An Egyptian man looks out over Tahrir, February 4.

The Way to Tahrir Square

About 30 minutes after his friend had counseled waiting one more hour to see if the Police Day protest would turn into anything more than the “clownish” spectacle Trager suspected it would remain, something unexpected occurred.

“You had three little protests going on in each of these sites—the steps of the High Court, the Lawyers’ Syndicate, and then the Journalists’ Syndicate around the corner,” Trager recalls. “And these were really very contained by the riot police. Riot police had it surrounded. They were overpowering the protesters.

“But then you had a march that seemed to come from just north into the street,” he continues. “They were comprised mostly of activists who I think were affiliated with either the Ghad Party or the Wafd Party—which was interesting. The Wafd Party had not endorsed the protest, but certain members had joined, and I think specifically members who had lost in the 2010 Parliamentary election. So they were no longer co-opted. Interesting, right?”

The marchers began calling out to bystanders to join them, and by the time they reached the three confined protest areas, they had achieved a critical mass.

“The riot police had to scramble, and what they started to do is regroup and form human chains at every point along the avenue that leads down to Tahrir Square,” Trager recounted to an audience at Philadelphia’s Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) later. “At every stage, though, when they would erect these human chains of riot police, as the marchers approached they would let them through. From where I was standing, there was no police brutality, there was no tear gas, there was no stone-throwing, there was nothing. They would let them pass.

“So my initial reaction to this was, this is pretty incredible: The police are standing down, the regime is maybe letting the protesters have their day, letting them let off some steam so that things can return to normal on Monday.

“I was walking alongside them, taking notes—and I have to say, any political cynicism that I had at that moment vanished. It was a very remarkable sight, seeing people march for their freedom, and stand up to the regime, and even brave riot police.”

“What was most incredible about it, though,” he says, “was just how domestically focused it was. It wasn’t about hating America or hating Israel. It was focused on improving the country domestically. And I think that was actually, for me, the most inspiring thing.”

For Robert Vitalis, a Penn political science professor who spent three years in Cairo as a doctoral student in the 1980s, that was one of the most significant aspects of the uprising.

“It is amazing to see ordinary people express their political demands in large gatherings in nonviolent ways, which goes against so much our stereotypes about what opposition politics are in the authoritarian or Muslim environment,” he says. “In a world where we only imagine Al-Qaedas and other kinds of militant groups, here are these vast numbers of people—many of them young, families, young and older women—expressing their political frustrations and preferences. That hasn’t been seen in the Arab world in a long time.”

Trager’s initial euphoria over the apparent detente between the riot police and the marchers quickly evaporated, however, when a contingent of protesters continued past the square and attempted to break into the Assembly of Ministers. In short order, the scene descended into a chaos of tear-gas-infused water cannons and hand-to-hand scuffles.

Trager tried to escape through the side streets, leaving his camera with his friend, who was determined to stay. Ten minutes later his cell phone rang. His roommate had been arrested. The rest of his day provided a glimpse of how dicey the situation in Egypt’s capital was about to become.

“He was filming the police beating a woman with my camera,” Trager recalled at the FPRI talk. “A henchman behind him, who was draped in an Egyptian flag yelling anti-Mubarak slogans to blend in, suddenly took the camera—which was my camera—handed it to a police officer, and beat [my friend] on the torso area so that you couldn’t see bruises on the face … [They] threw [him] into a car with a bunch of other people, including foreign journalists; drove him to a secret prison, blindfolded, in the northern part of Cairo; held him there, told him everything they knew about his family and his family’s whereabouts … and then at 2 a.m. left him to find his way home in the desert.

“For me, it really encapsulates the moment at which a protest movement that seemed peaceful, that it seemed the regime was willing to tolerate in its narrow form, turned very ugly.”

The protesters had vowed to sleep in Tahrir Square, but when Trager returned the next morning, the area had been completely cleared. “The regime had used a lot of tear gas, which you could still smell in the air,” he recalled.

The next two days were tense. “What seemed to be developing was a war of attrition, where small pockets of protesters were fighting small pockets of riot police. But it didn’t look like anything that was going to dominate the entire city.”

Then came Angry Friday. The increasingly panicked Mubarak regime began severing Egypt’s connections to the World Wide Web early in the morning, but protesters had already gotten word out calling for a mass action after Friday prayers. The game plan was simple: when mosques let out, people would march to Tahrir Square, or the nearest public plaza.

From Trager’s vantage, it was an eerie morning.

“Cairo is a very dynamic, lively city,” he says. “But at this moment, it became like a ghost town. It became like that scene in a Western movie where there’s going to be a shootout on the street, and everyone’s sort of pulling down their shutters and closing up the saloons.

“At one o’clock the first protest emerged from a mosque. And the number of protests—the number of people who joined them, and the number of locations—was so overwhelming that it became impossible for the riot police to do anything about it. And in response, the riot police absolutely blanketed the city with tear gas, to the extent that it was simply impossible to escape flying tear gas canisters, or more moderate tear-gas guns. You could see over the entire downtown and even beyond, clouds of tear gas.”

As the day progressed, the leaderless nature of the rebellion changed the nature of the protesters’ goals.

“On the 25th, the official demands were much more moderate,” Trager observes. “The interior minister should be fired, higher wages, and new elections.” But for everyday Egyptians, who by and large didn’t have any political affiliations, those demands didn’t seem to justify braving tear gas and rubber bullets. “It’s hard for people who aren’t political to unify around anything vague. They need a symbol on which to attach all of their mass anger,” Trager says. “And Mubarak, by not giving them anything earlier, became that.”

“And it was very clear to me that they were simply not going to leave until one of two things happened: either Mubarak resigns, or there was a massacre.”


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COVER STORY: Anatomy of an Uprising By Trey Popp
Photography by Tara Todras-Whitehill C'00 EAS'00

©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette

People line up next to a military vehicle in Tahrir,
February 3.

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SIDEBAR: Far Away, So Close:
Penn Students with Middle East Ties
React to the Uprisings


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Last modified 2/24/11