Friday, January 28, 2011, Day of Gathering
Giza Square, despite its vastness, feels tight and constricted. No wonder. First, they corralled up all the sidewalks with four-foot iron rails that seemed sinister and repugnant in our eyes. Then they painted the crumbling facades of the old buildings “Sahara yellow.” No wonder the sight of it made people’s chests tighten and constrict.
But now the square now boasts a new underpass with brightly-lit stairs and a smooth marble floor. Its small, green island makes the square look elegant, and at its center there is a billboard with a life-size picture of the president smiling from behind dark glasses and standing in front of fields of green. Hanging from the light posts are welcome signs and a picture of an important businessman, a Member of Parliament, the head of a charitable foundation.
Giza Square has been waiting with its usual patience for a long time. It is waiting for the president, the prime minister with his towering intelligence, and the master of ceremonies to come and officially open it. The government and the square are both oblivious: neither is aware of what is really going on in the country.
Before the call to prayer on Friday, they come out into the streets, from the broad avenues to the small, winding alleys at the heart of Giza. The young, the sullen older generation, and those in between, men and women, some in galabiyyas, white, black or brown, others wearing jeans and sweaters, still others in dresses and jackets. The middle-class, the poor and the well-off, professionals, merchants, professors and beys. People come out—by themselves, in couples and groups. Some are there to attend Friday prayers at al-Istiqama Mosque. Some come for other reasons.
The men fill the large hall of the mosque, like they do every Friday, and the women line up in rows at the back, with children behind and mixed in with them. The overflow of worshippers spread their mats in the courtyard in front of the mosque and the telephone exchange building. Thousands of Copts and Muslims alike, now stand beside them. They have not come to pray, but to protect those who are praying.
Unlike countless Fridays past, this Friday is remarkable, strange. From the square you can see dozens of riot police trucks and thousands of soldiers in their black uniforms. Beneath the bridge, beside the fence that surrounds the College of Agriculture Library, and on every street corner, they surround and control the square and the people.
In the short time between the call to prayer and the prayer itself, a cloud of fear and apprehension begins to float over the mosque. It hovers as if watching the prayer rugs and mats below. It rises in the sky above the square and streets, then its shadow settles upon everyone’s face, as if this were the state of things throughout the whole of Egypt.
Later that night news will spread of how El Baradei and the opposition movement came to pray in al-Isitiqama Mosque. Since Tuesday people have been falling injured and killed constantly. They have been falling in Tahrir, falling in Alexandria, falling in al-Mahalla al-Kubra—and the list goes on. The dead and the wounded—they are falling everywhere, but nowhere as much as in Suez, now the capital of this struggle.
They are wounded by the thousands, and now everywhere people are rising up in anger.
Last night at El-Sammar coffee shop, at the far end of Giza Square, we heard an old chess player who has seen it all remark, “Everything depends on the next move, doesn’t it? On what happens this Friday.” During the Friday sermon, the preacher tells the people that we must ask God for Egypt’s safety, and that those who have been wronged must react to the injustices done to them.
The prayers conclude and a voice from amidst the rows rings out: Down, down with Hosni Mubarak! The assembly of worshippers behind him begins to answer enthusiastically with pure hearts and the power of hope until the cry reaches the sky and the police outside. In the courtyard both those sitting on mats and those standing around them take up the call and defy those who would preserve the regime and ruin the people.
Before anyone can stand up or move a muscle, they unleash their anger in the form of a water cannon aimed at the crowds of worshippers and protectors. The hearts and eyes of the people seem to answer: This shower is nothing but ablutions after prayer. No worry, there is nothing to fear.
Some of them begin to fall back. The torrents of water begin to push people over and sweep others away. With all the water and crowds pressing on them from the front and behind, women, children, and old men and women begin to fall to the ground.
After the water cannons, they begin to fire teargas canisters at the crowd. They fire at the crowd from all sides—and from above, from the highest bridges and tallest buildings. Clouds of smoke begin to cover the square, blotting out the mosque and people. The acrid smell stings nostrils and chokes breath. Faces turn bright, angry red as tears pour out of people’s eyes. People are choking, sneezing and spitting—but their shouts never falter or fade. Their voice grows stronger and more determined, Down, down with Hosni Mubarak! The cry now roars in throats and hearts. And now death begins to mingle and walk among the people and in the square.
Rubber bullets and live ammunition rain down from every direction, hitting bodies, piercing bodies, burning bodies, making them bleed and leaving some lifeless. Snipers perched like hawks and crows atop the telephone exchange and elsewhere point automatic weapons down into the crowd. Countless fall, wounded and dead. Women scream and wail, striking their cheeks in anguish. People’s clothes turn dark red. And a pool of blood creeps across the square and the mosque’s courtyard.
Here and there, cars have caught on fire, and so too shops and even people. The flames begin to spread in every direction. As the fire rages, it begins to swallow billboards, signs and posters. Slowly and grimacing at the taste of it, the fire begins to consume the image of the president on a billboard. Minute by minute, inch by inch, the fire gnaws at the larger-than-life image. The flame is determined and wild.
Soon the image is nothing but a pile of char and ash.
Choking white smoke floods through the bright new underpass in the square, its marble floor now strewn with bodies and rivulets of blood. And the cry of hundreds of thousands now a hymn and a prayer, still floods across the square: Down, down with Hosni Mubarak!
[Translated from the Arabic by Nancy Linthicum]