t think I ever saw a group of police in which there were obviously 1,000 units. But they had tear gas, truncheons, and shields and armor.
From Dostor came news that the police were trying to close Cairo to traffic from the outside, that they were searching incoming cars. That was in the early afternoon. A group happily named the Egyptian Front for the protection of protesters (they must have renamed themselves for they never got another call) reports at this time that Algora airport south of Rafah, Sinai has been cut off by protesters on the road. Protests are forming in front of the Lawyers Syndicate (these are not locations that were mentioned on TV).
Moments later, a break. “Unverified reports: Incredible scenes in Ramses Street – marchers breaking through police lines and heading toward midan abdel munim riyad.” This is another reason why I like this admittedly perspectival account. Someone sometime will be able to give an account of the “battle for Ramses Street.” At this stage, I don’t believe things had degenerated into “an attack” yet. Just looking now at footage of Algerian protests (with many more police) I see that crowds of protesters, if they are big enough, simply exert pressure on their own. There is literal pressure between the crowd and the police line. The book on crowd control says that if the line breaks, police have to reform and use vehicles to clear any open space.
This they proved unable to do.
A few minutes go by without other shock announcements. The Admin is able to post a video of a protest – but there are so many he can’t remember where this one was. Then: “Protesters at the High Court break down the police siege and run towards Tahrir Square. Our reporters say: amazing scenes there.”
For the next several hours the Admin would be extremely busy, making posts as often as every few minutes.
Probably this will be debated and pored over, but for our present purposes we can say that the primary question is: was the seizure of Tahrir Square pre-determined? Some have suggested this. It may be verifiable. But intentional or not, the size of the many protests in different areas in Cairo did what it was supposed to do. It thinned the ranks of the police. There were columns of protesters that did not encounter police resistance until they got close to the Square. There were groups of protesters whose numbers allowed them to flow around and outflank groups of police, who were reduced to trailing them. And there were instances in which the police line was broken and fast-moving young protesters poured through the gap and ran to the Square.
It appears to me from some video materials like “rooftop revolutionaries” (story on AJE website) that what happened next was also planned. Assuming once again that the protesters were not going to be shot down en masse, the question became one of a) breaking the riot cordon and b) reforming in a place where even a massed charge by the police would not clear the area. In the terms of the game as it played out, this was “taking the Square”.
An old weapon used in a new way made this possible. This task was given to quite young residents of Cairo (perhaps 12-20 years) who had had dealings with these police most often. Whether this was all imagined beforehand or not, as long as there wasn’t more than a smattering of actual live fire, the thrown rock, thrown in sufficient numbers and with some organization, turned out to be superior to the police with truncheons and tear gas. During the days of battle, there was an armaments plant in Tahrir Square: people dug up the paving stones of the street itself (apparently admirable missiles).
To return to the live stream, though: the Admin shows at photo of a march from Ramses Square. Just a few minutes later we learn that the second biggest march, Mohandesin (after Ramses) was starting in 15 minutes. (This is another piece of information Al Jazeera did not have.) Another few moments, and the Admin reports that the police line broke at Mohandesin, “…and police is now surrounded by protesters for the first time in Egypt’s history.” It could be that the police were able to feel the non-violence of the crowd. The “peaceful, peaceful” chant was a part of every protest. But perhaps they did not think of it that way. The disparity in numbers meant that groups of less than 20 police could be buried by the crowd, torn to pieces.
In essence, a campaign against police brutality was a good lead-in for a revolution. You make the other side’s use of force an issue before you start the fight. But it wasn’t even a fight, yet. Posting minute by minute, the Admin notes that some people have brought children to the protests. This sets off a discussion in the comments…and in retrospect, on Jan 25 itself, the gesture seems foolhardy. But there never were any reports of children being harmed.
“Bolaq and Nahya protests break the police cordon and join Mohandesin protest.” More than ten posts in an hour. Ten minutes later the Admin, clearly getting information via cell phone from the locations, reports that the Mohandesin protest is headed for Tahrir Square “2 join those already there”, ten thousand strong.
At this point we can ask a question that might eventually have an answer – how precise was the timing of the series of staggered punches, represented by successive waves of protesters? Partly, this depends on whether the police had any idea that Tahrir Square would be “held” against them. At any rate, the protesters’ plans were probably clearer on the Arabic page than on the English, and they’re pretty clear in English; but the police evidently did not avail themselves of this source of information. And those directing them were much more concerned with shutting down information networks, not using them.
Like an officer throwing in his reserves, a little before 3 p.m. (this may be an hour off) the Admin says: “If you are in Cairo and you were waiting for something real to happen for you to decide to go to the protest. It’s happening. Time now to join protest.” Before four the Admin is getting BBC and US radio requests for interviews. “World media is starting to wake up” – literally, in the US, 7 hours behind.
A little after three the Admin posts a video that really gives food for thought (from samireshra). It doesn’t look like a protest march – not even the ones we could have seen on other streets, with flags and children. It looks like a fast march by a battalion of young men who are in loose formation, not tight ranks, but who are responding to lead chants that are short and military. I don’t say they were actual “hut one, hut two” cries, but the people are walking to some extent to the speed of the cadence. This was the day on which the “crowds” were referred to as “so very male” by certain American women. That may be because the originating side-street protests, coming from all directions, were not televised as heavily as the battle for Tahrir Square. Samireshra shows this battalion of young Cairenes (if I am not mistaken) marching right under the “October 6 Bridge” – at least marching under the flyover that was going to be the location of several very real battles, or skirmishes. They are entering Tahrir Square, and doing so unopposed. The Admin cheers: “It’s happening, guys…”
Before 4, protesters “take a break to pray”. A photo shows protesters praying in front of a police blockade. This public exercise of religious worship was part of one of the most appealing human stories to come from the days of battle: Muslims would stand guard over Christians, and vice versa – this “standing guard” indicating that the battle of baton charges and rock throwing was not yet over.
The Admin answers questions on an American radio show. Is Mubarak like Ben Ali? “Which is worse: the devil or Satan?” Not calculated to quiet the fears of the American audience. Still before four o’clock: “Police moved in on protesters and attacking protesters badly. Using batons and water cannons”
Two points arise here. Most importantly, if footage that has a time stamp is studied, I think we will see that police baton charges aren’t very effective during this part of the afternoon because of young protesters throwing rocks at them. Also very important: during this early period of the protest, the police were still confident in their equipment. But over the next three days, protesters in Cairo disabled dozens of police trucks. (The other most common event was the burning of police stations nationwide.) They had a technique for this. If personnel or anti-riot vehicles tried to hold a position, protesters would stick chunks of gasoline-soaked wood underneath and start a fire. The police inside the truck would abandon it and it would catch on fire. (These burnt hulks later became mainstays of the Tahrir Square defense perimeter.) It’s impossible to say what would have happened if the police had had a thousand trucks, if they had set up walls of trucks. As things happened, they ended up committing their heavy equipment piece by piece, something they never would have done if they had been able to advance with a baton charge. I feel sure that footage will show that rock-throwing prevented police from coming in contact with the “body” of the protesters (which is part of the technique, when it works).
This in turn enabled a division of labor to be carried out within the protest center almost immediately. We see this from the BBC interactive graphic, which shows that the circular center of Tahrir was eventually occupied by communications and command personnel – I am talking about the protesters, mind. The street urchins of Cairo kept the police well away from the center of the Square, except for the charge of the plainclothes police, which is still days away.
At 4:13: “One of our correspondants has been hit and dragged across the street by Egyptian police.” Moments later, tear gas attacks erupt. Elsewhere in Cairo (AlDokky), other protests are still kicking off in staggered series. Twenty minutes later, a first report of the destruction of a police vehicle in Tahrir is posted. Protesters in Matareya reported being attacked hard by police. In the comments, a discussion of what to use to recover from tear gas is in progress (use Maalox, not lemon juice).
At 4:41 another aspect of the police counterattack becomes evident. The Bambuser video sharing site goes down. Opposition newspaper websites go down. “Some mobile phone lines of our correspondants have been cut off. Message to the police: We have hundreds more pay as you use cell phone lines to use.”
