Egypt’s Night of the Battle of Horses and Camels

14 February, 2021

Defenders of Tahrir Square take cover behind tanks as pro-Mubarak supporters launch stones against them at the square's Qasr el-Nil entrance  (all photos courtesy Iason Athanasiadis)

Defend­ers of Tahrir Square take cov­er behind tanks as pro-Mubarak sup­port­ers launch stones against them at the square’s Qasr el-Nil entrance (all pho­tos cour­tesy Iason Athanasiadis)

Stones, pyra­mid hors­es, Molo­tov cock­tails and ram­pag­ing drom­e­daries char­ac­ter­ized the vio­lent night of ter­ror that set­tled the Egypt­ian Rev­o­lu­tion, in this remem­brance with unpub­lished pho­tos by one of the few pho­to­jour­nal­ists to have wit­nessed from inside Tahrir Square the deci­sive bat­tle of the 18 days that shook the world. 

Iason Athanasiadis

It did­n’t occur to me, step­ping out of my host’s apart­ment that mild Feb­ru­ary morn­ing in Mohan­deseen, a high­rise 1970s Cairo dis­trict of bleak cement tow­ers obstruct­ing sprawl­ing slums, that by the time I returned 48 hours lat­er the Rev­o­lu­tion would have large­ly been set­tled. In fact, it was­n’t yet clear that this was even a rev­o­lu­tion, although there was a rad­i­cal tra­jec­to­ry to the events where­by crowds defied lethal police resis­tance to con­verge and occu­py the belly­but­ton of umm al-dun­ya (Moth­er of the World, as Cairenes call their city). 

I had returned to Cairo, after a decade of estrange­ment, to cov­er for my pho­to agency and news­pa­per clients what was snow­balling into a glob­al media event, but also to ful­fill a pledge of atten­dance I had made with myself after an awk­ward year of liv­ing in Egypt in 2001, which left me con­vinced that only a rev­o­lu­tion could flush new vig­or into an over­pop­u­lat­ed, under-resourced coun­try rife with cor­rup­tion and dom­i­nat­ed by an author­i­tar­i­an, pro-US regime root­ed in the coun­try’s only insti­tu­tion, the Army. 

Thou­sands of anti-regime demon­stra­tors had camped out in Tahrir Square ever since run­ning the police-state’s secu­ri­ty ser­vices off the streets the pre­vi­ous Fri­day. Cross­ing the Nile, I passed the charred hulk of the regime’s offi­cial par­ty head­quar­ters, arson­ed by demon­stra­tors, along with sev­er­al police stations.

A protest leader signals to demonstrators against the backdrop of armored army vehicles and soldiers blocking one of the entrances into Tahrir Square. The Army's role remained ambiguous: it was often unclear whether it was there more to protect protesters or monitor proceedings.

A protest leader sig­nals to demon­stra­tors against the back­drop of armored army vehi­cles and sol­diers block­ing one of the entrances into Tahrir Square. The Army’s role remained ambigu­ous: it was often unclear whether it was there more to pro­tect pro­test­ers or mon­i­tor proceedings.

With con­trol rapid­ly slip­ping from his fin­gers, Pres­i­dent Hos­ni Mubarak had appeared in a mid­night broad­cast the pre­vi­ous night to address the Tahrir Square rebels for the first time, and offer con­ces­sions. But their prompt rejec­tion of his pro­pos­al that he remain in pow­er pend­ing elec­tions in nine months’ time, poised the scene for fur­ther confrontation. 


Tahrir’s Incen­di­ary Momentum

In the week since break­ing out, the Egypt­ian rev­o­lu­tion had trans­fixed human­i­ty, rapid­ly esca­lat­ing into the world’s main news sto­ry. Soci­ol­o­gists lat­er iden­ti­fied the potent com­bi­na­tion of vora­cious cov­er­age by 24-hour inter­na­tion­al news net­works, sub­se­quent­ly fed into and ampli­fied by social media, as gen­er­at­ing the incen­di­ary momen­tum that nour­ished in mil­lions of geo­graph­i­cal­ly-dis­tant view­ers an illu­sion of inti­mate involve­ment, even agency. 

Grow­ing mul­ti­tudes tuned in dai­ly to the new­ly-famil­iar Tahrir, a seething Pharaon­ic ocu­lus com­pris­ing a small tent-city of indomitable rebels pitched across a gigan­tic square and sur­round­ed by over­whelm­ing forces, whose for­tunes would decide the future of the desert­ed cap­i­tal extend­ing beyond it. 

