Egypt: The Thugs That Nursed Me

“Please mind the Gap”. I haven’t heard that in months. I’ve been away from London long enough to have forgotten what is perhaps one of the city’s most famous phrases. My mind holds on to those words for a few minutes thinking about the safety London Underground are trying to afford me. I smile as a silly thought comes to my mind: if it had been the English tear gassing us during a protest, they would probably have prepared megaphones “please mind the tear gas canisters” repeated over and over again.

It feels quite surreal being here. Egypt and my experience there seems a life time away. The people I met and the circumstances we met in feel like some one else’s life. Here I meet people at coffee shops, libraries, Universities, conferences. In Egypt I was making the closest friends outside military prosecutors, dodging rubber and live bullets, carrying the injured, dying and dead, sharing sparse water during sit ins and sometimes in coffee shops having met off twitter. I made friends in Egypt from Cairo to Sohag. I lived a million life times during those few months and I took away with me so much experience and memories, so many laughs and tears, enough to last me this life time and more.

On New Year’s eve, I introduced my dear friend Ghali to a friend from London “meet Ghali, the first time we met was outside the Military Prosecutors.” I wanted to say more but I couldn’t remember which one of the civilians being tried by the military we were standing in solidarity with. This wasn’t the most bizarre introduction. Previously there had been “the first time I met Nelly, I was holding her head as she was vomiting after her first taste of tear gas in June” and there’s also Asmaa who I always introduce as the girl who threw herself in front of me as a tear gas canister was coming my way, the same girl I literally lifted out of Mohammed Mahmoud St when the shooting began. This is how you’re introduced to a different type of friend in Egypt. And I wasn’t even one of the brave ones. I sit on the platform in Euston Square now and I wonder how people like Alaa, Amr, Islam and hundreds of others introduce their 2011 friends.

The most significant of these friends and those who I dedicate this post to, are the thugs that nursed me. I remember the first day I went to Tahrir during a confrontation between the central security forces and the protestors; the night of June 28th. I sat at home watching the news of protestors being gassed by the CSF and that thugs were on motorbikes hurting people and stealing from them. I went on twitter and my timeline was filled with calls for revolutionaries to make their way to Tahrir. This call was to protect each other through our numbers. I saw that Lilian Wagdy was calling for people in Nasr City to meet at the Holiday Inn at 2am and we’d leave together. I called Asmaa ElHadary, who I’d met only once before at the Maspero sit in earlier this month and told her I’m going and to meet me there with Lilian.

Being the organised person I am, I packed my backpack with a phone charger, blanket, vinegar bottles and as much tissue as I could fit in. I got into what I thought was suitable clothes and left my flat to a very quite and empty street. No taxi’s were in sight. I hadn’t thought of this and I still didn’t know my way around Cairo well enough to know alternatives or if it was safe enough to walk to the Holiday Inn (funny isn’t it that I’m thinking of safety when I am going to a site of violent confrontation, but you do). I saw a taxi on the other side of the road quite far from where I was, I quickly put my fingers on my rolled tongue and whistled so loud I actually surprised myself! I remembered all the hours spent in the balcony with my guy cousins teaching me to whistle and being told off that I needed to be more feminine. I was glad today I never gave into that. The taxi driver waved out of the window in acknowledgement and drove round. I jumped in and he asked where I was going. I told him. He drove me to the Holiday Inn and wouldn’t let me out till the others got there so I don’t stand on my own and wouldn’t take a penny in solidarity. I found this incredible. I had missed this spirit in January/February and felt privileged I was being given a chance now. Lilian, her mother and Asmaa turned up and we got into another cab. We bought a box of bottled water and made our way to Tahrir. The streets were eery quiet today. Tahrir seemed like another country with another culture and law unto its own. As soon as we got close we could smell the tear gas, the remains of the smoke from earlier attacks was lingering around; a grey witness of aggression. Mixed in the smokey air, you could smell the sweat of bravery also.

We got out and the water bottles were devoured within a minute buy men whose eyes were watery, rimmed red. There was a police car that was circling the square. An officer was speaking through the megaphone saying: “You want the press to see what we’re doing? We’ll fuck you here first you sons of a bitch before they come”. We caught this on video.