The “peaceful, peaceful” language is never rejected. As much as chanting in Tahrir Square caused “the protesters” to appear as a sort of mob that was acting as one, instinctively, there was a clear division of labor within the protest. Even before this division of labor concerned itself with supplying the protest, “holding the Square” involved more than it had done in the past. These were not the first protesters to break a police line and run through it. But in this case, the rock-throwing part of the protesters had a job to do, which was to enable there to be a communications center at the center of “the protest”. During all this time, the police on the ground were simply trying to clear the Square. It seems certain that their failure to do so was a great surprise to the authorities at the highest levels. Certainly we see today that this is the analysis of the authorities in Algeria.
On the ground, at 4:45, protesters continued to pose new challenges in an effort to exhaust the ability of the police to respond. Ayman Nour (opposition figure) reports 50,000 protesters have converged upon the NDP building (near Tahrir Square). The ruling party is always referred to as the national undemocratic party.
Ten minutes later: “Confirmed: Tahrir Square is now COMPLETELY ours. Egyptian police is only worried about protecting their head quarters: Ministry of interior.” As soon as this objective is acquired, the soon to be familiar shape, of people standing on top of a wall or platform at the back of the Square and leading the crowd in chants, appears.
Just after 5 p.m., colibra71’s video of action in Tahrir Square was posted (a clip from Al Jazeera Mubasher). “Please see this video to the end. It was taken early today at the start of Tahrir marches. Watch it all and see how Egyptian police is surrounded at around minute 3:40.” Actually, the video not only shows small groups of police forming back-to-back squares as the protest flows over them – it shows police on more than one occasion retreating rapidly and even running as “columns” of regular protesters of all ages (but almost all men) threaten to trap them or cut them off. At one point it appears that the police may have seen two columns of protesters headed at them from opposite directions. There are also several points in this video in which we see younger men and boys running through the column, moving to the front. At one point we see a group of these tough kids running as a group.
At 5:34 the Admin realizes that the communications net is under attack. Internet providers and the Vodafone network begin to close down Twitter. “Shame on them…What a disgrace of these companies obeying the government?” Typical of the Admin to expect media corporations to respond to him rather than to a government. His outrage is genuine.
At 5:54 a report comes in saying that in Mansoura, protesters who had been arrested have been freed (but how?). Just after 6, a “correspondent” reports that “20 thousand are marching in Alexandria and some police officers are walking with them. Police has no control whatsoever.” Television networks never really committed a lot of resources to Alexandria, and this was partly because the police seem never to have impacted the protest, but the protest had no burning buildings like the NDP building in Cairo.
At 6:09 the report is posted: “Latest: Protesters have decided an overnight stay in Tahrir Square, Cairo. The revolution HQ! Police arrest 16 protesters and have thrown them in the middle of Ismaili desert highway!” Moments later: “Egyptian police waited for protesters in Tahrir square to start praying and then they started attacking them with batons and bats.” The other shoe finally drops: “BREAKING NEWS: Police in Egypt open fire on protesters. Our correspondant has been hit with a bullet in his head…” But the worst has not happened. It turns out the bullet is a rubber one. “With Twitter blocked by TEData and Vodafone Egypt, we are not getting information from organizers in Qina, Mahalla, Arish and Aswan. We know that there are thousands of people protesting there.” (6:39 p.m.) At 6:47 a report is posted that shows how difficult a time police had in establishing any position anywhere: “Some old ladies are throwing glasses and cooking pans from their home balconies on the police in the streets.” (Report from Alexandria.)
Just because the police were not able to do what they wanted to do doesn’t mean they accomplished nothing. They were able to work out their frustrations on the odd citizen. Just before 7 the Admin has time to report on crowds of protesters that are hit with tear gas. “Police dragged some away and beat a journalist, smashing her glasses and seizing her camera.” In the city of Tanta, it is reported that electric power has been cut off. “Next thing the government will set the whole country on fire, so that they keep on ruling!!!”
The Admin’s posts are surprisingly free of surprise about the sheer size of the protests. This could be because of the numbers of “will attend” confirmations given to the Arabic page – which may have been in the hundreds of thousands. We don’t have precise numbers, and hopefully later investigation will help clear up the demographic mystery: we can see that the “Facebook youth” organized the protests and gave them some direction. We can also see that the youth of the city, given a playing field without machine guns, defended the protest and its seized territory, Tahrir. Finally we can see that a broad range of social categories was represented in the columns of the marchers. Our questions would bear on the mutual awareness of these groups in the runup to the protest. Sociologically, we can see that the more educated youth were able to get support from parents. Older adults who marched must have derived a great deal of energy from the successes of “the youth”, who turned the protest march into a winged column that police had trouble even getting in contact with.
But what was the nature of the initial relations between Facebookers and rock-throwers? We know from the “rooftop revolutionaries” show that this relationship did work. Complicated structures of command and control were created and operated. Defensive and offensive operations were carried out. A variety of attacks tried by the police were solved and beaten, one after another – including the plainclothes cavalry charge, which ended up badly for the cavalry.
Supposedly, there were 3 million people on Facebook prior to the Revolution. This figure can be brought into relation with the actual number of protesters. The Admin, in the early evening of Tuesday, was still putting out broad calls for people to come out and join the Cairo protests. But how many of the uneducated rock-throwers were on Facebook? Did the street kids, who were running greater physical risks, take orders from older, better educated protesters? It is possible. Kids in such situations live for the thrill of their clashes with the police. In individual cases, they are seldom punished severely because they are underage. Although it seems politically incorrect to say it, many of these kids live for a riot. Some young British men of that age are the same way. A riot is the ultimate adventure, in a sense.
In the early evening of Jan. 25, the WAAKS-ENG page mocked the authorities’ efforts to shut down the comm net: “Mobile phone network has now been cut off in Tahrir area. No cell phone network all over Tahrir, Central Cairo area. We temp lost connection with people there. Message to Egyptian Police: Don’t worry, we have prepared other methods for it.” Photos are posted of the destruction of large public images of Hosni Mubarak in Tahrir and in Alexandria. The Admin repeats calls for more protesters to come out to Tahrir, which is now described as a “sit-in.” A call for supplies (food and blankets) goes out. Every now and then, I registered a certain amount of surprise that Egyptians were all bundled up against cold temperatures. If the temps were colder than normal, this may actually be seen as a factor in the protest event. Egyptians, like the phlegmatic man in medieval theories of medicine, took longer to warm up and stayed warm longer once warmed up.
At 7:47 the Admin reports monitoring the France 24 Arabic channel, and seeing a police officer who had come over to the protesters. Throughout the protest, organizers were hopeful that many police and soldiers would walk across the lines, but as it turned out it was not necessary. The Admin posted a story from the (UK) Guardian website. World coverage was considered to be a major factor in building up momentum for the protest movement, and the eye of the world press, it was hoped, would provide a level of protection for protesters, motivating police elements to avoid scenes of public violence. On the other side, the police were trying in vain to create a blackout situation that would allow them to use more force without providing evidence for a case at The Hague.
As darkness fell, the Admin remarked on the fact that no protesters had been accused of any property damage. The cry of “peaceful, peaceful” had mostly been heeded – except by the police: “When I say protests were peaceful, I mean protesters were peaceful and did not intentionally attack shops, cars or people property. Police on the other hand was not peaceful and attacked protesters and many have been injured” (8:23 p.m.) Darkness temporarily shifted the focus of events to preparation and propaganda. Whether or not the decision to occupy Tahrir Square had been made on the fly, all efforts now were channeled into maintaining that occupation. The larger the number of protesters, the more immovable their mass. As regards communication, there was no longer a need to coordinate widely separated actions. “The protest” would tend to focus on only two areas: Tahrir and Alexandria; and protesters in Alexandria were never attacked the way Tahrir was. It was now necessary only to provide a link to the Square – that is, to provide outlets for pictures (especially live streams of Tahrir) and the occasional bulletin concerning protesters’ mood, their demands, their “leaders” (or the lack thereof), etc.
This was a period of development for the Revolution. It is not necessary to know how much protest organizers foresaw in order to trace certain aspects of this development. The Revolution will now go through a brief process of simplification. Almost everything seems to come to depend upon events at one location, Tahrir (this is an artifact of TV coverage, though). Soon it will turn out that the cohesion of the protest and sustaining its numbers is also dependent on the choice of one key demand – Mubarak must leave. The pattern of the coming days, apart from tactical episodes of attack and defense, will consist in the protesters being “offered”, through unknown contacts and via the media, various concessions and propositions other than Mubarak’s resignation.