In today’s episode, the breath­less glob­al audi­ence sus­pect­ed that a mer­ci­less stick would fol­low Mubarak’s reject­ed car­rot. With the Army hav­ing tak­en a wait-and-see approach, and the police KO’ed since the Rev­o­lu­tion’s fourth day, regime loy­al­ists were now being mar­shalled around the city to storm the square and dis­lodge its res­i­dents. In the sta­bles around the pyra­mids, camel and horse-jock­eys more used to has­sling tourists, now mobi­lized the ani­mals that would give the com­ing bat­tle its name. Before the day was out, 11 peo­ple would be dead and hun­dreds more injured.

Supporters of the then-embattled Egyptian President assault from the Egyptian Museum side the thousands defending the square, in what was to prove a failed effort to dislodge them.

Sup­port­ers of the then-embat­tled Egypt­ian Pres­i­dent assault from the Egypt­ian Muse­um side the thou­sands defend­ing the square, in what was to prove a failed effort to dis­lodge them.

I knew lit­tle of this as I hur­ried through the curi­ous­ly emp­ty mega­lopo­lis of 17 mil­lion. Cairo’s mon­u­men­tal pub­lic build­ings presided over emp­ty avenues in an atmos­phere poised some­where between sub­dued Sun­day after­noon and apoc­a­lyp­tic morn­ing-after film. In a Ram­ses Boule­vard sud­den­ly bereft of thou­sands of exhaust-spew­ing auto­mo­biles, clus­ters of peo­ple hushed­ly debat­ed each oth­er, as hun­dreds of the pres­i­den­t’s sup­port­ers made their way towards Tahrir Square, their fea­tures set in bel­li­cose frowns. 

The roar of thou­sands from inside the square was audi­ble from a dis­tance. I approached from the Qasr el-Nil bridge, where apolo­getic vol­un­teers searched me and oth­ers enter­ing to ensure we weren’t bring­ing in weapons. The pro­test­ers’ com­mit­ment to sel­mi (peace­ful) oppo­si­tion would soon result in their being trapped inside the square with­out mod­ern means of defend­ing them­selves. Behind the vol­un­teers were the unmis­tak­able sil­hou­ettes of Egypt­ian Army tanks. The tanks and sol­diers were a very real demon­stra­tion of Egyp­t’s most pow­er­ful and endur­ing insti­tu­tion, unblink­ing mon­i­tors of the face­off, ready to inter­vene when­ev­er they judged right.

 The Clash

I slipped into the square as if into an expec­tant­ly seething are­na. But there were only actors here, very few spec­ta­tors, and hard­ly any of the inter­na­tion­al press that was already swarm­ing into the coun­try. Half an hour lat­er, hos­tile Mubarak sup­port­ers closed off access to the square. The Pres­i­dents’ loy­al­ists pressed clos­er, leer­ing into the impas­sive faces of ranks of rebels, agi­tat­ing for a reac­tion. Men with fresh nerves replaced those among the defend­ers who came close to suc­cumb­ing to the urge to lash out. 

Fail­ing to pro­voke a fight, the Mubarak provo­ca­teurs pulled back and launched a vol­ley of stones. Rocks rained down from the sky, ranks broke, and we fled for cov­er. The hel­met­ed sol­diers remained as neu­tral as they had promised, duck­ing into their tanks. I hid behind one of these, squeez­ing against the met­al as pro­jec­tiles wal­loped the oth­er side. 

But safe­ty was only tem­po­rary. The defend­ers fell back under the Mubarak­ist onslaught, run­ning towards the square. Just before reach­ing it, they real­ized that allow­ing the breach to hap­pen on their side would not only bring their strug­gle to an end, but heap per­son­al shame too,. 

A long-beard­ed man in sheikh’s robes was already atop a tank, wav­ing demon­stra­tors back. He stood there, ignor­ing the rocks drop­ping all around him, ral­ly­ing back the most­ly devout defend­ers. It was the first of sev­er­al extra­or­di­nary exam­ples of reli­gious fer­vor that I wit­nessed dur­ing the Arab Spring, as Mus­lim believ­ers fought for bet­ter treat­ment than they had received under sec­u­lar, army-dom­i­nat­ed mil­i­tary regimes. The vision of the soci­ety they want­ed to cre­ate was total­ly dif­fer­ent from what the cheer­lead­ing West­ern lib­er­als had in mind, and this often made for a bizarre dis­con­nect between the west­ern media cov­er­age and ground rhetoric, espe­cial­ly when they used social media towards non-sec­u­lar goals. But they were also the ones risk­ing their lives to make that vision a real­i­ty, while the sec­u­lar major­i­ty shel­tered far from the bar­ri­cades, either in the mid­dle of the square, or inside their apartments.

