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Another Sleepless Night in Cairo

It's hard to fall asleep when you've seen a paving slab fall out of the sky and hit a man in the face.
December 19, 2011, 5:20pm

The latest trouble in Cairo began, as these things often do, with the security services brutalizing a young person.

This time it was torture. The young person in question was part of a group of revolutionaries who have been maintaining a small sit-in outside the parliament building near Tahrir Square since late November. They want to prevent the Prime Minister—who was in fact appointed by the head of the military—from taking up office there. The military have announced that they are not going to let elected officials decide the new constitution; and the secret police are still kidnapping pro-democracy activists at will.

This time, it was a young man named Aboudi's turn to spark the pitched street battles between pro-democracy protesters and the various factions struggling for power in Cairo. He was snatched from the sit-in by soldiers in the early hours of Friday morning, kept for an hour, and beaten so badly he couldn't open his eyes.

When the occupiers saw what had happened to Aboudi, they confronted the soldiers. The violence escalated at around 3 AM.

Throughout Friday morning, this elderly woman camped out next to her wheelchair in a cardboard fort in the middle of the fighting. She didn't seem too worried about what was going on around her.

Soldiers and plainclothes thugs drove revolutionaries onto nearby Kasr al Aini Street and spent the day lobbing projectiles at them from the 11th floor of a building. They threw rocks, ceramics, glass, paving slabs, petrol bombs, and at least one step ladder.

It's hard to describe how terrifying it is to be surrounded by chunks of concrete flying from that height and shattering when they hit the ground. I saw dozens carried off unconscious and bloodied, and one guy hit by a paving slab thrown from the eleventh floor. I kept waking up to that image when I tried to sleep that night. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

It's also hard to describe how “disorganised, unhinged, and violent” the army is, as a friend of mine put it. I'm used to London officers' particular form of forcefulness, but it has a certain discipline and ruthless logic to it (it's probably also more effective). But these guys are throwing rocks and petrol bombs, lashing out with huge clubs, and making personal decisions to chase and beat individual members of the public. They're working alongside plainclothes thugs and swapping equipment with them.

They've also been using live ammunition.

I got a taste of the army's wild violence shortly after revolutionaries tried to break into the parliament building. You can see the protesters getting close to the gates here:

When they did, the army broke out in a pincer movement. They arrested and beat many people. I was lucky to escape with just a whack across the head.

This woman was captured by the army. This is what she looked like when they released her. She had blood splattered on her jeans.

But the revolutionaries reformed, regrouped, and attacked again. By one in the morning, the Ministry of Transport was on fire.  Somehow, it didn't burn down entirely.

On Saturday morning, the army launched a fresh attack, rampaging across Tahrir beating and arresting revolutionaries and passers-by, and smashing stalls and cars. They burned the few remaining tents, threw rocks, and—again and again—beat defenceless people lying on the ground.

Then, the army raided the media office I was working in above the square. They confiscated several cameras, but didn't manage to get them all. I think they wanted to stop photos like this from getting out.

In relative terms, our raid was pretty relaxed. But Adam Akary of Al Jazeera English tweeted from the Ismailia hotel, used by several journalists, describing his experience of the raid there: “I managed to find a cabinet used for storage. Climbed a ladder to get to it when the time was right and in the dark heard the beating sounds.”


Previously - Remembering the Dead in Cairo