As the evening of Jan. 25 wore on, the Admin made a number of posts that exhorted the protesters to keep it going, and that mocked the police and the government. “Tahrir Square now. (video) We own it now. Police can only watch from a distance.” (8:57) “Our Saudi supporters in Jeddah are asking when our president will arrive there? They want to prepare a special welcome.” (9:09) “Just got a message from Egyptians in Sinai: Don’t return home from Tahrir except with your freedom with you.” This is a Spartan attitude: “Either come back with your shield or on it.” It is the absolute negation, and the destruction (in a Hegelian sense) of the knock on Egyptians as being poor fighters if not cowards – a reputation acquired in the wars with Israel, which gave rise to the jokes about Egyptian tanks and their back-up lights.
At 9:20 three minutes of video are posted that belong in military history. A group of no more than 200 police – far too few! – are massed in a street. They have a couple of large trucks, one with a front-mounted water cannon. They are trying to advance toward a group of perhaps 500 protesters that are spread out over about 150 meters of the street. The protesters appear to be standing each a couple of meters from the next, but still maintaining some cohesion, some awareness of each other and of the direction of movement. The police are attempting to mass up, to fit in behind one of the trucks so they can advance behind it. In footage that has become legendary, the water cannon advances by itself into the 50 meters or so that separate the police on foot from the fringe of the protesters in loose formation. One protester, eliciting shrieks of astonishment from people watching the action from their balconies, pulls a Tienanmen by going to stand in front of the truck, which stops. Here again, a limit of “permissible” violence is reached. Did the truck stop because the police did not want to inflame the crowd, thus risking a massive reaction? Because just in terms of mass, the larger mass of protesters beyond the protective skirmish screen could have overpowered 200 police even if they were firing. We have to remember that at the same time that the security services were being accused of provoking violence in the media, on the ground they were reduced to small bands that had to worry about their own security.
Only a few minutes later the Admin reports the first death of a protester, from a gunshot wound to the heart. At ten o’clock the organizers announce the plan for Jan. 26 – a national strike and larger protest marches. Then we return to the reports of live fire against protesters, two deaths in Suez. The attention of the world – and the page – begins to focus on the remarkable Woodstock-like image of the circle at the center of the Square, that around which all else seems now to revolve. “Tahrir Square NOW” (10:31) Then a link to a live feed. Other themes are repeated, including the claim to have caused no damage: “International reporters have all confirmed that no attacks on personal properties (cars, etc.) or anything else.” (10:52) Minutes later the arrival of the first “relief column” is announced: 4,000 new protesters from Shobra “with tents and loads of food and supplies”. Reports have a “Large number of detained protesters” being transferred to a military jail in Cairo; this is just an occasion for the Admin to cry foul. Since the protesters have not done any damage, why are they arrested? Because of the long standing Emergency Laws.
At 11:30 it is not observed but predicted: “For all Egyptians: Twitter is closed as you know, Facebook will close very soon. Please All use proxies and tell ALL your friends in Egypt to use proxy to connect…” The prospect of a darkening of the comm net carries with it a resurgence of the sense of danger. “Plz Plz comment and like on every post to spread the word. We need all your friends to see and know about Egypt’s uprising as this is the only way to stop Egyptian government from killing protesters. They are only scared from International media and world governments. They don’t want scandals. They won’t kill protesters if the World stood next to us” This is very appealing somehow. A “friend” on Facebook is a synonym for a relationship that is as near nothing as it is possible to be, and yet Facebook friends are being asked to change the world almost as a matter of course. On the “liberal” website where I began following the events, almost everyone is anonymous; the vast majority of their comments are analytical, not to say cynical. On Facebook, almost everyone is who they say they are, and that’s where you get quite a lot of the sort of “Yes! Brothers! Stand firm! We are with you!” comments that would draw either laughter or rebukes on the soi-disant analytical websites. Who is more inauthentic? But wet-blanket analysis would simply be ignored on Facebook. If long diaries and long comment threads on liberal websites are analytical-textual, then Facebook threads are made up of videos, photos, and exhortations. There’s very little inter-commentary on Facebook. Comments, like videos and photos, are meant to be viewed, and there’s almost no “discussion”. Probably this is because the comment thread is in small type, and hidden (you have to click to look at it, which I can’t do without losing my ability to view the posts from Jan 25 forward).
The breathless pace of events on the first day of protests does not change the purpose of the page: to generate as much international support and foreign press coverage as possible. Accordingly, the Admin is still trying to arrange sympathy protests around the world. Protests are scheduled in San Francisco.
At 12:45 on January 26, Al Jazeera reports that police are “…attacking the Tahrir Square sit-in…Sky news breaking news: more than 50 cannons (sic) of tear gas just fired now on Tahrir protesters.” A few minutes later, the first appearance of plainclothes “thugs” carrying knives. 30 minutes later, the protesters’ position in Tahrir was under full assault. “Many protesters are fainting from the amount of teargas used (more than 60 cannons so far) and police is attacking everyone and randomly arresting people in side roads. Shame on you. Shame on you.” It is curious that the Admin chooses this moment to put up four consecutive posts critical of the US position as of that moment. Three posts were aimed at Hillary Clinton’s statements characterizing the Egyptian government as “stable” (these comments caused immediate consternation in the US among those who sympathized with the Revolution). The third had to do with the widely reported origin of the tear gas fired at the protesters – the US.
This certainly was one of the dicey moments of the Revolution. At 1:48 in the early morning of January 25, the Admin writes: “Can’t sleep…Street fighting all over Tahrir Square. Protesters defending themselves. Attacks on police cars…It has been peaceful all day and that’s what we called for but they have driven them to do that!” But things were more hopeful only a few minutes later: “Street fighting (against) police firing rubber bullets and tear gas and sitting inside their armourd vehicles (fighting against) bare handed protesters defending themselves and standing against these armourd vehicles. I’ll try to get this video.. It’s amazing.”
The Admin decides to sleep then, and does not post again until ten o’clock, Jan. 26. “Gooood Morning to everyone who loves and Supports Egypt and Egyptian uprising. Our coverage will now continue…First piece of news: There is a National Strike declared all over Egypt by Egyptian youth. There are attempts by the youth to take control of Tahrir Square again.” This is very important, because it clears up something that was very doubtful. During the night of January 26, the Egyptian police did manage to clear the Square and sweep away the “sit-in.” Actually, during much of January 26 and 27, the Admin focuses on what’s happening in other Egyptian cities such as Suez.
Video of a dead young protester’s wounded body surfaces. As before, it almost seems that there is a desire to get as close as possible to the dead body. The Admin takes a moment to applaud a Wa Po editorial that takes issue with Clinton’s refusal to dump the regime. He/she also notes that “the 2011 Egyptian protests” have gotten their first Wikipedia page (not yet calling it a Revolution).
At noon on January 26, the Admin reports: “Thousands of protesters in Ramses Square now and there are attempts to head towards Tahrir Square again.” So it seems clear at this point that the Square is no longer in protesters’ hands – but that they want it to be. Once again, the Admin begins announcing the start times for protests that are coming up – in Asuit, Alexandria, and “6 october city”. The next post insists that protesters in Tahrir were peaceful, even talking to police and starting to clean up around them when “orders” came down at 1:30 a.m. to “break it” (the occupation). Now, at 1:39 p.m., a post says that the Interior Minister has given orders that police are to attack and arrest protesters. “Protesters are now being attacked in Ramses, Tahrir, Al Sa’a Square (Madinet Nasr – Nasr City) and many other places.” In the face of these attacks, the protest organizers call for reinforcements for Friday, Jan.28. “National announcement: Please let EVERYONE know that we will be doing mass protests on Friday after Friday prayers (mid-day) ALL OVER Egypt. Please let everyone know now before the government closes Facebook and other sites. Twitter remains closed in Egypt.” (1:44 p.m.) It’s still something of a shock to see harmless little Facebook being used to direct a Revolution. The irony is the government appears to have seen it only as a tool for on-the-ground direction (and so they wanted to turn it off). This post shows that they could have been profiting from reading it, but there’s no evidence at all that this occurred to them.
