Last night Tahrir Square was a lawless place—masked young men roved, accosted, helped, threatened, fought; buildings loomed, burnt and crumbling, paving stones were absent, having been broken up and used as ammunition against the police a few months ago. But perhaps this experience only applied to Tahrir at 2 a.m. So I returned that afternoon to take photos of ongoing protests and developments. Daylight better illuminated the debris of Tahrir’s damaged past, but also cleared the fog of tension from eleven hours prior.
A few thousand people were present at 1 p.m., and by 4 p.m. the crowd had doubled. Protesters gathered around a stage with sound equipment, listening to various speakers deliver rousing criticism of the Ikwan, the Muslim Brotherhood which has dominated Egypt’s political stage since the fall of Hosni Mubarak two years ago. I got some photos of the crowd and climbed onto the stage to capture the event properly through the lens. Flashing a photocopy of my passport in place of a press pass worked surprisingly well, and to the protestors and organizers, all cameras were very, very welcome.
Tents clustered in the center, where the most hardcore protesters live overnight, and dozens of vendors selling fruit, tea, water, flags and masks made swift business of visitors assembled throughout the day. Many other Egyptians appeared to be there to observe the ongoing developments in their country, and most of them carried cameras or cellphones to capture the moment in case it was an historic one.
The strangest-looking group was a large number of young teenagers desperately seeking a revolutionary-chic aesthetic. They wore masks and scarves over their faces and danced on the prized burnt-police van in Tahrir, screaming and posing for photographs. Several Egyptians suggested in discussions throughout the day that these young teens try to scavenge an aesthetic from the historic exploits of the 2011 Tahrir youth. One boy ran up to the van and started kicking it simply because I was photographing it. He glanced over constantly just to make sure I was getting his staged anger on record.
Disturbed, I began to wonder how frequently news coverage is infiltrated by such displays. If I were to show today’s photographs to an editor, that very one may be a strong candidate for publication, given its dramatic nature and seeming reflection of the frustration and anger of Tahrir’s youth. But it is very, very artificial. How many of the photographs that make their way to print and online media are theatrical in similar ways? And how can we tell?
As the sun disappeared, so did the mood of jubilance and safety that had pervaded Tahrir Square during the afternoon. Minibuses arrived and filled up with the serious protestors, leaving regularly to drop them off at the Presidential palace, where clashes involving tear gas, stones, and at least one burning car began to hint increasingly at a threat of serious violence tonight, according to live television coverage.
A general sense of suspicion seeped in, as the darkness no longer afforded the opportunity to see who was around it. Women, an indication of the level of security in Tahrir at any given moment, began to disappear. Several men in white and red shirts that stated their participation in a vigilante Tahrir sexual-harassment prevention crew appeared on scene, just in case. I walked home at around 10.30 p.m.
The journey from Tahrir to my friend’s apartment should take around seven minutes, but instead it takes closer to half an hour because of the maze of blockades erected by the Egyptian security forces. As my friend and I finally turned into his street (which has barriers at both ends and police with riot gear present 24 hours a day), we were greeted by a confusing commotion. The police were grabbing their shields and batons, preparing to load themselves into trucks and drive to wherever tonight’s battle may be.
A guard granted access to the apartment after a brief interview, and we walked amid the police for half a block. Minutes later, at least 21 huge police transportation trucks drove down the street, through the barrier, and into the night.
FEBRUARY 2nd 2013
It’s easy to tell where recent clashes have been by the lingering aftertaste of tear gas and filth in a deserted open space. There’s hardly even a smell by late afternoon, rather a burning sensation in the nose that increases with each breath and takes an hour of fresh air to disappear.
By this measurement there must have been some sort of riot last night in Simon Bolivar Square. It’s about 200 meters down the road from Tahrir, and right around the corner from the now-abandoned US Embassy.
Cracked walls and missing paving stones (again ripped up and broken for ammunition) contributed to Bolivar Square’s ambience this afternoon, as did the ragtag gang of early teens wearing black-block masks and darting around recklessly on motorcycles, harassing anyone who dared impose on their territory. The square was deserted by all non-masked non-hooligans.
I took a few photographs, but within a few minutes, the vulnerability of our position became palpable. All eyes were fixed on my blonde-haired friend and my camera, and the imagined contents of our wallets. We hastened the pace and — trying to ignore whistles and a feigned attack by several screaming youths — returned to the comparative safety of Tahrir.
Unlike yesterday, Tahrir was pretty dead. The only chanting came from a march of perhaps two hundred, led by a few boys whose faces were obscured by masks or scarves. Children not more than ten years old were picking charred metal souvenirs from the square’s trophy police van, while some older men yelled at them to behave. One particularly young child cried when his older brother chastised him and pried two large stones from his grip.
My friend and I decided to return home. Tahrir’s misdirected, bored seven-to-fifteen-year-olds were out in full force today, and there wasn’t anything interesting to see.
Fifteen minutes of walking later, we began to approach the first of the five police blockades between us and the apartment. Suddenly, a young boy wearing a Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta began to walk towards the barbed wire fence lined by troops in riot gear. I took out my camera and then stopped. It’s a very bad thing to be seen photographing anything involving the police.
As I began to zip it back into its discreet holding place, a mustached man in a leather jacket bounded toward me from his plastic café chair on the side of the road. He was secret police. “Show me your pictures.”
This was not a good moment. Foreigners with photos from Tahrir or of police are frequently accused of espionage and detained, if not outright jailed, and when I woke up this morning there had been over 500 of exactly such photos on my memory card, including some foolishly dangerous shots of police movements from my window shot in night-vision and with a zoom lens that no tourists taking holiday pictures at the pyramids would use. After clicking through the most recent two — a ladder someone had placed to scale over a concrete police wall, and graffiti that read “All Cops Are Bastards”– he was due to find out that I didn’t come here for the mummies at the Egyptian museum.
But I was going to have to show him.
It’s sometimes easy to forget — as police blockades, barbed-wire, and men with riot shields guarding the apartment block begin to feel like routine, numb inconveniences — the degree to which careless mistakes and stupidity can create serious problems. An Egyptian friend shared that two foreign girls on a nearby block also took photos of police at night from their window last week. They forgot to turn off the flash, and minutes later, were retrieved from their rooms and dragged in for questioning. Downtown Cairo is teeming with paranoia and suspicion, and it’s important to respect the tenor of the environment. Even if the intention behind a mistake is trivial, the consequences are not.
I didn’t go to prison. By some combination of paranoia and luck, I had emptied my memory card before going out that afternoon. Rather than show him the youth gangs in Simon Bolivar Square from the preceding hour, I offered to delete the whole card. He nodded in agreement and I lost twelve photos.