The shutters on the local street storefronts had rattled down an hour or so earlier. People looked apprehensively out of windows. The smoky trails of tear gas canisters hung from the early afternoon sky.
Within hours, Egypt’s security apparatus would be overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of protestors across the country.
I was following a crowd of around 1,500 protestors heading east from Mohammad Nageeb station to Midan Tahrir, the hub of downtown Cairo.
It was just after midday on the fourth day of Egypt’s anti-government protests. This protest was a mass venting against 30 years of rule by President Hosni Mubarak, the former officer and field-marshall who came to power in 1981, and his ruling National Democratic Party.
Frustration at Egypt’s high unemployment levels, widespread poverty, deep-seated corruption and sham democratic process had boiled over, with hundreds of thousands of Egyptian pouring out into the streets. The protestors were working themselves into a frenzy as they marched, chanting ‘down with Mubarak!’
The thud of teargas guns cracked out through the street, as a column of riot police fired countless teargas canisters. A thick blanket of the gas billowed through the street and people began running. A man stood in the centre of the street, screaming, while the cloud of gas engulfed him. Another man, carrying a load of bread above his head, collapsed, spilling his bread across the ground.
I stumbled down a side street. Massive booms echoing overhead.
People were hocking gas in thick white globs onto the street. These wrenching coughs. The caustic burn of the gas hung a heavy red in eyes.
Two young women sat breathing through medical masks, while their father tended to them. They were university students, Jihad and Hager. They wore colourful Hijabs, and spoke quickly, slipping between Arabic and English.
‘Mubarak has to leave, we don’t want him,’ Jihad said.
‘He has killed our country. He always tell us things will be different, it will get better.’
‘But it never does. The government does not care for us, so we come to the street, they have to listen to us now.’
More booms rang out from the street.
Men were storming the riot police lines, hurling rocks which crunched into the security force’s shields. Hundreds of stones lopped through the sky. Chunks of torn street, or parts of shattered bricks. Police picked up rocks and began hurling them back at the crowd, then charged, temporarily driving the protestors back.
More gas was fired, a long-range canister took a middle aged man in the back of the head as he ran away, laying him face first onto the concrete street. He stood up and began running, the skin from his nose and forehead scraped off.
By around 5.30pm, the protest was reaching a critical mass. Countless numbers had poured onto the streets of Cairo, opening up numerous fronts against the security forces.
I was making my way down to the corniche, fringing the Nile river.
Women from apartment buildings were throwing toilet paper and bottles of water down to the protestors. The skyline was thick with smoke and gas, rocks littered the streets. Police barricades had been broken down.
A man approached me, screaming, with blood seeping from under the bandage on his forehead. His name was Mohammad. He said he had been beaten about the head by riot police.
‘This government has no idea about the country. The police say they care about justice. Mubarak says he cares about justice.
‘There is no justice here.’
At just on 6pm the protestors overwhelmed the riot police. It began as rocks rained down, tires were set ablaze and sent rolling toward the police. A company of around 50 riot police were isolated and driven against a shuttered perfume shop. Protest leaders blew on whistles to stop the crowd from beating the officers.
The riot police handed over their shields and batons and were allowed to leave. Some of the security force personnel joined with the protestors and began chanting ‘Allah Akhbar’ as several protestors began kissing them on the cheeks. Others were hurling stones at a still defiant column of riot police.
I continued down toward the cornice as night fell, flames illuminating the streets. I saw an overweight police officer running down the street toward me, a group of five men chasing him. They ran him down and dragged him into an alley. The officer was screaming. They began kicking and punching him. One man pulled out a fine-tipped pen and began stabbing the man in the throat and face, in the side. Others punched him the face.
His screams were a high-pitched and panicked wail. I stood watching as he broke away from the men, running in terror, blood slipping down his face and neck. He tripped off the curb at the corner of the street and pitched forward. Picking himself up hurriedly, still wailing, as the men continued to chase him. At the corniche an armoured personnel carrier was engulfed in flame. Smoke spewed out into the night sky. People walked with police shields and truncheons, broken sticks and crow bars.
A group of perhaps 50 men were trying to break into the underground metro station from two sides. They furiously rattled the metal grills covering the entrance and screamed insults. A number of riot police had fled into the underground, locking it behind them.
I talked with a group of young men, their faces wrapped in scarves. One man, Ahmed – an unemployed accountant – said that he was protesting against Egypt’s unemployment levels, corruption and increased food prices, as much as against Mubarak.
An armoured personnel carrier careened through the columns of protestors walking down the street. By 12 p.m., numerous police buildings had been set ablaze by the protestors. The ruling National Democratic Party headquarters burned and looting began. The Egyptian army was deployed across Egypt’s major cities, as the remnants of the Security Forces melted away into Cairo’s backstreets.
At 1am a young man rode up to me on a police motorbike, waving a policeman’s cap in one of his hands. He asked me if I had any money. A group of men were ransacking a police vehicle.
Twenty-four hours later looting would reach alarming levels and rumours would proliferate. People would sit at the corners of the streets at night, armed with sticks, pistols and knives. Gunshots would ring out regularly across the city. Tracer rounds flying through the night sky.
Glen Johnson is a New Zealand journalist. All photos by author.