The afternoon of January 26th was filled with reports of attacks and arrests. “Police is literally randomly arresting young people in Tahrir Square. Several arrests and attacks on protesters in 6 October. Egyptian police will soon be having problem finding spaces in civil prisons and military prisons…” But the police could have arrested thousands without denting the Revolution, which was in better shape than it looked at this moment. With protests going on all over the country, they could not be reinforced from outside. They had opportunities on January 26 to build serious barricades to prevent people from accessing Tahrir or from entering the city. But they had no orders to do so. The authorities were waiting for the whole thing to die down, or to shift over into a familiar narrative, in which they would identify the origin of the trouble in some opposition force from the past, and thus find out who to arrest to stop everything.
A piece of encouraging news came at 3 in the afternoon: some of the arrested protesters had been released. Their impression was that the police did not have much heart for the battle against the protesters. At that moment, Facebook was reported as completely blocked. “With Facebook and Twitter closed, imagine what can people do now other than go out and join protests.” This was exactly the view in the West, and the conclusion was reached immediately: shutting down Internet sites was a loser for the government. The Admin posted a list of proxy servers sorted by country at 3:24 p.m.
It appears that there may have been a deliberate effort to generate protest that would be related to important professions. The “lawyers syndicate” (bar association?) and the journalists’ syndicate (union) are reported to be protest targets. Smoke and explosions are reported near the bar association building. The first major targeting of journalists by police occurs: “8 prominent journalists including Mohammad Abdul Qoddoos have been arrested few minutes ago.” (4:54 p.m.) Jack Shenker of the Guardian managed to post audio of his own experience with being arrested and beaten. (5:15 p.m.) His story is titled, “We ran a gauntlet of officers beating us with sticks.”
For a minute, the number of reports overwhelms the Admin. “I can’t keep up with the news that are coming. I need 20 more people sitting on computers here to report everything: People in Suez are so angry and started donating blood for the tens of victims of Police opening fire in Suez. We will not be silent” (5:41) But just as soon, “Reports that policemen and simple police soldiers are getting really tired and are loosing it and don’t have strength left” (5:55) Shortly after 6 comes a report: “People are breaking a barricade in a protest in central Cairo.”
Actually, despite the stream of reports of clashes, the Admin manages to propagandize effectively. The reason for posts explaining the difference between “police soldiers” and graduates of a police academy all fits in to a priority directive for the Revolution, which is to try to talk police and soldiers into crossing over and joining the protest. There is no enemy, and even the police are said to be reluctant to oppose the protest (whether this was really believed or not). A first fissure in the regime appears in the contradictory government statements posted at 6:25; the Prime Minister says that Egyptians have the right to protest, and the Interior Minister says no. And meanwhile…”and…where is the president by the way? We haven’t heard a word from him.” As street clashes continue in central Cairo, it was probably easy to overlook the simple fact that so many reports of fighting were a good sign. The protests were not being smothered out anywhere because fresh “troops” kept arriving every 8 hours (protesters were asked to spend “shifts” in the Square, and then return home to rest). After noting that arrested protesters had begun a hunger strike, the Admin says: “I told you Egyptians are brave. Some have heart of steel.” (7:59 p.m.)
Another few minutes, and video is posted showing another “battalion” of protesters moving in loose formation down a main street, with one tightly massed group of police running to get ahead of them, and another (both about 100 police) trying to get close to them from behind. We don’t see a clash, but it’s interesting that the police at this time are already taking a basically defensive posture. (This group of police had no armored support. Jan. 26 and 27 were the days on which many of their armored vehicles were disabled.) At least part of the reason why protesters said they felt little fear could have been related to this obviously self-protective behavior by police units. It may be that they were afraid of provoking concentrated violence on the part of the crowd, since the numbers of the protesters were always superior. “Large protests in Mahalla now. Suez is boiling. Our people say it is no longer protests it is a typical war zone between bare handed protesters and armed police. They will get tired soon. Protesters come and go but police can’t. I think and hope that it is happening.” (8:15 p.m.)
Bertolt Brecht said something once about there always being, even in the midst of a war, a time to stop and have a beer. The Admin finds a moment of simple humor: “Funny but true: Cairo Subway/Underground (a.k.a. metro, train) service is prevented from stopping in Tahrir Square.”
Of course, stopping people from accessing the Square was the highest priority for the police; they just never could do it.
During the evening hours the Admin acts as a journalist, a cheerleader and a propagandist for the Revolution. Another photo of protesters being kind to wounded police soldiers is posted. People are continually exhorted to contact Western governments, to start petitions demanding democracy for Egypt, to stage protests in foreign countries. This was not a secondary activity. The US and the UK were continuing to try to keep from tilting toward either side, making statements about human rights but shying away from any public rebuke of the Egyptian government. No one could know what was happening behind the scenes. The Egyptian authorities were frantically trying to come up with concessions that would quiet the protests. They acted as they had acted on previous occasions in negotiating with a political party whose leading members they already knew. In this case they were dealing with a leadership that might have been able to put the brakes on, but had no reason to do so since they weren’t part of a structure that the authorities could buy off.
That leadership was well educated, however. They were savvy enough to trumpet the support of one Sheikh Hafez Salama, 90, the leader of public resistance to the British during the 1950s. An icon, in other words. “It’s great when you see Egyptian scholars/Imams on the front line.” (11:02 p.m.) And the constant exhortation to creative artists paid off: Just before midnight a video was posted of violent action in Cairo, high quality video with a nicely matching English rock audio track that ended by saying, “Come on, come on, put your hands into the fire, come on, come on!”
This was one of several videos that went viral around the world and enabled Western spectators to make a more emotional connection with the Revolution. If you go back through the blogs, you will see people talking about crying over this one, and a few others.
At 1:21 a.m. on the 27th, marching orders for this day and the next. “Every protester in Egypt is advised to protest tomorrow one block of 8 hours: Morning, afternoon or evening. This way we don’t get tired while police stay up around the clock. Then on Friday: National Protests ALL over Egypt after Friday prayers from every town, city and village. Civil disobedience till the dictatorship falls.” Assuming this came from the protest organizers, could they have expected it to be obeyed? The AJE documentary on the “rooftop revolutionaries” indicates at least that in the vicinity of Tahrir organizers were able to digest information from streetwise people, and to dispatch groups of protesters for specific purposes, like investigating and perhaps securing a building or a rooftop. But this is a general piece of advice. It is thrown out on the web because it can’t do any harm. In fact, the police would waste resources eventually in a vain attempt to stop people from coming into Cairo from outside. Telling people it was OK to go home for a while if you had been there a while made all the streets “marches”. It probably led to a lower number of total arrests because the police never faced down any single crowd for the purpose of arresting them all. They made a significant percentage of their arrests by waylaying passers-by. That was the only situation of superior numbers they could create.
One of the first important pieces of news to surface in the morning hours on the 27th (besides more pictures of the Made in USA tear gas) concerned Suez. The Admin has paid much more attention to Suez than the TV stations ever did. At 2 a.m. we get the first inkling that something is happening to the police, namely, they are being “evacuated”. This is thought by some to be a strategic retreat to be followed by a “massacre”, but the Admin thinks this is probably too pessimistic.
At 3 a.m., a report is posted saying that the government has arrested more people than it can feed. Like everything else, this is an indictment of the regime. Few people, even at this point, were using the term “Egyptian Revolution”, but it was a revolution from the beginning in being a total engagement with and opposition to the regime. The period between Jan. 25 and Jan. 28 brought forth many “feelers” from Western groups and the regime, trying to find out what the protesters wanted. The fact that the regime doesn’t manage to do anything right, the fact that even its small successes at repression demonstrate its incompetence all over again – this is revolutionary in a practical sense. The regime is not an old uncle who can be eased out quietly. Everything is an occasion to show the moral and physical weakness and wrongness of the regime. And all this is accomplished with the help of the extra wattage and the big megaphone associated with the attention and interest of Western media.
The Admin catches a few hours of sleep, but even in the late morning, much of the most important news is international. Protests spring up in Yemen. More rallies in the West are planned. Ominously, Suez has been cut off, and the Admin is worried. The Egyptian government has been trying to sell the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood is waiting in the wings to take over. The Admin is properly insulted. “That’s even a bigger lie…Everyone knows who arranged the protests and which Facebook pages called for it. None of these pages or their admins belong to any political group. I swear I’ve never joined any group or political party in my entire life.” This powerfully echoes the account Wael Ghonim would give of his own interrogation. He was accused of being a traitor for days, and like a heretic under the Inquisition he argued the truth of his own patriotism.
