Escape from Abbaseya
In the end I walked out, which wasn’t what I was expecting. Nor was I expecting the cameraman on the army APC filming us as we filed past. I had been trapped in between two sets of clashes, thugs on one side and military and residents on the other. I didn’t know where to go. And on Hosni’s birthday of all days.
The clashes had already started at Abbaseya by the time I arrived. Abbaseya is not like Tahrir, it’s a perpetual death trap for protesters. There are no safe exits, and there are many people there that are generally annoyed by your presence, and are willing to let you know about it. It’s also huge, which should be an advantage when you’re scurrying off, but it isn’t because you have further ground to cover to get away.
At that point it was rock-throwing and the army were firing water from a cannon at protesters. The clashes were further up the street and as I walked up to the front tear gas was fired. The army had advised that people go to Tahrir, and not the MOD, Tahrir now being a center point for people who had long forsaken the revolution, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. You know that Tahrir is not the place to be when Mustafa Bakri is there; then it’s definitely not the place for any sort of pro-revolution, anti-Scaf action.
This was different from other clashes in that protesters didn’t return to the same line after the gas cleared; they merely retreated and set up a new boundary. The gas was potent, with a long range, and the stifling summer heat kept the pungent stench permeating through the air. The protesters weren’t only Salafis like the media keeps regurgitating. There were the usual types who tend to be at these things, the street movements and those who were just opposed to military rule.
Further back now, and army helicopters began circling overhead. Injuries were numerous, and as usual motorcycles were ferrying the wounded to the ambulances at the back, though there were other ambulances going in. On the bridge behind the protest there were police APCs, who weren’t getting involved.
A few moments later and an astounding volley of teargas was fired up until the end of the road. People rushed back and scattered left and right. Repeated gunfire was clearly audible, people were saying the APCs were rushing towards us.
I was on the road to the right of where the protest initially was, behind the Nour Mosque and under 6th October Bridge. This is the road that leads back down to Ghamra and then Ramsis, before you get downtown. It’s a wide road and quite a long stretch, as I was discovering.
At that point people had decided to march back to Tahrir and so were heading down that road towards Ghamra. I then ran into Sharif Abdel-Kouddous, Liam Stack, Thanassi Cambanis and Peter Beaumont of the Guardian. We were walking back together when we came to that overhead walkway that leads to the Demerdash metro station. There were some young guys on top just watching us walk by. Right when we were under it there was a loud bang. Someone above had fired something.
I stood rooted under the bridge, not exactly sure what to do. I sneaked a look above and they seemed nonplussed. It was a surreal moment because no one really did anything for about ten seconds. We walked on a bit then ran off, by that time it was developing into a fully-fledged fight with the protesters running up the walkway to confront them. The loud shots continued so we walked on.
Further up the road as we approached the New Ramsis College two APCs came out of the side street accompanied by another bunch of plainclothes people. Gunshots were being fired around that area. It looked like we were trapped. By then we had no idea what to do, and which direction would lead us to safety. Some people started to climb the high wall behind us that led onto the railway but I wasn’t sure where that would lead.
The gunshots became incessant on both sides at that point, we started scrambling but we didn’t have a direction to take. Liam, Thanassi and Peter decided that heading back was the best option, I was reticent, we lost them in the scramble anyways and thankfully Sharif stayed with me. Sharif was calm and collected, which was helping assuage my nerves but we just weren’t sure what to do, and the loud bangs weren’t abating. Then two guys on a motorcycle came up to us and told us we’d be able to pass through the APCs and the people with them if we kept to the pavement. After much deliberation and distrust we decided to do that because we simply seemed to have no other option.
As we walked towards them they began to address us. First we were told to keep our hands above our heads as we were walking past so as to show that we weren’t armed. Those were young men from Abbaseya who were standing with the army troops. One was insulting us badly, saying we were ruining the country and that enough was enough. Another carrying a stick looked at us squarely and said, “Remember that we let you go so you don’t ever come back again.”
And we were being filmed. There were many military police soldiers standing on the APC. Perched behind them was a plainclothes cameraman who was filming us as we walked past. I’m not sure to what end this was for but I wasn’t planning to ask.
Some of those walking past with us weren’t happy with all this. A young man told me to put my arm back down, which I did, not really registering why they were up or why they should come back down. Another man must have said something because the soldiers on the APC got extremely irate, and then threw a pottery flowerpot – of all things. What purpose did it serve on an APC? – at him. The man was right in front of me and the pot crashed between us, missing me by a few centimeters. They grabbed him and roughed him up but then let him go.
I thought we were home and dry by then. I was wrong. There were even more people further ahead, lying in wait. We were approaching the mouth of the 6th of October Bridge. Ahead were some stairs that led to a bridge that was perpendicular to it. We decided to go up the stairs, only to find Military police and more plainclothes companions lying in wait. The end of the stairs was blocked with two corrugated iron gates. Sharif and I debated whether to go back down or try to stay up. In the end we decided to try to stay above, so we climbed across the gates to get onto the bridge (with thin air and a ten meter drop below us) and then proceeded to walk in the opposite direction, away from the mob. Luckily we were left alone (others weren’t) and we walked around for a bit until we managed to hightail it out of the area. We heard that they were arresting people at the metro stations so we walked off in a direction that was just away from everything until we found a taxi. The taxi – which was also carrying an elderly lady – took us back across that bridge where we saw the Military Police and others grab hold of someone and beat him.
We were very lucky; in the end they simply let us go. It could have been different. Others weren’t so lucky, hundreds of others. Again today’s clashes will be painted as the act of saboteurs – Salafi saboteurs in this bout – intent on threatening the country’s security, but as is always the case, the truth is of a more nuanced and complex nature than this. The only constant as always is excessive state brutality and heavy-handedness, and an inexorable rise in the spilling of Egyptian blood.