Mohamed Mahmoud: Remembered Two Years On

On November 19, 2011, clashes broke out a stone’s throw from Tahrir Square. Young revolutionaries had rushed to the square, in defense of families of the martyrs, camped out calling for justice from the authorities, but were instead met with abuse. Facing off with security forces, almost fifty people were killed, as protesters demanded an end to military rule. I witnessed the attack firsthand.  

“Peaceful, peaceful, peaceful…the army is attacking.” Those were the last cries I heard, before I found myself drifting with the moving crowd, diving into a human mass. Waves of frightened, screaming protesters, running from an enemy, who suddenly appeared and surrounded them on every side.

I looked around, seeking a glimmer of hope in the eyes of those around me. If there was hope to be found, it would be reflected in the eyes of those far more experienced than me in the mechanics of protests and sit ins: what to do when attacked, when to surge forward, or when to retreat and run. I was new to this. It wasn’t so long ago that I thought sit ins or demonstrations were useless,believing they would do more harm than good.

I ran towards the iron green fence lining the street and tried to jump over it. A paratrooper saw me, and attempted to hit me with a thick black baton. He missed, his baton instead hit the iron fence and was smashed. We were so close, I could clearly see his eyes, full of anger. He kicked viciously at the tables of tea vendors who filled the square, lifting one high, and throwing it at us with all his strength. All the while, the agitated crowds screamed louder. In their midst, very close to me, stood a well-dressed young woman, and I wondered, what had brought her, a “Sister of the Square,” to this mess? Clearly a woman of means, I doubted she ever lacked freedom, or understood firsthand what it meant to be chased down by state security officers, or how it felt to be mistreated simply for wearing a niqab or beard. She couldn’t possibly know what it meant to have a friend or loved one dying in a squalid government hospital or who lost a kidney to water pollution.

I took few a steps back, only to find myself trapped with hundreds of people crammed into a space so small that, by all logical measures, they should have not have been able to fit. Panicked protestors, horrified by the vicious attack threw themselves down a flight of stairs leading to a subway station platform, already teaming with protesters trapped below. The gates of the station closed and the beating continued, part of a deliberate and fierce attack.

I ran in the opposite direction, looking for a way out, only to find people falling over each other, trying to escape the attacking police. We came to a complete standstill. No one was able to move, and I, again, found myself next to the liberal ” Sister of the Square. ” She was struggling, barely able to cry out for help, “Please tell them to stop beating and pushing! I’m dying” I screamed my as loud as I could, “Enough! Stop, people are dying here. “I tried to stop the waves of terrorized people, blocking them with my arms and back. It was to no avail. The fearful crowd continued to fall back on one another, some descending underfoot. It was as though they could not see or hear, as things spiraled out of control.

Losing hope, I looked around me, trying to find the “Sister of the Square,” but she had disappeared, under the feet of hundreds of terrorized young people. She gave in to the inhumane beating,her black hair and tanned skin disappearing forever.

Feeling lonely and tired, I stumbled over the body of a young man. My feet were frozen and could no longer carry me, and I fell. I had no resistance left in me, hoping I would get arrested or die. I looked around, trying to grasp what was happening. I heard nothing but screaming and wailing. Not far from me, I saw a tourist agency officer standing behind the closed glass windows, standing back to protect the place.  He stared at the faces pressed against the glass, his eyes were helpless, betraying the words he could not speak: “I can’t do anything. I have orders to obey.”

I found nowhere to rest but on the ground. I tried to crawl out of the teeming throng of people, but as more protesters poured into the overcrowded space, I couldn’t move. The weight of the people bore down on my feet, as they used my back as a stepping stone, to escape the horde. On my left, I saw the feet of a young man in a brown t-shirt. He was dead. In front of me, a paratrooper rained down curses and blows on the crowd. Able to free my left arm from beneath the crowd, I held it high, hoping someone would see me and pull me out from beneath the feet of the panicked crowd. Suddenly, the officer caught my eye. His shouting of orders quickly turned into a mad scream, horrified at the sight of bloodshed, the faces of the dead, trampled underfoot. “Run Run,” he started to scream at us, while his brave soldiers kept beating us. He frantically looked back and forth like a helpless, lost child. He was broken, wavering between his superiors’ orders; to eliminate the so-called  enemies of the country who dared demand their freedom, and his humanity; telling him he should save these young Egyptians, screaming and fighting for their rights, for a future.

In the chaos, he threw down his baton, yelling at his soldiers: “Stop! Stop! Let them to go!” He dove into the crowd, attempting to help us escape. One by one. He took off his helmet, his bullet-proof vest, turning into a citizen, into an Egyptian. He refused to be a partner to the crime, a murderer. He managed to pull many young men to safety, but weakened by stress and effort, he could not hold back his tears.

Minutes later, the Ultras (football fans who have played an integral part in protests) were rushing in from every direction. They launched a massive attack, beating back the paratroopers. They gave way to those coming to our rescue. I was already rescued.

Growing up with stories of the 1967 defeat, I never wanted to see the Egyptian army overcome. In that moment, two years ago, I witnessed the parachute regiment retreating in Mohamed Mahmoud street. We ran, only to find the Central Security Forces waiting for us. There was nothing left to do but surrender. Witnessing the horrifying attack we faced, rather than turn on us as they were expected and ordered to do, they guided us to safe exits away from the wounded dogs, the State Security officers whose image of power and control had cracked and faded with the uprising, crowned by the raids on state security headquarters just weeks before the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes.

To those obedient soldiers and officers who stood against fellow citizens on November 19, who I saw before their commanding officers, I tell them: you knew you would receive ribbons, new stars or stripes appended to your soulders, your military outfit decorated, your new medals reflecting courage. You forgot that the ‘enemy’ that you faced down, your opponents were citizens of your nation, who dared demand their freedom, our freedom, your freedom.

Image: Photo: Moud Barthez