A des­per­ate rock war per­sist­ed, illu­mi­nat­ed by the glare of explod­ing Molo­tovs. The push into the square by camel and horse-mount­ed loy­al­ists had already been pushed back, and bar­ri­cades erect­ed. As dusk fell, the atmos­phere esca­lat­ed from hys­teric to apoc­a­lyp­tic. The set­ting sun­rays illu­mi­nat­ed crim­son clouds from below, draw­ing the eye down in a long cin­e­mat­ic tilt, past palls of smoke bil­low­ing upwards, ele­gant­ly arc­ing Molo­tov cock­tails, and human mass­es lurch­ing back and forth. 

 Pre­lude to Hell

The sun­set call to prayer sig­naled a lull in the fight­ing. Young men shift­ed stones and bot­tles of water around the six heav­i­ly-bar­ri­cad­ed entrances into the square. Vol­un­teers shat­tered pave­ments into rocks, while women sen­tries tapped stones against rail­ings to warn of fresh assaults and attract rein­force­ments. Oth­ers stood in lines, bowed in prayer, shout­ing between them­selves “Gin­na, ya naas!” (Heav­en, oh peo­ple!) This tran­scen­dent moment of pure antic­i­pa­tion, bathed in the oth­er­world­ly light of a win­ter sun­set, was like noth­ing I’ve wit­nessed before or since. What a fit­ting last sun­set to behold, in case the night devel­oped in a mor­tal direction.

At a makeshift clin­ic in a mosque just off the square, hun­dreds of injured were being hauled in every hour. By 7pm, doc­tors had reg­is­tered five dead and over 1,500 injured. In a dirty alley reek­ing of urine and feces, ban­daged patients lay in sub­dued bun­dles on pave­ments, nurs­ing each oth­er, or pass­ing in and out of con­scious­ness. There was no ques­tion of ambu­lances enter­ing here.

Next to the Cairo Archae­o­log­i­cal Muse­um, pro­test­ers hid­ing in a smok­ing waste­land of burned-out mil­i­tary vehi­cles, exchanged stones with a crowd of pro-Mubarak sup­port­ers stretch­ing in a 200m-wide front before them. Front­line defend­ers fash­ioned pro­tec­tive head­wear out of any­thing they could lay their hands on, from card­board to kitchen­ware. The gath­er­ing dark­ness only fur­ther dis­guised the falling stones, which remained invis­i­ble until deaf­en­ing­ly strik­ing against the makeshift met­al bar­ri­cades or bounc­ing and skid­ding along the ground.

After nightfall, activists, artists and intellectuals follow the ebb and tide of battle from the balcony of a penthouse overlooking Tahrir.

After night­fall, activists, artists and intel­lec­tu­als fol­low the ebb and tide of bat­tle from the bal­cony of a pent­house over­look­ing Tahrir.

Dozens of pro­test­ers scram­bled up a half-ablaze belle epoque build­ing on the oppo­site side of the square, haul­ing cloth bags packed with stones up the stair­cas­es, to unload onto their oppo­nents from smoke-wreathed bal­conies. In their pre­cip­i­tous over­hang, above two seething crowds clash­ing among flam­ing vehi­cles and seas of rub­ble, they com­mand­ed a God’s point-of-view of the battle.

After hours in the square, and with one valu­able lens already smashed, I was exhaust­ed and in need of refuge. I retreat­ed to the rel­a­tive safe­ty of the round­about, where I watched snatch-squads of pro­test­ers who had ven­tured into the streets beyond the bar­ri­cades, arriv­ing back with their loy­al­ist quar­ries. In trav­el agen­cies dot­ting Tahrir, they body-searched and inter­ro­gat­ed them, dis­cov­er­ing State Secu­ri­ty IDs among some. Then, they stacked them in a bat­tered, blood­ied mass of human­i­ty in the blocked-off metro sta­tion entrances. 

