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I Spent the Weekend Getting Attacked by Soldiers in Cairo

One of them died but my camera survived.

I've got to admit, after the violence in Cairo in the middle of last week, I thought that Friday was going to be a relatively quiet day. Demonstrations had been planned to protest against the attacks on a sit-in that had killed 21 people, but I thought that the sombre mood meant they might pass off peacefully. I was wrong – by the time I got to the Ministry of Defence, there was already tension – and a few stones – in the air.

Annons

At around 1.30PM, soldiers snatched a couple of people out of the gathering of protesters. According to an airport worker I spoke to, a few minutes before I arrived another person was plucked from the sit-in and beaten in full view of the crowd. A couple of people told me it was unprovoked, but really, who knows? Perhaps a kid threw a stone. Perhaps infiltrators started a fight. Here, frankly, perhaps anything.

Before long, protesters and soldiers were exchanging volleys of rocks across the barbed wire. Every street fight quickly develops its own special rhythm and its own special rules. Within minutes, revolutionaries had erected lines of corrugated metal shields.

At times the soldiers were just a few metres away, on the other side of the coiled barbed wire. Each side was pounding rocks against the shields of the other, the deafening clatter of their impacts filling the air. Over it all hung the swaying arc of a water cannon, making a rainbow on one side of the fighting.

It turned out later that at some point, someone shot a soldier dead. I reported from Wednesday's clashes that a few people on the revolutionary side had begun to show up with guns. Perhaps it was one of them. But the army has apparently claimed that the gun shot came from the direction of the Nour mosque.

At around half past six, activist Sherif Gaber saw special forces soldiers greet a group of un-uniformed armed men in the mosque. (This sort of stuff happens here. A video circulating on YouTube shows army trucks dropping off a crowd of guys not wearing uniforms.) So it might even have been friendly fire.

Annons

There are always some women at the front line of these things, but not that many, and they generally have to put up with a lot of hassle, as men try to "protect" and grope them (or both). All the women, activists and journalists, who go into these environments deserve extra respect. This woman was super cool. Men kept trying to stop her going to the front to throw stones, but she wasn't having any of it.

Every so often a flying rock would find a chink to get through, and someone would crumple. Apparently state TV showed a fair few soldiers being carried away as well.

I'm sometimes asked about the dangers of operating in a situation like this. For me, the really dangerous moment in any clash is when the implicit rules change. They break down, and in the chaos, anything can happen. This time, the rules – whereby you could hide behind metal barriers, and nothing worse than a rock was gonna come your way – changed after an hour with the first plume of tear gas.

I don't know why they call it "tear" gas. It doesn't make you cry. It makes it so that you can barely open your eyes, and you can barely breathe. Sometimes people can't, and they faint or in extreme cases, die. It's pretty hard not to panic, and when thousands of people are panicking at once, you get blind stampedes. People sometimes end up treading on kids, either because they don't see them or, lungs full of gas, they don't care. A headlong stampede begun, and this guy drove through it on a motorised tricycle with his eyes barely open, and two others hanging off the back.

Annons

A few people tried to hold the line and fight, throwing gas canisters back at the soldiers, but we'd been pushed back so quickly that there weren't any rocks to throw, and no time to break up paving slabs for more. Nobody expected the gas, because the army doesn't normally use it, it's mostly a weapon the police use. So not enough people had masks.

Eventually, we got pushed out of the sit-in, where a few people tried to rally the crowd.

But the soldiers kept on coming, and we ended up in headlong retreat far from the site of the sit-in. Apart from the soldier, a couple of protesters seem to have been killed, whilst hundreds were injured and arrested. Later, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a photographer had part of his ear cut off by some plain-clothes thug.

The next day, a few people went to protest outside the military court, where the arrested were being tried. (Actually, although they were civilians, they were being court-martialed which gives you some idea of the generals' idea of due process.) Naturally, it kicked off again. A couple of friends who were there told me that this time, the way it started was pretty clear. The military police just piled into a few dozen protesters, swinging their sticks.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @tom_d_

Previously: Fighting Dirty with the Mobs in Cairo