Apparently the Egyptian government simply could not get its mind around the idea that a bunch of idealistic, tech-savvy and well-off twentysomethings could organize such a massive protest. But the point was that they were worth something, and they knew it. But so had Khaled Said been, and the state and its uneducated thugs had destroyed his body. Perhaps it is only at this point that videos reappear showing not just the face, beautiful in repose, of Khaled Said, placed next to the hideously crushed face of his corpse, twisted almost beyond recognition but not quite. Where the Egyptian government could imagine only collusion…they encountered a hatred greater than their own. After all, these twentysomethings decided to call Friday, Jan. 28 a Day of Rage.
One piece of news appeared at noon, the significance of which was not immediately grasped: “Confirmed reports that members of the Egyptian Army had all their current holidays cancelled and that there is a state of alert in the Army.” This apparently set off a discussion about the “power vacuum” that might result if Mubarak did leave, as certainly seemed possible. The Admin is ready to let independent judges form a new government immediately and hold elections.
At two o’clock this post appears: “We call on protesters in Ismailia to start peaceful protests now to take the pressure off the people in Suez.” Are these instructions transmitted in the clear, as it were? A subsequent post makes it appear that the instructions were sent through the English page almost as a shot in the dark; the protest had already started a half-hour earlier. The Admin goes on to praise the protesters in Ismailia for doing something to “take the pressure off people in Suez”. (Possibly redirecting some police?)
At 5:30 the Admin makes a startling admission: “Egypt updates: Protest are all over Egypt – spontaneous and not organized by Facebook or Twitter. Remember tomorrow Friday (protests) are supposed to be larger from every square and every corner in Egypt after Friday prayers.”
Usually it isn’t too hard to triangulate events based on what was on Al Jazeera, plus what the Admin puts on the page. The exception has to do with Suez, where the Admin’s concern is higher and the reports more serious than TV coverage made things seem. Shortly after midnight the longest clip yet of clashes in Suez is posted. It shows a much larger mass of police vehicles (30?) than ever appeared in Cairo. It may be that the authorities were more worried about Suez, or simply that they had that many police RV’s at the ready. The clip only showed a lot of smoke filling the sky. If there was a fight between protesters and police, it was in the background on the video, almost indistinguishable. Perhaps they had decided to guard their trucks, since the Cairo protesters disabled quite a few.
At 12:46 a.m., January 28, the Associated Press posted footage showing a lone protester being shot dead in the street. Ten minutes later, the entire Internet was cut off by the government. Speculation during the day would tend to support the view that this action guaranteed a larger turnout of protesters. Was the motivation to prevent publicity that could damage tourism?
At the same time the much-discussed “disappearance” of the police was taking place. The Revolution saw this as a calculated action, designed to create more chaos, leading up to an eventual attack using plainclothes “thugs” (this name was constantly used, even by some TV news presenters).
At 2:20 in the morning hours of January 28, the Admin is convinced that Suez is about to undergo a massacre. Two posts say that “Egyptians will be slaughtered”. The Admin also speaks of “war crimes” about to be committed. In another post, something that might be a piece of mythology is recounted: the Admin repeats for at least the third time a story about thugs splashing gasoline on parked cars. “This to prepare for protests in which they’ll light vehicles on fire when the time is right for them. They will charge through the streets with swords and caustic acid to splash on protesters placing blame of violence on protesters.” Then the Admin sleeps for several hours.
The first post of the day does not come until 11:34 a.m. “Internet is down in Egypt. There is one or two ways left to connect to the World. I won’t disclose what they are in case Egyptian government finds out. Landlines are back working now in Egypt. Techie activists are looking at broadcasting long wave radio broadcasts out of Egypt to update the world.” This also sounds faintly mythical; perhaps it was a red herring. Al Jazeera was still broadcasting on Nilesat. The Admin had a report that said protesters from Ismailia had not been able to join protesters in Suez because the roads had been cut. Perhaps for that reason, shortly after noon the Admin issues a plea to Western governments: “If Western government follow what their public wants and stop their support to the dictatorship and side with Egyptian people, MANY lives will be saved today. Egyptians will be grateful to those who helped them & will not forgive those who didn’t.” This is certainly the most aggressive language posted by this Admin. It is followed quickly by a more philosophical paragraph: “It really feels like World population is becoming one nation. The amount of support we are getting from brave international individuals and groups is enormous. Wikileaks has just published fresh cables about Egyptian police brutality. Nothing new to us, but let the world see. I’ll be posting a lot of news very soon. Get ready.” I think it should be said that the Admin has grown into this job, producing really polished and balanced coverage that doesn’t have to apologize for “bias”. But it should also be said that here we get a clearer view of the specificity of this channel’s information as opposed to information from TV. Yes, the information is going to be projected through the emotional sensitivity, almost, of an adolescent. There is a relationship between the Admin’s intimate support of the individuals that make up the Revolution, and the, shall we say novice language coming through comments, just enough to generate a few types. The Admin speaks of a brutal murder; “How awful!” replies a young commenter. Comments on Facebook are refreshingly free of trolling and cynicism, but just so, they have the defects of their qualities; they are immature. Immature people, though, are allowed to influence democracies. The Admin only has to generate enough emotion to hold off the development of a “soft” wing of his virtual constituency. Throughout the Revolution, there were attempts to calm things down, to compromise, to accept a package of concessions, etc. Today it is very obvious that while the Revolution’s ultimate gains are still to be made concrete, they would have gained nothing by compromising. Indeed, we can wonder how far the manifestation of the “extra” in the Revolution – the fact that more than 10% of the entire population was mobilized at one time or another – was simply related to the single central demand, “He will leave.”
It occurs to me to make another point in passing: the mobilization for protest of more than 10% of the population, in nations as we know them, in most places, is almost by definition “not peaceful”. That is, even if the demonstrators are carrying nothing more dangerous than camera phones, the very sound of their voices shook the government and de-legitimized it in the eyes of the world in an instant. The previous days of protests were communicated, that is, filmed and reported, in a very choppy manner that allowed people to “see” things many of us have seen before on television. January 28 produced the massive, stable crowd that stayed put. At that point it was impossible not to hear the sound that crowd produced, even though Al Jazeera seemed allergic to having their talking heads shut up for brief instants to let it be heard. Western crowds must have been shocked if they heard it. It put “hooliganism” to shame as an example of disruption of public order. That sound suspended the public order like a tornado siren. And yet again, it was not a scream, or even mindless repetition of mantras. These were football-style chants, short and funny, like “Jack, Jack, strong and able, get your elbows off the table.” Evidently there’s a lot about Egyptian daily life that I have missed. Where else do they chant like that? At mosques? Football games? Singing along with popular songs?
It would be a good idea to let it be heard. On January 28, a lot of us were sort of continually amazed that the whole thing hadn’t turned into a live fire massacre. It is not just that the protesters refrained from violence. More than this, they were really so peacefully inclined that they hardly realized how terrified the police were. Many of them were expecting to be mowed down by a tank in the end, but they were not contemplating any feral charge to fight it off. That was closely related to all the talk about dignity. These were people who were tired of being explained in words they had not chosen. The choice to expose oneself to danger for the sake of a noble ideal confers dignity upon people, kind of like a field commission. This event will have a fully mythological effect on Egyptian history, and I mean by that the highest and most delicate construction of a tradition. Only an immemorial people could have accomplished it. It is an exit from the Master-Slave dialectic.
At a few minutes to one on Friday afternoon, Mohamed El Baradei was praying in a mosque along with 2000 protesters, and the Admin’s prediction of a raft of reports comes true. 1:09 – “Thousands are protesting now in Menia (South) in front of the central mosque there. Thousands in AlAzhar, Cairo, are marching to (downtown).” 1:16 – “Sharqia: Thousands protesting and clashing with police” 1:17 – “teargas and sound bombs fired on thousands of protesters outside Qa’ed Ibrahim mosque in Central Alexandria.” 1:17 – “Alfayoum. Protests just started and clashes with police.” 1:19 – “Aljazeera says that their sources in the Police have told them that orders to Egyptian Police in Suez is not to attack with live ammunition anymore. (now? After many have been killed yesterday?”
