On 19 November 2011, all hell broke loose in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which juts east from Tahrir Square.
Security forces brutally dispersed a sit-in of about 200 relatives of those injured or killed during the revolution earlier that year, along with their supporters, to demand greater state support. As the news spread, the contempt and violence with which the sit-in was treated seemed to represent the then-ruling military council’s attitude toward the aspirations of the revolution.
Once again, masses spilled into Tahrir. Protesters began to make their way down Mohamed Mahmoud Street toward the Interior Ministry, which commands the security forces. The clashes continued for five days and nights, with some fighting until they could no longer stand, from tear gas or exhaustion. Dozens lost eyes to the shotguns of the Central Security Forces. Meanwhile, soldiers stood nonchalantly on the sidelines, to the south of the street.
Eventually, the clashes ended due to the exhaustion, the construction of a concrete wall, and the human chains of civilians helping protesters out of Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, then head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, announced a raft of what were presented as concessions — including bringing forward, once more, the presidential election. But, in truth, that is not what the dead and blinded had been asking for.
The Mohamed Mahmoud clashes punctuated Egypt’s post-revolutionary politics. Some of the activists who were involved in the clashes have since found ways to adapt the initiatives that crystallized during those five days into forms of revolutionary politics that continue to this day.
For others, the memories are a source of pain, but also a reminder of a feeling of possibility they have not felt since. As activist Yara al-Sayes puts it, the overall feeling is “bittersweet.”
The front line: Mahmoud Zaghloul, 22, engineering student
On the morning of 19 November 2011, Mahmoud Zaghloul was just about to head home, tired from spending the night at a sit-in staged by the revolution’s wounded in front of the Mugamma government building, which overlooks Tahrir Square.
He then received a panicked phone call telling him the sit-in was being attacked. Infuriated, he immediately turned back and joined the ranks of activists who arrived quickly on the scene to defend the wounded.
“They were attacking people who could hardly walk, or who had lost an eye” during the 25 January revolution, he says.
Over the next four days, the deep sense of rage Zaghloul and his fellow protesters felt sustained them throughout the seemingly endless fight. It was evoked, he says, by the “sheer brutality” shown by the police and army against protesters.
Soon after the clashes erupted, Zaghloul was struck in the chest by a round of shotgun pellets, or khartoush. His close friend, activist Malek Mostafa, collapsed next to him.
“When he looked up, blood was coming out of his eye,” he says. Mostafa was among dozens of protesters struck in the eye during the clashes. He lost sight in his right eye.
Their friend Ahmed Harara lost sight in his second eye during the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes, after losing the first during the 18-day revolt.
“When something like that happens, you cry a little and then you move on. There is no space for grief in your heart during the battle — anger takes over. If you let grief take over, you can’t move on. It kicks in after the fight, when you realize you are hurt, and you lost friends,” Zaghloul says.
On the last day of the clashes, with the death toll rising rapidly, Zaghloul was one of many who felt it was a duty to go to the morgue and identify the victims.
“The bodies had abnormal colors and were covered in black spots from the tear gas,” he says.
Witnessing death and severe injuries, often of close friends, “kills something inside you” and elicits a yearning for “revenge.”
At the time, the protest turned into a street battle with the Interior Ministry’s Central Security Forces, with protesters adamant on not being the first to back down. The protesters galvanized support from non-politicized forces and against the ruling military council on a scale not seen in the months before.
“Mohamed Mahmoud was a reminder, although a cruel one, that the revolution is still alive. It mobilized hundreds of thousands, without the hand of political parties,” Zaghloul says of the bittersweet return of mass street protests against what many felt was an ousted regime still intact.
At the time, the established political groups were absent, save for attempts to enforce a kind of ceasefire, which protesters saw as a sign of weakness and meant to serve the purpose of parties running in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Zaghloul says this confirmed what he believed previously.
“None of them showed up. The Muslim Brotherhood formed a human shield to end [the fighting] and beat whoever tried to cross because they were going to win in the elections the next day.
“The language of the street is ‘I am hungry,’ and the entire [political] spectrum doesn’t speak it. They seek electoral gain and are instead talking to the people about the constitution,” he says.
A year on, Zaghloul says people are increasingly aware of the real face of “the oppressive institutions,” referring to the Interior Ministry, the army and the government.
The hope he felt strongly in the heat of the battle, therefore, remains.
“It was indescribable,” he says. “Your hope is renewed 30 to 40 times per battle; every time we drove the police back, it felt like a victory.”
Video: Lobna Darwish, 26, Mosireen
When the clashes started, Lobna Darwish, a member of the Mosireen media collective, set out with a camera to document police violations.
“After the Maspero massacre we realized that we had no footage, no evidence. Mainstream media often ignore or downplay these events, but now we were prepared,” Darwish says. Twenty-seven civilians died in the massacre, which took place the month before, and many had been killed by soldiers.
Darwish was awestruck at the contempt for human life she recorded on film. The Interior Ministry was seeking to reestablish its authority, she says, causing the unprecedented ruthlessness of the police.
