Eighteen Days


Six years ago today, Hosni Mubarak resigned the presidency of Egypt, concluding three decades in power following sustained protests. Below we present an excerpt from Hazem Kandil's 2012 Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt's Road to Revolt that narrates the eighteen days of resistance that preceeded Mubarak's ouster. 

Vice President Omar Suleiman announces Mubarak's departure. 

The year 2011 was the year of the purported succession. Reports circulating around the country confirmed that Hosni Mubarak was planning to pass on the mantle to his son in September. With the father and the last of the ruling party’s old guard gone, there would be no court of appeal against the economic corruption and exploitation of Gamal Mubarak’s capitalist cronies. The day (January 25) was Police Day — a national holiday honoring that bloody morning in 1952 when the British killed dozens of Egyptian policemen because they refused to surrender their weapons and stood tall in defense of national dignity — a day that always highlighted the dark contrast between what the police used to be and what they had become.

But on January 25, 2011, Egypt had no organized opposition to speak of. Disgruntled intellectuals and activists from all walks of life joined several united fronts. There was Kefaya (Enough), a movement founded in 2004 to prevent Mubarak (father and son) from running for presidency the following year; there was the National Association for Change, which began in 2010 to campaign for free elections and advocated the candidacy of Mohamed ElBaradei, former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to the top executive position; there was a mixed lot of unassuming opposition parties representing liberals and leftists, which had rarely challenged the regime; there was the eighty-year-old Muslim Brotherhood, a highly bureaucratic reform movement, which had been invariably manipulated by the regime (to scare liberals in the early fifties; leftists in the seventies; militant Islamists in the eighties and nineties; and Americans throughout) before being cast aside (usually to prison) once it had served its purpose; and there were two Internet-based movements: the April 6 Youth Movement, whose name commemorates the failed national strike on that day in 2007, when striking workers were repressed using live ammunition; and the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page, named after the Alexandrian boy whose head was smashed on the pavement in the summer of 2010 because he exchanged words with police hoodlums. The fact that the latter, which was created by the thirty-year-old Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim, drew more than half a million members in three months indicated how Egyptians identified with the murdered youth; citizens felt that no matter how politically compliant they were, no one was safe anymore. In short, the Egyptian opposition on the eve of the revolt was little more than an amalgam of loosely organized platforms with overlapping memberships representing all political affiliations and age groups. And even though they had been becoming increasingly vocal and active since 2005, politicians and security men saw no cause for concern. This relaxed attitude was brilliantly captured in Mubarak’s sardonic aside during the inauguration of the 2010 parliament (a month before the revolt), “Let them [opposition forces] entertain themselves.”

This is why no one thought much of the call to demonstrate on January 25. The invitation was posted on the Facebook pages of the April 6 Youth Movement and We Are All Khaled Said, and on the designated day members from both Internet groups along with mostly young activists from all ideological camps (perhaps 20,000 in all) staged a demonstration in front of the Interior Ministry, three blocks away from Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the historic Downtown neighborhood, built in the nineteenth century to resemble the circular layout and architecture of central Paris. This was an impressive showing, considering that past events had attracted at most a couple of hundred participants. Demonstrators were repressed using tear gas and water hoses, thirty activists were detained, and a university student from the city of Suez was killed. Over the next two days, the marches persisted, attracting more and more participants and spreading throughout the country (from Cairo, Alexandria, the Nile Delta, and the Suez Canal cities to the independent-minded southern provinces, all the way to the isolated oases of the Western Desert). The police raised the ante, arresting four thousand demonstrators and organizers (including Wael Ghonim and Egypt’s future president Mohamed Morsi); adding rubber bullets to its gas-and-water cocktail (killing four people and injuring more than a hundred); attacking the press syndicate and detaining two dozen reporters for refusing to repeat state media allegations about the “saboteurs” and “outlaws” that were supposedly looting and burning public property; and issuing a stern warning to opposition forces to immediately stop whatever they thought they were doing.

But instead of scaring activists away — as they always did — this time the regime’s brutal repression and outrageous lies steeled their will to resist. A call went out through all forms of social media for a Day of Rage on Friday, January 28. The embattled activists appealed to the people to join them. Egyptians hesitated. With the possibility of Gamal’s succession right around the corner, their lives promised to become considerably worse. Yet a potentially devastating clampdown unnerved many. That morning, horrified citizens woke up to discover that the security had cut off all cell phone and Internet communication services, and flooded the streets with antiriot police squads and armored vehicles. Many would have preferred to stay home that day if they were not obliged to attend Friday prayers. In the mosques, however, the euphoria of the last three days apparently inspired the country’s timid preachers to denounce dictatorship and urge defiance. Fired up by religious sermons and besieged by a sea of angry demonstrators pouring out of Cairo’s 300,000 mosques, common folk were carried away; their mind was finally made up. Thus began the march to Tahrir Square.