It’s reassuring in a way to see that the Admin was paying attention to the news source I was watching. But Al Jazeera seldom gives streets and neighborhoods’ names the way the Admin does, nor did any other source list as many different Egyptian towns. The impression is that the Admin had access to the best sources of all, “correspondents” and participants on the ground everywhere. At the same time, the Admin is not a simple relay, but an amplifier and a filter, so that what is shown to the “members” of the page is never raw data but always compared with the social norms of the network as well as the principles of the Revolution. The Admin is aware of the feelings of his audience. After the American can of tear gas had been posted several times, the Admin got comments saying that was simply a downer for Western sympathizers. That was enough to get the Admin to post a statement distinguishing between the American people and their government, and an apology to anyone whose feelings might have been hurt. That is the norm of the network. Dictatorships think they can never admit an error, but it’s not that way on Facebook. After January 28, the participants in the Revolution will take this attitude toward Mubarak: he is socially disapproved of. Has he no dignity? No shame? Can’t he tell when he’s not wanted? All these attitudes have to be compared to the braggadocio of participants in previous Revolutions (Cuban revolution, Spanish Civil War) so that we can see that even the word “Revolution” has lost a lot of its explosive edge in the case of Egypt.
And yet…and yet…. We should still have the feeling of having dodged a bullet. There could have been mass violence. The world feels stronger and safer, a little, after having watched this Egyptian Revolution (or at least it should). But we could all be feeling weaker and sicker, and we would if things had turned violent, if a government had turned on its own people with mass deadly force – which I think should be replacing “mass destruction” in our active lexicon. The threat of weapons of mass destruction is not as close to us as the threat of mass repression. The Egyptian Revolution is a gift to the world, but it should not be wasted or underesteemed.
1:32 p.m.: “Confirmed reports: ALL entrances to Tahrir Square, Central Cairo are completely closed. Protests in Ismailia started. Large march from Portsaid street in Alexandria marching towards Rami station. Thousands of protesters in AlAzhar area. Water cannons are used extensively.” AlAzhar is (I presume) the university area. The mention of water cannon trucks raises the question of whether after the first day the police were ordered not to deploy the water cannons in Tahrir Square because of the bad publicity. There is a basic question about the reasoning of the Egyptian authorities. It cannot be denied that we have wondered whether they knew what was going on at all until it was too late. When we see the response of the Algerian authorities after Cairo – make sure the police outnumber the protesters – we must wonder whether the Egyptians had that many police at any time, or whether the many protest locations nationwide crippled their ability to respond.
At 1:38 columns of protesters from different locations were still bearing down on Tahrir, now full of tear gas. The crackdown on journalists was in full swing: foreign journalists locked in their hotels, turned away at the airport, beaten. At 1:49: “I can see hundreds and hundreds of marchers on 6 October bridge towards Tahreer square with police attacking them with teargas.” Five minutes later: “Government-paid thugs/criminals wearing plain clothes carrying knives and bats attacking protesters outside Tahrir Square.”
At 2:19: “Thousands upon thousands in Tahrir, Cairo and more joining from side streets. Thousands of protesters are heading to Kafr Al Dawar town hall & police can’t stop them.” The list of places worldwide staging protests is now too long even to post. The Admin has not once used the phrase “pro-Mubarak protesters” that was heard fairly frequently on TV for a period of time. Now this challenge is issued: “Where are the supporters of the president and the ruling National undemocratic Party? The only supporters I can see is the police and the government-paid thugs…How come the ruling party got almost 99% of votes and seats in the latest Egyptian rigged elections?”
One minute to three: “WOW – GREAT NEWS: Protesters takeover Tahrir Square completely. Police fled. It’s ours. Protesters are so many. Police are trying to get on top of buildings. Reports of death in Tahrir Square one of them is an old lady protester. 2 police car are on fire. Horraaayyyyyy” The Admin might be forgiven for a little cheering. It does seem in retrospect that the idea of the regime eventually putting forth its full force and destroying the protest evaporated during these hours. After this, there’s nothing but spooky gestures and public negotiation tricks. As I wrote then: From this point the regime was like one of those monsters that shape-shifts in order to get out of the hero’s grasp. The protesters are refusing to substitute anything for the demand that Mubarak must leave, and the regime, pinned, writhes and twists to get out of the hold. The cry of the Revolution comes down to four words: Nation Want Regime Fall.
At 4:21, the feeling of leverage leads the Admin to start kidding again: “There is a rumor that Egypt used to have a president called Mubarak…. Can anyone confirm? Has anyone heard from the guy? Where is he? No really.” At 4:28: Egyptian Police Statement: We are dealing with some elements who are trying to break the law. Yeeee. Another guy from Mars!!! Where do these guys come from?” At 4:32: “From Guardian: “It doesn’t show any sign of dying down at the moment, says Peter Beaumont who has been witnessing teargas canisters exchanges on the Kassr Nile bridge. “Having got gassed earlier today, I’ve got no idea how the protesters are managing to stay in the smoke.” That raises a fair question. Could the famous USA canisters have been, ahem, crowd-safe? Or could it have been 200,000 pairs of lungs finally absorbing the stuff, so it doesn’t persist?
4:41: “Here is a great account from Guardian. Alexandria is under Egyptians control. No police anywhere. Festive atomosphere” 4:47: “Alexandria, Suez, Damanhour, Monoufeya centers are under protesters control.” It may be that a tipping point has been reached. The authorities seem to have grasped the change, however. From this point on, instead of unrest in other centers taking away from the regime’s efforts to control Cairo, it will be the other way around. The regime itself seizes on Tahrir as the last battle, as if retaking Tahrir could turn things around in the rest of the country by magic. 4:55: “Kafr Al Dawar: Police station is burnt down. Protesters are now heading to town hall. … Tahrir is on fire. Police there is very very brutal, hundreds of tear gas canisters fired, protesters disperse and then gather again in different streets protesters split into 3 different areas.” This almost sounds like instructions that the Admin is not really relaying but just commenting on.
At 5:11, the Army enters the scene. “Egyptian Army is now moving into Central Cairo……………..I don’t know what will happen…usually the Army is good..but…we just don’t know…”. At 5:16 it is reported that the police have left Alexandria – all but a few who have been taken into custody by the protesters. In Tahrir, “Police are firing live rounds into the air…Qasr El Nile bridge has flames of fire.” At 5:39, “Alarabya New says: Mubarak will make a statement in few minutes apparently. Not sure where the statement will be from Jeddah or London?”
Soon police in Cairo too have gone. The Army is coming in: “Tens of Army vehicles are moving in and protesters are celeberating and waving to them.” That and the promise of a statement from Mubarak are the regime’s stratagems for regaining the initiative when they were losing. But no strategy will work: “If the dictator will still think he can fool Egyptians with some minor changes, he must be dreaming. I speak for many Egyptians when I say I’ve never tasted Freedom ever in my whole life. We will NOT stand down again. We can see our freedom right in front of our eyes. We will not let it go. Please lobby your leaders. PEOPLE. WANT. Regime Change.”
At one minute until seven: “Situation in Cairo now: Thousands of people are on the street. People from all corners of Cairo are coming towards Tahrir square. … Alexandria: Almost all police stations have been burnt down. … Buildings of the ruling National unDemocratic party has been burnt all over Egypt.” This post is valuable, first because it places in context the burning of the party headquarters in Cairo. The fact that a large office building was burning throughout the night (in some proximity to the National Museum) cause Western viewers concern and allowed the protest – the Revolution – to appear as hooliganism for some period of time. Second, at some point we should try to get more data about the burning of police stations, which intensified on January 28. Was there a model for attacking police stations? Was the deployment of police for riot control a key factor in protesters’ being able to enter police stations and set them on fire? Even in Cairo, security police at one point fell back to protect their own headquarters.
At 9:44, the first video of today’s protests is posted. It’s a clip almost three minutes long, showing protesters forcing police and their vehicles back across a highway bridge over the Nile. There are about 5,000 protesters involved, a forward group and a larger group in the rear, with about 50 meters of open space between them. In the other direction the police are about 30 meters from the leading edge of the forward group of protesters, but that leading edge is swarming around police vehicles that are almost cut off from their own lines. During the clip, the police fall back steadily, and their vehicles try to back up fast enough to get back to them. One vehicle has about 100 people pushing it backwards, so that was the easier way to go.
The protest organizers have media-savvy reflexes that are faster than the curveballs coming from the government. At ten o’clock, the Admin notes that as soon as the protesters were alerted to the fact that the Egyptian Museum was threatened, they formed human chains around it to prevent anyone from entering. This was one of the strangest seeming announcements of the entire Revolution to that point. How, in all this chaos, could protesters manage to organize themselves to perform such a task? And yet it was important, because if the protesters had been accused of trashing the museum without a rebuttal, Western support might have wavered. It was important to keep defending the honor of the Revolution, its essential patriotism. “I’m so PROUD of you Egyptians” (9:55)
After midnight, Mubarak’s speech is finally broadcast.