“This was their comeback,” she says.
It was also a comeback for the politics of the street.
“After the initial 18 days [of the revolution], politics became a talk show; experts were talking about a transitional process. The street, in the meantime, was left on the sidelines.
“But let’s not romanticize things. There were lakes of blood and we felt extreme pain and sadness over the loss of our friends,” she points out. Nonetheless, she continues, “We felt a sense of pride that something was happening.”
The Mosireen collective operated out of a flat overlooking Tahrir, loaned to them by a friend. Activists would stagger in, blinking and wheezing from the tear gas, and upload footage from an SLR camera to a cluster of laptops.
Activists snatched a few hours of sleep when they could, huddled in a corner. Several were injured. As the clashes drew to a close, two were beaten by men they believed to be Muslim Brotherhood activists, who were attempting to form a line between the clashes and the square.
Mosireen activists have been present at most major clashes since then. But there aren’t so many clashes anymore, and the activists are using video to record day-to-day struggles — over health, housing, education and work — in a country that hasn’t changed as much as they, and many others, wanted it to.
The collective recently completed a US$40,000 fundraising drive, overwhelmingly based on small donations. The funding will allow them to continue to operate for the year ahead. One of their projects is to run video-activist trainings outside Cairo, in an effort to make video an accessible revolutionary language.
“Looking at the footage and the pictures of those who died,” Darwish says, “it is obvious who carries the revolution. It is the poor who have been bullied by the police for years, and thus fought fearlessly and sacrificed everything.”
Logistics: Yara al-Sayes, 24, Tahrir Supplies
“The Mohamed Mahmoud clashes were the most bittersweet experience of my life,” says Yara al-Sayes. “Mohamed Mahmoud killed a part in all of us because of the brutality from the police, and how insignificant human life is to them.”
At the same time, Sayes was touched by the amount of solidarity the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes elicited.
“People looked past political differences and showed massive solidarity for humanitarian reasons. At some point, this tweet came in asking people to stop donating, because the field hospitals were over-equipped,” she says.
The many makeshift field hospitals were suffering from a misallocation of donated supplies in the beginning of the clashes. While some field hospitals were over-equipped, others were short on supplies.
This is why Sayes volunteered to take shifts scanning the Twitter feed on what was needed, and coordinated the donated blankets, medicine, gas masks and beds with the doctors on the ground.
“It contributed in the sense that people now knew how they could help best,” she says.
Nevertheless, Sayes still struggles with a sense of guilt.
“I will never forgive myself for not being there in person. People were telling me I did something important but I was hiding behind my computer screen. In the meantime, I could hear the fear in the doctors’ voices and people were dying,” she says.
The memory of Mohamed Mahmoud seems to stir up a confused mix of grief, anxiety and hope in Sayes.
“All the different stories of martyrs, who did not deserve to be killed, made many more involved. People are still fighting, but we cannot lose more people. If this happens every time we protest, then what’s the point? I’m worried sick that more people will die with the commemoration of the clashes next week,” she says.
Field hospitals: Mohamed Esmat Farag, 39, Tahrir Doctors Society
During the clashes, more than 10 makeshift field hospitals were operated by doctors and medical students who waited for the improvised motorcycle “ambulances” to deliver the wounded. The volunteers treated any injury they could on the spot — ranging from gun wounds to tear gas suffocation.
Some of these were organized by the Tahrir Doctors Society, whose media coordinator, Mohamed Esmat Farag, was present during most of the clashes, documenting injuries and coordinating the allocation of doctors and supplies.
When Esmat Farag and his colleagues set up the field hospital at the Mugamma building, the wounded slowly started coming in.
“It was not too bad in the beginning, but the injuries got worse, and we soon started to see people whose eyes were targeted with khartoush rounds. The doctors would tell me to note down in the record that people lost their sight,” he said.
Esmat Farag remembers suffocating when tear gas canisters started reaching the Mugamma: “We had to run away, take a breath, and run back for the medical supplies and the blankets. Otherwise, we would lose them to the military and the police.”
Like many others, he expresses outrage over the unprecedented brutality shown by the police.
“It was a massacre in the true sense of the word, on the humanitarian level as well as on the legal level, with all the military trials that followed,” he says, but notes it “revived the revolution” nonetheless.
The latter is so, Esmat Farag explains, in the sense that it revealed people’s ability to spontaneously organize themselves and push back against attacks from the police and the army.
Besides, he says, “the Egyptian people showed incredible solidarity; after the clashes, we had LE5 million in excess of supplies.”
The Tahrir Doctors Society is a respected one, Esmat Farag says, because it is not ideologically affiliated. Besides reacting to emergency situations like Mohamed Mahmoud, the society now engages in healthcare provision in “areas that have no access to adequate healthcare, like Zerzara in the north, or Halayeb on the Sudanese border,” in addition to “advocacy and monitoring Egyptian health institutions on neglect and corruption.”
After the Abbasseya clashes, he says, the group cooperated with Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, and pressured military judges to grant access to Tora prison, where the doctors visited the prisoners.