In the square

(1)

A back alley in Tahrir, it’s been a long night, the volunteers of the Opantish intervention team are scattered around the alley in groups, some standing, some sitting on the ground near a puddle of mud,smoking with shaky hands.

I decided to try and quit smoking a couple of weeks back, my second pack for the night was floating on the still murky water in front of me. I take a look at the exhausted faces around me, some with torn t-shirts, some with t-shirts stained in red. I couldn’t tell if it was blood or some of that dye that the street vendors use to draw the Egyptian flag on the faces of those willing to pay, we were splashed by some earlier.

A friend sitting beside me had his hand wrapped up after being hit by a stick or a baton in one of the interventions. He didn’t go home, he didn’t say anything, and just had his hand tied with a flimsy piece of torn bandage and came back to sit beside me quietly. The captain of our team makes the dreaded signal; we are going in. Later a friend said jokingly in one of our meetings that this signal is how all our nightmares start when we go to bed at night.

I throw the cigarette and look at the frantic crowds in the square in front of me, absorb the hectic noise of the square I purposely tried to block out earlier, and move to my place in the entry formation. We are going in again.

(2)

We were taught to create a human shield around the victim, an impenetrable chain where you lock hands with the volunteer next to you and he locks it with the one next to him, creating a temporary safe zone amidst the chaos so that the volunteers inside the circle can try and help the victim.

No matter how much the frenzied mob of sometimes thousands pushes, no matter how much they try, no matter what the risk to your safety is, you shouldn’t break the chain. You must not break the chain. Yet sometimes, no matter how hard you try…you break.

(3)

You push and push and push, you push until you cannot breathe. You push until every muscle in your body aches and screams for you to quit, to surrender. But you have to reach the victim, you have to help the victim. Then you realize there is incalculable number of people pushing back.

(4)

I was walking back to my team with a couple of other volunteers on our way back from a scouting mission around the square to try and spot sexual harassment or mob assault cases. You try to train your senses to hear the difference between the noises — chants, cheers, laughs, the sound of the roaring helicopter blades tearing through the air, flying at low altitudes trying to put on a show for the crowds screaming in amazement below — between the screams of terror.

Thousands of small papers started dropping from the helicopters hovering overhead, as if the sky over Tahrir was snowing and the clouds were those erratic metal beasts. I picked up one from the ground and read it. It was a coupon, saying “Congratulations, you won a gold rimmed set of cups, you need to go to ____ to claim your prize from the military factories”.

I watched as tens of thousands were jumping up in the air trying to catch their coupons. I dropped the one I had in my hand to the ground… and started laughing hysterically.

(5)

We managed to reach an assaulted girl and intervene, creating a chain around her. She was exhausted from screaming her lungs out and her clothes were torn. The trauma caused her to become unresponsive.

The attackers were too many and some were carrying weapons. They managed to grab her again. A break in the link around the victim spells trouble, especially for our female volunteers. We all knew what we signed up for and we pushed back. It’s sometimes almost impossible to tell who the assailants are and who are the people trying to help.

The helpers could turn to assailants and the other way around amid the chaos. We have to push everyone back and only rely on our volunteers. We managed to get her back. The chain was steady, but we must relocate to a position so that we can defend better. Perhaps relying on a fence at our backs, although we would be running the risk of pinning ourselves down between the attackers and the fence.

We reach the position and go through the hectic exercise that can sometimes last for hours at a time. We try to disperse the crowd around us, but the assailants were relentless. There was a small opening in the fence, and they tried to grab her from the opening, but we got her back. We finally managed to get her out safely. Just another intervention, almost routine, but can you normalize it? Should you normalize terror?

(6)

A trembling 16 year old girl was shaking, burying herself in her mother’s arms. We managed to make it out of the square. Every time she heard fireworks in the distance she flinched, and asked her mom if they were gunshots. I told her no, they are just fireworks. I tried to comfort her, but how can I? Until this day, sometimes when I hear fireworks or helicopters overhead I flinch, too.

(7)

The girl kept screaming: “Why did they do this? Why would they do this?” Until this day, I don’t know how to answer her question.

(8) A preadolescent child walks the street holding his father’s hand and he starts catcalling a woman on the other side of the street. His father smiles, encourages his little “man” and joins him. A man runs and grabs a woman from behind on the street and she screams in fright. A bystander looks in disgust, thinks to himself, “look at what she is wearing, she deserves this, she wants this”, and keeps walking without pausing to the echoes of the screams in the background. Tahrir to me was where everything about Egypt manifests itself in its strongest form and amplifies: the good, the bad, and the unthinkable.

(9)

In 2014, after the new president assumed office, there was a brutal mass sexual assault in Tahrir during post-election celebrations. A video of the attack that went viral embarrassed the government, which usually discredits the reports of mass sexual assaults in Tahrir. The president visited the attack survivor in the hospital, and promised immediate government action to fight sexual harassment and assault.

What baffled me was the public’s reaction. They acted “shocked” and “horrified” by the incident, even though hundreds of similar and even more brutal assaults (not that you can quantify the pain and brutality of these crimes) were documented and simply ignored. After all, a country that normalizes sexual harassment, both verbal and physical in the streets, work places, universities, schools and public transportation, considers it simply the way things are. Why is the country surprised to see gang rapes in its public squares?

A contribution by Mohanad Elsangary

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