Mubarak’s speech is a complete non-starter. We now know something about the back-and-forth discussions that led to this speech. It appears that the only people who really had input were Mubarak’s sons, especially the despised Gamal. That contributed to the speech appearing disconnected from reality, at least as far as the Admin and the protesters were concerned. They had changed reality, and Mubarak was only able to refer to a past that could not be revived.
Once again, the protesters and the Admin react most strongly to accusations (from Mubarak and others) that they are being directed by foreign or Islamist forces. How, the Admin asks, can over a million people be “evil elements”? The Admin notes that a wave of anger passes through Tahrir Square after the speech. Just before two in the morning the Admin posts another appeal: “Please everyone. Don’t let Egyptians suffer alone. Your support and pressure does make a lot of difference. Protest peacefully in your country, lobby your leaders and government, if the world turns on Mubarak, he will have to leave under pressure.” (Shortly after, the Admin publishes a list of worldwide protests.) At 2:51 the Admin has a more optimistic piece of news: “Arabic reporter in Tahreer square now says Protesters and Army are in complete harmony. They are hugging and talking and chatting. Egyptian army officer told reporter: “We Egyptian Army and People are lovers.” Also, the Army gave food to protesters who are staying in Tahrir square until tomorrow and not going home…The army said they would never fire at protesters.”
3:21 a.m.: “Let me give u some facts & u give me ur input plz: Mubarak switched off Internet, so everyone went to street to see what happens & ended up joining….Mubarak and police can’t be any more brutal than today. Impossible. They were savages today. So where are we going?”
4:32 a.m.: “Just got an update from an activist in Central Cairo, Tahreer (Liberation) Square. NO One is going home. All protesters spending night there until morning. Army are literally shouting slogans with protesters and waving Victory signs.”
10:20 a.m.: the Admin wakes up and posts “Tahreer square. Cairo is on fire. Burnt army vehicles in Tahreer square and several buildings are on fire.” The police are reportedly back on the street and firing guns. At 1 p.m.: “Numerous reports from people on the ground confirmed that the situation now is the Egyptian Police (Amn Markazy) along with the usual plain cloths government-thugs/convicts are looting and stealing cars and making as much destruction as they can…(a few minutes later) Never thought they were that evil. I now have more determination for the regime to fall.”
Following these posts, the Admin is absent until 9:41, the evening of January 29. Returning, the Admin simply says, “I promise I was still working for Egypt for the past 9 hours or so.” Has the Admin been briefed at length? “ok. To some of the comments on the last post about protesters NOT looting: I still stand by that.” (9:55). The day has been one of consolidation for the Revolution. The first order of business is to defend the protesters against the accusations that would tend to make them fall into well-worn past categorizations of protests and protesters. To do this, it’s necessary to explain that various police elements “…know their days of corruption re gone and are trying to get out of it with something.” The second order is to take account of the state of the comm net: “Mobile service in Egypt is almost back. Vodafone is at least working not sure about others. Internet still mainly cut off. Many looters arrested had Police ID. I don’t think this is a conspiracy either to try to create chaos. This is basicly what Secret Police is about.” (10:10). Finally, the in situ organization of the “society” of Tahrir and protester-controlled areas begins to gear up. “Egyptians are now building up protection networks to protect their neighborhoods & some members of these groups are as young as 13 years olds. Great cooperation and solidarity amongst patriotic Egyptians who want their country progress.”
On January 30 – the Sunday after the hypermassive turnout of Friday – the Revolution consolidated its status irreversibly. There would be more clashes, and the government would wriggle like a worm on a hook, but essentially the option of massive military force had been removed from the equation. The police had failed to do that job – whether the deadly force that was rather sparingly used was ordered or not. They didn’t have men who would risk any more force than what was used. And the Army established a position that it did not alter. The Army might have succeeded in effecting a cease-fire, so to speak, in other ways than the one eventually chosen – given the single fact of Mubarak’s departure. This situation is rather amazing, and it could be that the protesters got an enormous break in this regard: if the “other side” (or sides) had understood the extent to which the Revolution came to embody a single demand (Mubarak leaves), they might have been able to negotiate a much less open future for Egypt. As things happened, it really was not a question of what the Army would do, but simply what it would not do. It would not be the military force that would crush the Revolution. This being given, we can see that while during this period many were worried that the Army would do just that, since they had not issued any “communiqué”, any possibility that the Army would use force on the protesters decreased day by day because there was contact between the soldiers and the protesters. Even if the high command had wanted to use the Army in that way, it could not have taken the risk of dividing itself, and it was certain that a large percentage of junior officers would have resisted the order. (There is testimony to the effect that such orders – to shoot – were given numerous times without effect.)
Once the element of deadly force countering massive popular turnouts was eliminated, the only thing left was the propaganda war, and in this realm the organizers of the protest proved to be light years ahead of the government. They had needed the help of the stone-throwing youth to wear out the police and repel the “thugs”. But now the police were absent, and the thugs had been disavowed by part of the government, at least. All the attacks after this point were ineffectual. Rather, the Revolution vs. the government became a battle of arguments. The protesters were leaderless, they were Islamist, they were foreign-directed, they were looters, they were a mob, they were destroying Egypt’s economy, they were ruining the global recovery, they were sinking the stock market, they were going to starve, they were going to get fed up, they could not be trusted to maintain peace with Israel, etc., etc. Each of these arguments was refuted over and over by a blogger and micro-blogger army that scoured the web for counter-information and found it every time – recognized Egyptian leaders to endorse the idea of not having leaders out front, denials from the Muslim Brothers that they were directing things, hands-off statements of support from American officials, videos of protesters organizing clinics and cleaning the street, videos of protesters being assaulted while praying, testimony about the economic dynamism of a free Egypt, explanations of how Tahrir Square was supplied with food, the evidence of immense crowds every day, and assurances that maintaining a peace treaty with Israel did not seem like a problem.
If I have not already done so, let me say now that the Admin functioned at a very high level, blending reports that were always presented as optimistically as possible, except when it was a matter of making the brutality of the regime real. Overseas protests went into another gear on Sunday, they included a higher number of cultural leaders. The position of the Western governments was derided, not angrily but rather sadly. (However, although Barack Obama was challenged numerous times by Egyptian commentators, his statements were always taken in the most positive sense possible.) On one hand, the Egyptian Revolution had met every conceivable quantitative and qualitative test of leadership. They were representative, and they brought their constituency into the street to carry out a poll, as it were, of the whole, a de facto election (the rigged election of November, after the Khaled Said brutality cases, was a prime factor in predisposing the larger population to rise up). During the early days of the protests, we all were impressed by the peaceful resolve of the protesters. We spoke of their maturity. Now there was a maturation process within the Revolution. The protesters, the larger population, and the Army had established an unshakable alliance, such that all that was required, from this point on, was to hold the key point: Mubarak leaves.
The fact that the protesters were leaderless turned out to be a stroke of luck, because they really could not have sold any package to their “constituents” that did not include Mubarak leaving. That prevented the regime politicians from co-opting the Revolution – for while the Army did not splinter, the political class did. Mubarak would have “resigned”, or some version of it, in favor of any member of his political class who could hold on to power another six months. At the end they were trying desperately to buy time.
The alliance that made the Revolution was between some poor but urbanized people and a Facebook group that had tools that could turn the rock-throwers into the forward arm of a mass of protesters that police had to fear because of its sheer weight. If we go back over the wreckage, maybe we find that the Egyptian repressive forces did number as many as 50,000 all told, or even more. It didn’t matter, because they had as many sites to handle as there were cities in the country. Even after they changed tactics and tried to win a symbolic victory over the center of the Revolution by attacking the Square, the places they retreated from just as quickly sent reinforcements to Tahrir. The police could not outrun the kids throwing rocks, and in the end they could not outrun the old ladies and farmers who carried food and supplies to the protesters.
