Saturday, 3 July 2010

Pain in the protest

The movement of the discontented met the snarling wall of force; protesters face to face with the police. Shielding my friend, blows struck; fists thudded into my back, a slapping strike landed, boots swung. I had to move, fast.

Khalid Said: The face of the oppressed

2 weeks ago a young law student died. Khalid Said had also protested. Two plain clothes policemen entered an internet café and demanded his ID. Khalid, knowing his rights, refused.

Khalid was found nearby the following morning with a bag stuffed in his mouth. The initial autopsy claiming he died of asphyxiation after swallowing a packet of drugs. Witnesses present a different story.

The leaked photos show Khalid’s features deformed and bloodied. In video the oblivious officers are seen viciously attacking Khalid and forcibly removing him from the internet café. What happened thereafter is unknown but seemingly self-evident.

Outraged youth groups have held protests in Alexandria the scene of the atrocity and yesterday in Cairo.

There has been some international condemnation and ‘concern’, little to move the Egyptian authorities.

Are you sure you want to go?

A chance meeting with Mai is a freelance photographer had led my friend Ahmad and I to join the protest. She had offered to ‘protect’ us. It was hard to imagine what protection her slight-frame could offer but it was somehow reassuring.

I was told protests in Egypt end with brutal force, arrests made, with the possibility of indefinite detention. Egyptian lawyers and human rights groups estimate that between 5,000 and 10,000 people are currently in long-term detention without charge or trial. Protesters here need to be brave.

Approaching the agreed meeting point in Tahir Square (the central square in Cairo) the roads were ominously quiet. Tens upon tens of riot vans lined the streets, stacked with young recruits brooding in the overbearing heat. More police lingered in marked cars, and several posses of heavy set men loitered nearby. It was immediately intimidating. That was the point. The fraction of my mind that was intimidated led me to realise this show of force alone would turn many away.

We continued.

We met Mai nearby in the well known Horeya Café, half an hour before the scheduled start. Two photographers had reportedly already been arrested.

I was one part scared, two parts intrigued. I had been made aware of the dangers; this after all was a march against police brutality.

As we moved towards the square, the small groups of young people sizing up the situation were increasingly obvious, most on their phone; the protest would move, instead we would march.

And so it began.

In the thick of it

With as fewer than 20 people around me, on non-descript corner; the first shout rang out. “Khalid Khalid, you are our marty., Khalid Khalid, you did not die vain…” The voice was indefatigable, all the injustice, distress, anger, despair and fear was avenged in his roar. This was a man prepared to fight a futile fight, to the bitter end - for amongst all the emotion there seemed little hope, no inspiring belief of change, just resentment, rage at the machine.

The feverish call echoed back, as the hastily relocated protesters were drawn in. Quickly our number grew to 40, 50, 80, and more.

We marched. Traffic stopped. It was hard to discern much support outside those marching, more indifference. The march was flanked by a stream of spectators, filming on their phones; not so interested in the cause it seemed, as seeing what would happen. People here know what happens; defiance is not tolerated.

Small numbers of police could be scuttling nearby, try to keep up and direct forces to intercept the feisty horde. The march moved at a frenetic pace, heartbeats racing. We twisted and turned to avoid the inevitable moment that would soon arrive.

The road ahead was blocked; a band of 20 uncertain looking riot police, with several other officers and more burly men in civilian clothes; these were the scary ones. It was hard to tell who they were but the look of intent in their eye marked them out. They looked more than ready to disperse the crowd.

The roars of the crowd at first amplified but then faded as small teams trued to pull the most vocal protagonists from the crowd. The collective spirit faded, rapidly as the instinct for self-preservation set in. Most dispersed, the most committed refused to be moved.

The net closed. Retribution for the unauthorised protest was swift and uncompromising. Shouts turned to cries as tide quickly turned. Mai was in the thick of it. This is her profession, her art but there was no appreciation for it amongst the audience who were now pressing their advantage with force.

Like a watchtower in the midst of it all, I stood still, observing. I had stopped chanting as soon as I understood the nature of some of the calls. I don’t feel insults represent my support for the cause, it seemed they intended to antagonise; they succeeded.

Now my only concern was for my friends. I could not see Ahmed. Mai was being shunted around in the throng of die-hard protesters and a few stragglers trapped in the mêlée.

As I moved to help Mai out of the only exit left, I felt a few heavy thuds in my back. I could just see a stout man of average height dressed in plain clothes. He bellowed at the other protesters. He was acutely angry.

A red mist had descended. Normally foreigners are not targeted; the rationale to make this distinction no longer remained.

I half pulled, half guided Mai through the closing gap. Our only out: a small side alley amid a skirmish of shoves, shouts, and scattering souls. Cajoling Mai, I received my blows. It was not my instinct to react only to get out. Turning down the wrong passageway here could result in a beating I was not in the mood to receive. Protect. Get out.

My heart raced as we turned a blind corner. Would we meet yet more raucous police recruits? Mercifully not. Mai was trembling. I was struggling to run in my sandals. (Note: not a good choice of footwear)

Out but not over

We came out onto a sun filled street, anonymous again. We could disappear from here; I breathed a sigh of relief. Mai had other ideas. She could barely talk, she was so overcome with what she had seen, yet her resolve was unaltered. I urged a moment of caution, to realise when a battle is won and when it is lost. It didn’t register.

Familiar faces from the march appeared; a few calls (thankfully Ahmed was ok); a quick debriefing, then onto the Courts of Justice, this wasn’t over.

We arrived, now just 15 in number, in a street lined with almost half as many riot vans. Before we could start a stately officer entered our hyper-sensitised group. I couldn’t understand all the Arabic but his message was calm and clear:

‘I understand you. I empathise. But this is not the time or the place. You are hopelessly outnumbered and will be arrested. Be wise and move on.’

His message sounded like sense to me, I’m glad it was heeded; a timely tonic of wisdom from the ‘enemy’.

The last hurrah came on the steps of the Syndicate of Journalists, 500m away. Here safely contained and hemmed in by an organised force, the protest finished unrestrained. People could freely enter and leave and the numbers swelled, while the protesters continued their diatribe and demanded the release of the arrested.

After a few hours all had been released. The most ardent returned to mock the troops in front of them. I had since left. My brain was swimming in thought and coming down off the adrenaline. I needed my own headspace.

Reflecting

As I left, I met trio afraid to join the march. They’d kept back wary of being caught up in the fray. The protesters I spoke to bemoaned their lack of number, feeling that a critical mass was needed before it became easy for the police to desert and presumably their protest to triumph. Ironically the widely held desire that conflict was necessary to get attention was the same reason many, including this trio chose not to join them.

I do not resent being hit, I understand. The police responded with violence where violence was sought. I understood the risk of being there.

I learnt that this was not my kind of protest. I don’t wish to antagonise and demonise, I want to understand. What happened to Khalid and countless others is horrific but I doubt hurling insults will solicit a favourable response. Nevertheless I value their action; we should all have the right to protest.

I’m reminded of Mother Theresa’s response when asked why she didn’t join an anti-war rally; she replied “As soon as you have a pro-peace rally I’ll be right at the front.” This resounds deeply with me, especially when coupled with countless acts of kindness in the face of oppression.

Should the protesters each use their passion as a force of goodwill and spark local grassroots initiatives (working within the restraints of this system), I would hope the benefits would help to sway this otherwise indifferent nation to join them. Not as radical or instant as revolution, but it is easier to suppress hostility than humanity.