I instantly felt afraid. When the people who are meant to protect you speak with such vengence against you, what hope of safety do you have? What hope of justice can you disillude yourself with? But I quickly realised that this call for solidarity was the best thing. As our numbers grew, the megaphone profanity stopped. Things seemed calm and everyone decided to stay in the square to protect those who weren’t leaving. We spent a few hours sitting around, people getting to know each other, exchange stories of violations witnessed. During the calm a few songs were sung, “Yahabebty Yamasr” (Egypt My Love) and a few patriotic poems. It was like we were being charged with patriotism for what was to come. Alaa was here (always at the front lines), he was telling us that this was a revolution, that he was hopeful, that what was happening today convinced him that we had to be optimistic, that we would win. The only thing that broke the calm were a few rumours every so often that thugs with swords were storming down and everyone would scream out “Selmiya Selmiya” (peaceful, peaceful).

What struck us all were the “thugs”. These men on motorbikes worked throughout the night and early hours of the morning. Two men on each machine going right to the front lines of the confrontation at Mohammed Mahmoud to pick up the casualties that the ambulances would not dare go in to get, place the casualty between them, take them out to the ambulances that were parked in their tens by the metro station exist and back again. They had nothing to drink, to eat and no time to rest. They faced the tear gas, the bullets the canisters and there was nothing else that provided any of us with any comfort other than that these “thugs” would have our back if anything would happen to us.

My first taste of tear gas came as one of the canisters landed just cm’s away from my foot. It was chocking. You cannot understand the contraction of the throat and the panic unless that evil white smoke raked its way up your nostrils, in your eyes, blasting itself unwelcomed through your mouth right to the back and down till it rests in the pit of your stomach. I gagged. I stood at the corner and vomited like I’ve never done and one of the “thugs” came to me and held my head hard (one of the old myths I think that if someone holds you this way they’ll stop you getting a headache, or something). He encouraged me to keep going, threw water on my face and as soon as I was done, he cursed that there was no vinegar.

Having remembered my bottles of vinegar I took them out and was quickly positioned a little before the ambulances so as to act as a filtering for the cases and help those who came out suffering the choking effects of the tear gas. It’s amazing how people organise themselves in such sophisticated ways during these situations. It was fascinating how you didn’t really notice yourself thinking about any of it, you just “do” as does everyone else to complete a task. I suddenly had tens more pieces of cloth to spill the vinegar on, someone else next to me with water and a full, functional working relationship to ease pressure off the ambulances.

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There was a young guy who couldn’t make it towards us after having just come away from the front lines and collapsed on the ground. I decided to run to him to drag him to the side so that when the next tear gas bomb was thrown and everyone ran back he wouldn’t be crushed. But I went in too late. The next canister was thrown and just missing us, it hit another guy; right through the mouth and out the other side. There was chaos. He died.

That was the closest I have ever been to death, mine or someone else’s. I’m not sure if the tears flowing were tears of fear and anger or if they were just a reaction to the tear gas. Hysteria was the enemy now and I could feel it creeping up. It can make you piss yourself in terror or it could kill all fear. It did the latter and you somehow find the people that hysteria has had the same effect on. We decided to go forward and call the guys back. We didn’t know what we were fighting for and the throws were getting closer and the bullets had started. We went in in our hundreds chanting “Erga3, Erga3” (Come back, Come back). We weren’t allowed anywhere near the front. The guys there who had also been labelled “thugs”, pushed us back desperately, labelling us “the Facebook lot” they wanted to protect us saying we were the only hope of saying the truth and what we saw and not allow the state media to fabricate stories of what had happened here that night. We were literally pushed back.