Sunday was the day that the liberal professions and the cultural capital of Egypt weighed in on the side of the protesters. At 12:08 a video was posted from a large London protest that included the very moving personal statement by Waseem Wagdi that highlighted the theme of Egyptian pride. Egyptians overseas were responding to the achievement of the Revolution with the emotion of joyful, patriotic pride. At 12:43 the page posted a complete version (almost 25 minutes) of an Al Jazeera program, “Inside Story”, featuring a young female activist, a male actor, and a male blogger. These people spoke fluent English, and their position was disgust with the regime’s flailing. They rolled their eyes at its weakness and incoherence. This interview was repeated and many of the people in the West (like me) who were by that time glued to AJE’s live stream derived great relief from it.
At 1:02 the Admin spoke to us about another phenomenon that was related to the leaderless nature of the protest (there was no single leader or small group, but rather a medium-size group of Facebook users, bloggers and others invested with the wizardry of technology who ended up occupying the protected center of Tahrir). “Confirmed news: People in every corner and every area of Cairo ta least have made up “Legan Sha’beya” (Public Committees) made up of youth in the area to protect it. They are overrunning thugs and looters with great success and handing them to Army. It’s not perfect but it is going really well. People there feel a great sense of harmony and unity. If a crisis doesn’t break you, it makes you stronger.”
Revolutionary Nietzscheanism notwithstanding, the Revolution was about to become decisively non-proletarian. The overseas protests, which had been rather weak on the 23rd and 25th, were much stronger, and featured more people with political and cultural weight. We should also note that the above post only adds a little more realism to our speculations and calculations with regard to the Cairo youth. If they were given such responsibility, it was because they had earned it. And if they were able to smell out police in plainclothes among them, it was because they had been playing a game with those “elements” for a long time. The appearance of “Game Over” signs on the street in Tahrir expressed the confidence of the rock-throwers. Allied to the college kids and the old people, they had been able to accomplish something even British hooligans could not do: they had beaten the police, beaten them completely. They had finally won the game.
On Sunday videos appeared marrying the astonishing images of the Revolution with Western music and modern Egyptian music. I have just heard a fabulous song, one might call it sort of folk-rock, somewhat in the Parisian vein, by an artist named Sout Al Horeya. This is really a professional job, in which protesters of every kind, from small children to old men, lip-synch one line after another of the song, which has the refrain (translated), “in every street in my country the sound of freedom is calling.” Very powerful. But already on January 30th a sort of rock anthem for the Revolution had been chosen (perhaps only the favorite of overseas audiences): “Into The Fire” by the band Thirteen Senses – “the only Cornish band to have a Top 20 single.” Actually it turns out that even before the Revolution, this was one of those songs people liked to post on YouTube with a great variety of video footage from many sources (including the remake of Peter Pan). It didn’t spawn as many videos as Anthony Hopkins’ Hitler, but it generated quite a few. (The Admin posted several videos using this backing audio, including one at 5:26 a.m.)
At nine minutes to two in the afternoon on January 30, the Admin announces “VERY good News: Hundreds of Egyptian judges are joining protesters in Tahreer square calling on Mubarak to go! Freedom.” About an hour later the Admin repeats a rumor about the formation of an opposition council intended to negotiate with the regime, with Mohamed El Baradei at its head. Wherever this rumor came from – and it may have been some sort of trial balloon – many TV reporters pounced on it because the failure of the Revolution to have what past revolutions had had – negotiable demands and a leader – continued to worry them. The Admin must have received some blowback from dropping El Baradei’s name into the stream, because a few minutes later we get a disarming defense of the page’s principles: “Please appreciate I’m one person not a media organization trying to inform people & doing my very best.”
At six minutes to five in the afternoon we get a mashup of overseas demonstrations – Washington, New York, San Francisco, Montreal, The Hague, Berlin, London, Frankfurt, Dublin, Ottawa, Paris, Houston (all well attended) – backed by a sort of Carmina Burana-like movie soundtrack. The crowds in Tahrir also are swelling at this time. Scholars from Al-Azhar, the university, have joined the protests. The Admin varies his fare, moving from a recap of ongoing protests in major Egyptian cities to musings on why the US government has not yet sided with the protesters.
The next evening, Jan. 31, just before ten o’clock, the page posted a statement from the Egyptian Army: “Your armed forces, who are aware of the legitimacy of your demands, will not resort to use of force against our great people.” Admin: “It’s happening…Just slowly and we need to continue.”
As I think back over the experience of mostly following Al Jazeera, I realize that we spent days worrying about whether the Army would keep that promise. The protesters had not passed every test. The vengeful and useless attack by the plainclothes police was still to come. But they had passed the worst. The days that Mubarak spent in a fruitless effort to buy off the Revolution gave more and more people time to participate in it, and it was also more time for the West to get used to it.
From this point on, the Revolution becomes more typically political. Up to this point, it had been sociological. What I mean by this: from January 31 on, it was clear that if the protesters simply held to their demand that Mubarak had to leave, it would come to pass. As it turned out, to repeat the words of a blogger, once Mubarak was nudged out of office, since he was the chief of a gang, the rest of the gang fell apart. Omar Suleiman was thought to be the most important man in Egypt for several days; he does not appear to be so important at the moment.
The sociological story of the Revolution is the story of how people from many different social strata, who ordinarily would have trouble cooperating in a large-scale venture, were able to collaborate to produce a revolution that has stamped its initial upon the century even more surely than 9/11. This explanation is reached by reasoning backwards from what actually happened. For example, the protesters in Tahrir Square were continually supplied with food. Where did it come from? From the homes and parents of the protesters, who were allowed to go home after spending eight hours or so in the Square. There was an alliance between young urban toughs and the computer geeks who started the Facebook pages; it began with the fact that the original cause of the Facebook protesters was the brutality that posed an intolerable threat to the global culture they had acquired. This brutality was also the biggest threat to urban youth on a daily basis. Finally, the numbers do add up if you simply consider that in much of Egypt, every computer connected to the Internet is used by more than one person. We think of computer users as living in the basement. But playing arcade games isn’t that different from being a computer geek (we play games too). How they formed their alliance is a story whose details I am anxious to acquire, because it seems to me that along with the support from home, and the decision of Egypt’s mothers to consider all the protesters as their children, the alliance between the educated Internet users and the rock-throwers on the 6 October bridge was the unexpected wild card that parried the most brutal attacks of the regime. The repeated references to “the youth of Egypt” in statements by officials like Suleiman were not primarily referring to the Facebook organizers. They were referring to the youth that had defeated their police with rocks.
Finally there are deeper sociological questions about the global awareness of different populations – media democracy – and the potential inherent in groups of human beings numbering in the millions, groups that come together in one place (real or virtual) to do something together. The information necessary to reflect creatively on these questions is still coming in. But if I continue to follow the Admin past this point, I enter the realm of politics and polemics. I think that the United States may have tried to suggest to the Egyptian Army that restraint was a good idea…but I don’t think it made the difference. I don’t think the Egyptian officers, who were looking at a clear field in Egypt, were worried about the American military assistance. They were more worried about their junior officers. I think that Arab leaders and Israeli PM Netanyahu tried to encourage Mubarak to hold on. They did so impotently and lacking any real alternative. In general, it is too easy to start talking about past crimes of the American state (or any other state), too easy to imply darkly that the fix is in.
The whole point of focusing on the sociological novelty, the essential never-before-ness of Egypt’s revolution, is to weaken the position that history has seen it all, that the Revolution is destined to turn into a colossal failure for any one of a hundred reasons. It is destined to fail someone, no doubt. But its essential civility – the protesters never became vengeful, even after a fair number had been killed – is already a success. The Egyptian revolution has rewritten the book on urban low-tech warfare, and it has also rewritten the book on sustained massive protest, supported literally from the countryside. We have seen in a sense the informal economy rise up and shrug off the economy of economists for as long as was necessary to straighten out the society – after which the economy can stumble along on its own for as long as it likes. The value of the Egyptian people went up dramatically in a short period of time, and this revaluation is eventually authentically economic (real) because it was authentically social (real). If tomorrow Egypt institutes a caste system, then I am incorrect. But after such a demonstration of force, I expect to see the natural product of massive and creative social forces, namely, new institutions that are designed to commemorate and enshrine the spirit of the Revolution.
On one hand, the real spirit of this revolution might be closer to 1917 than to any other revolutionary year. On the other – it is undeniable that the Egyptian Revolution was produced by a bunch of Internet marketing managers. In order to promote their products, they found it necessary to promote social awareness. A nation of 83 million rewrote its own Wiki entry in the minds of hundreds of millions across the planet.