A friend called from Athens to advise that I seek shel­ter with a friend of a friend who hap­pened to live in a pent­house above the square. It was a rare res­i­den­tial build­ing direct­ly on the square, the same one whose bawwab, shel­ter­ing behind an enor­mous chain, had refused me entrance only a few hours ear­li­er. But this time the own­er’s name was my pass­word, and I was soon on the thresh­old of a labyrinthine inter­war apart­ment crammed with artists and sec­u­lar activists, mon­i­tor­ing the bat­tle for the square from wrap-around bal­conies and through live al-Jazeera cov­er­age. Lat­er, this apart­ment, on whose bal­cony an Iran­ian friend had spent long after­noons smok­ing weed a decade before with its large­ly apo­lit­i­cal actor own­er, was to turn into the con­trol room of the Rev­o­lu­tion. Or so the New York Times thought. 

The morning after: survivors of the battle resume shouting anti-Mubarak slogans as a new dawn finds them still in possession of the square.

The morn­ing after: sur­vivors of the bat­tle resume shout­ing anti-Mubarak slo­gans as a new dawn finds them still in pos­ses­sion of the square.

Shots rang out through the square in the mid­dle of the night. Short­ly after, some ambu­lances were final­ly allowed to enter. Lat­er, we heard that the square’s defend­ers had dom­i­nat­ed, push­ing out of their area to con­trol ter­ri­to­ry with­in eye­line of the Ram­ses Hilton. As reports of dozens of jour­nal­ists being assault­ed by the crowds or detained by the Army began to trick­le through, I sud­den­ly real­ized that I should get going. 

Irhal or the End of Mubarak 

At dawn, I made my way through the rem­nants of the bat­tle­field. Past a line of charred, upturned cars, into an aban­doned house strand­ed in the mid­dle of a con­struc­tion site, I sized up the risk of try­ing to sneak to the oth­er side, at the risk of jeop­ar­diz­ing my pre­cious pho­tographs. In the end, I crossed over the bridge and dis­ap­peared back into a Cairo still stir­ring awake to the overnight news. 

A few days lat­er, under the pres­sure of events, Mubarak stepped down. The square went nuts; it appeared to be a new dawn for Egypt. But it would mark only a new chap­ter in the con­tin­u­a­tion of its trou­bles. This cul­mi­nat­ed, two years lat­er, in the Army lethal­ly clear­ing anoth­er square, Rabia al-Adaw­ia, of many of the same devout, politi­cized peo­ple I had pho­tographed in Tahrir. This time, the West did not con­demn. Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Recep Teyyip Erdo­gan offered the most vocal pub­lic out­rage felt by many Mus­lims. Al-Jazeera was still fran­ti­cal­ly cov­er­ing events, but some­how the west­ern audi­ence was no longer there. Per­haps events had become too nuanced. Rat­ings flagged.

I left Egypt hav­ing learned two impor­tant lessons. Some­times you should be care­ful of what you wish for: desta­bi­liz­ing an unpleas­ant sta­tus quo opens the door to for­eign inter­ven­tions that often cre­ate even more unpleas­ant real­i­ties than the ones they replace. Sec­ond­ly, reli­gious rad­i­cals are good fight­ers. Per­haps it explains why, once a rev­o­lu­tion turns vio­lent, intel­lec­tu­als get pushed aside.

An exhausted young activist catches a nap at dawn, following the conclusion of the battle.

An exhaust­ed young activist catch­es a nap at dawn, fol­low­ing the con­clu­sion of the battle.

Still standing: a niqab-wearing protester flashes a victory sign at the Museum entrance to Tahrir Square, where the toughest battles were fought.

Still stand­ing: a niqab-wear­ing pro­test­er flash­es a vic­to­ry sign at the Muse­um entrance to Tahrir Square, where the tough­est bat­tles were fought.

al-SisiArab SpringEgyptian revolutionMubarakTahrir Square

TMR contributing editor Iason Athanasiadis is a Mediterranean-focused multimedia journalist based between Athens, Istanbul, and Tunis. He uses all media to recount the story of how we can adapt to the era of climate change, mass migration, and the misapplication of distorted modernities. He studied Arabic and Modern Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford, Persian and Contemporary Iranian Studies in Tehran, and was a Nieman fellow at Harvard, before working for the United Nations between 2011 and 2018. He received the Anna Lindh Foundation’s Mediterranean Journalism Award for his coverage of the Arab Spring in 2011, and its 10th-anniversary alumni award for his commitment to using all media to tell stories of intercultural dialogue in 2017.