Policemen tried to resist. They used live ammunition and laser-guided sniper fire; they ran over demonstrators with armored vehicles; they blinded them with a fog of tear gas; they drove them back with high-pressure water hoses — but to no avail. Policemen were exhausted. They had been out on the street in full force for four consecutive days, and by the interior minister’s own admission, they were drained and overextended. Equipped only to repress a handful of urban protestors, hotheaded students, or small groups of workers and peasants, they now confronted millions of protestors; they now confronted “the people.” Former State Security officer General Assem al-Genedi witnessed first- hand how police troops were left stranded without food, water, sleep, or even fresh batteries for their walkie-talkies. He saw many of them taking off their uniforms and deserting. Following heroic street battles around Cairo’s Downtown neighborhoods and Nile bridges, where hundreds were killed, the security forces seemed about to throw in the towel. After a particularly fierce tug-of-war on the Qasr al-Nil Bridge, the western key to Downtown, police units pulled back and the road ahead was clear. At this critical point, the revolutionaries had a choice to make: Where should they turn to next? Leftward to the Union of Television and Radio Stations Building, the regime’s central media organ, and the Foreign Ministry adjacent to it; or rightward to the seat of parliament, the cabinet headquarters, and the Interior Ministry, the nerve center of Egypt’s police state; or straight ahead, as was originally intended before the sudden police collapse, to Tahrir Square. They opted for the latter, providing the regime with valuable time to fortify each of these strategic posts by nightfall, so that when a few dozen demonstrators, suspecting they might have made the wrong choice, tried to make their way to some of these sites later that night, the roads were already sealed.

Why did the protestors choose a giant public square (approximately 490,000 square feet with the capacity to host perhaps a million people) rather than sensitive state organs — a fateful decision that determined the revolt’s trajectory? Everyone knew that seizing a central downtown plaza would not stifle life in a sprawling city like Cairo, nor was it likely to make traffic on its congested roads any worse than it already was. Also, unlike the narrow alleyways and crammed-up buildings in the capital’s popular neighborhoods, the square was an open ground with nowhere to hide. So if the demonstrators’ plan was neither to paralyze the city nor to be able to maneuver if forced into street battles, then what did they have in mind? It seems obvious that the only advantage such an expansive and exposed location offered was visibility. The organizers of the uprising drew inspiration neither from the revolutionaries of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe, nor from their neighbors in Libya and Syria. They did not grasp the necessity of creating a situation of dual power by occupying government buildings, entrenching themselves in crowded neighborhoods, seizing entire cities, and using all these as bases for incrementally supplanting the regime. Instead the organizers drew inspiration from Eastern Europe in 1989 (in fact many of them later admitted to studying this experiment thoroughly). The dazzling success of peaceful demonstrators in overturning their Communist regimes was enviable. And occupying plazas and wide boulevards seemed to be a viable strategy indeed. For a strategy based on galvanizing domestic and world opinion and daring the regime to shoot civilians in front of hundreds of cameras and news reporters, Tahrir Square (and other central squares throughout Egypt’s provincial cities) fit perfectly. And it worked — for the moment.

(Of course, the missing ingredient here was the radically different geopolitical context. With the Soviet patron of the ailing Communist regimes of Eastern Europe retrenching, and the anxious capitalist world, spearheaded by the United States and the European Union, determined not to allow the chance to slip by, the 1989 demonstrators were offered every possible form of help, including sustained media attention and Western ultimatums against their violent repression. In Egypt, by contrast, the authoritarian regime had been serving the interests of the strongest regional and world powers, and after the initial wave of international support subsided, the country’s new rulers were expectedly allowed (regardless of American and European rhetoric) to slowly liquidate the revolt, or do whatever was necessary to return to business as usual. In the months following Mubarak’s ousting, Tahrir Square became more like an open-air prison, where demonstrators could be sealed off and ignored as life outside continued as normal, and government troops waited for the revolutionary steam to run out, which it inevitably did.)

Still the police had one more card up their sleeve. The gates of eighteen prisons and dozens of police stations were opened and inmates incited to make the best of the chaotic circumstances. When the head of the prison administration (Police General Muhammad al-Butran) resisted, he was shot dead. Police officers reckoned that ransacking criminals would terrorize citizens enough to go home. Instead the demonstrators torched police stations and ruling-party headquarters throughout the state in retribution and quickly formed neighborhood watches to guard their families and properties. For a few valuable hours, the demonstrators controlled the streets, and the twin chants that had come to define the uprising reverberated across the country: “The People Demand to Overthrow the Regime!” and “Raise Your Head High, You’re Egyptian!”

Waiting in the winds were the armed forces. As it became clear that the Interior Ministry was unable to stem the uprising, the cornered president was forced to summon his gravediggers — the military — in a final attempt to restore order. An army that had been subdued by its other two ruling partners for four decades rolled confidently into the streets. The fact that members of the general staff were doubtlessly loyal to Mubarak (or at least indifferent to his policies) did not prevent them, under the weight of general opinion within the corps, from abandoning their old political master to his fate. Acting otherwise risked fracturing the army, which from day one was visibly supportive of the revolt — without waiting for instructions from above. On that first night, soldiers were seen on television smiling and hugging demonstrators. Tanks paraded scrawls that read “Down with Mubarak!” and the demonstrators chanted: “The People and the Army Are One Hand!” A group of demonstrators threw themselves over an army jeep before it reached Downtown Cairo, crying frantically: “Are you here to shoot us?” A colonel descended from the vehicle and wrapped his arm around a demonstrator’s shoulders and replied: “You have nothing to fear. We would cut our hands before firing one bullet. Your demands are legitimate. Go ahead, and don’t turn back.” The message was unmistakable. Even before the military knew how massive or persistent the uprising was, it was here to see it through.