Then the stomping started. I didn’t understand it. I had never been to anything like this and I didn’t understand what everyone was doing. The sound of hundreds of people holding rocks and stomping against lamp stands and metal fences is harrowing. My heart was thumping inside my chest and I was sure it would escape my terrified body and jump out. A guy gave me a rock and said “hit the fence!!! Hit it hard!!!” I did. With all my might. There was no time for questioning. I trusted everyone here and they told me to stomp, then that’s exactly what I was going to do. I later understood there were three reasons for the stomping. The first was so the CSF would realise our numbers, so that we called for help from those around the area and for adrenaline. The chants did the same, the thundering sound of “Elsha3b Yoreed Eskaat Elmosheer” (the people want the fall of the Field Marshal) were not to be forgotten. The chants engraved an echo inside you. Sounds that would ring in my ears for weeks to come. For today, the chants were met by more tear gas.

In Mohammed Mahmoud St itself, a boy of about 8 years old was seen flying across from pavement to pavement having been kicked by one of the CSF. The guy who kicked him was cornered by the revolutionaries into a store, beaten and his shields taken off him. It was the biggest humiliation for him and it was cool water to scorched dignity. It wasn’t the right thing to do in hindsight. At the moment, it was the only thing to do. The state TV later bought images of the CSF personnel getting beaten but no commentary of why or what he had done was seen.

We saw a group of men and women in white coats. The doctors had come out in solidarity. This bought much comfort to us in the square. June was still a time that saw the doctors protected. We were so organised that we took rounds. When things calmed a little some of us left the square to get something to drink (I was introduced to a drink I later became addicted to, Enaab. The ice and the sugar were soothing in the heat that was beginning to scorch us – a taste I associated with comfort after trials for many months after). We went to charge our phones, went to get some perspective, lose some perspective and then go back again. I met Ahmed Fouda who’s alarm went off at 5am, he laughed sarcastically saying that he was meant to be getting up to study for his exam that started in a few hours. He’d been with us all night. We got word from the pharmacies that they were selling medicines we needed in Tahrir for half price in solidarity. On our way in and out of the square we were subjected to much abuse by passers by. Some spat at us, some swore. They were blaming us for the lack of work and lack of stability in the country. This threw me. People in the square were fighting for them, for their dignity, for their safety. It was a slap in the face but one that wasn’t going to hold us back now, but definitely one that would need much discussion later. The night had passed and the day light broke and hundreds of Egypt’s bravest men were injured and today one died. All night on twitter people were following and a new group of people were coming to replace us in the morning. They did. One of the guys, Olva Tito, arrived around 11am, he got shot with a rubber bullet in the neck within minutes of arriving. June was still a time your eyes were safe.

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Everyone knew there was no going home today . This was definitely going to turn into a sit in and a long one. As we tried to find some shade from the sun that was now betraying us, I heard one man say to Asmaa “I’ve lived a chicken all my life, I want to die a man, if not a martyr, at least I die a man!”. The next Friday was a big one. It was a tribute to the “thugs”… People had painted on their arms and faces and wore stickers that read “I’m a thug and proud”. Little babies had stickers on their clothes saying “Thug in the making”.

It hurt to see, during the past months, the classism that had become so unashamed. The poor whose appearance betrayed their social class as working were bizarrely labeled thug and automatically a cause for concern and somehow their appearance and social class allowed the police and military to pick them up and try them as criminals. Months later Belal Fadl was on a TV show and said: “go to Tahir and ask people there what they want, they’ll spend at least 15 minutes speaking to you about politics. Have you ever met a thug who has political demands? The real thugs seemed in sync with SCAF, let out during the protests and sit ins and bought back in during the elections later in the year. SCAFs continued underestimation of the people’s intelligence was cringeworthy.

Having come back to London and having time to reflect, here’s to the thugs that nursed us in Tahrir that day, those who protected the entrances on other days and who were at the front lines every time. The world would be a much better place if it were full of people like you.

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8 Comments

  1. Nelly, I came by chance to this channel led through by a tweet of yours and am totally balled over by the excellence of you writings and the subjects of your choice. I shall often be here to be inspired. Thanks.

  2. ‎”Difficulty” is the name of an ancient tool that was created to define who we are
    Paulo Coelho
    Thank u so much for the real great time i had while reading ur article…I was tearing cus u made me see faces and hear u chanting …u should conceder being a writer …im honored to say im a BIG FAN :))))

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