At the end of this bloody day, President Barack Obama of the United States held a press conference expressing concern at the use of violence against peaceful protesters. Still, Mubarak had to try. The seasoned dictator mixed sticks with carrots during his first address to the nation after the revolt, close to midnight on January 28. A curfew was declared in all the major cities, but the president dismissed the “businessmen cabinet” and appointed a vice president for the first time in thirty years. The apprehensive demonstrators were soon frustrated when it turned out that the vice president was no other than the fearsome intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, and that the new cabinet was formed under Mubarak’s intimate friend Ahmed Shafiq, former commander of the air force and civil aviation minister in the old cabinet. To add insult to injury, fifteen members of the just-dismissed cabinet retained their positions, and only the interior minister and a handful of monopoly capitalists were removed. Clearly, Mubarak was not prepared to go an inch beyond what he thought was absolutely necessary. Demonstrators declared a “permanent” sit-in in Tahrir and other major squares around Egypt until Mubarak stepped down. Hard-core activists camped continuously in the central squares (Tahrir Square, for example, was occupied by no fewer than 50,000 at all times), but during the day their ranks were swelled by tens of thousands of citizens. Field hospitals, open-air theaters, stages for singing and speechmaking, gigantic television screens, food vendors, a garbage collection service, and even barbershops were set up for the comfort of the demonstrators. With their flags, placards, and tents, the revolutionaries were prepared for the long haul. From this point on, it was a waiting game.

On January 30, the police cautiously deployed its forces but strayed away from hot spots, preferring to let the military handle the situation. The next day, the high command issued its first communiqué asserting that the armed forces would not use force to repress the demonstrators. Mubarak’s last Speaker of Parliament admitted that during a meeting he attended with the president and his top aides, the defense minister made it clear that “the soldiers are not going to strike against demonstrators; that they are there to protect, not assault them.” As one member of SCAF later explained, “The armed forces took charge before the president stepped down in accordance with the communiqué that stated that the military acknowledges the legitimacy of the [demands of the] Egyptian people.”

So the following day, Mubarak had to try harder. In an emotional speech, he promised not to run or allow his son to run in the coming elections, and reminded citizens of his patriotic role during the October War in 1973. He also hinted at fundamental changes in the ruling party and a thorough investigation of police responsibility for the violent repression of protests. Many were swayed by his sentimental plea. Less than twenty-four hours later, however, NDP- and police-hired goons dashed into Tahrir on camels and horses, whipping protestors and chasing them around the square, and in a few hours more regime supporters appeared on the rooftops of the surrounding buildings, showering demonstrators below with Molotov cocktails. The revolutionaries fought back with hastily built barricades and stones. After a sixteen-hour battle, the attackers withdrew. The notorious “Battle of the Camel” incident on February 2 further convinced Egyptians that Mubarak had to go. But instead of stepping down, the president tried his best to appease the revolutionaries through political concessions: the vice president was directed to negotiate with the organizers of the revolt; a committee to amend the constitution was set up; the NDP secretary-general and leading cadres, including the president’s son Gamal and his chief lieutenant, Ahmed Ezz, were removed from the ruling party, the infamous Policies Committee was dissolved, and a reformist figure was appointed to overhaul the entire party; the interior minister and the businessmen-ministers of the old cabinet were banned from travel, their assets were frozen, and they were interrogated by the general prosecutor; a handful of activists, including Wael Ghonim, were released (the latter gave a stirring television interview, breaking down in tears toward the end, and thus winning more public sympathy for the revolt); Internet service returned; and it was announced that Mubarak was traveling to Germany for medical checkups. But the protesters remained adamant. Beginning on February 8, daily marches and sit-ins were supplemented by strikes in public and private companies and factories. At the same time, governments all around the world, with the notable exception of Israel and Saudi Arabia, called on the regime to submit to popular demands. Then on February 10, the military legend and staunch regime opponent Saad al-Din al-Shazly, chief of staff during the 1973 war, passed away. Sobbing demonstrators marched around Tahrir yelling out his name and offering condolences to the teary-eyed officers that surrounded the square.

On that same day, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) convened without its supreme commander (the president) in what was perceived as a soft coup. Later that night, state television announced that the president was going to deliver an important speech. The CIA director, Leon Panetta, said in Congress that Mubarak was going to step down. Demonstrators prepared for the party of a lifetime. Instead, the president gave a pedantic and anticlimactic address, ending it with his decision to temporarily delegate his powers to the vice president. This last part of the address was hardly heard, as the stunned demonstrators began screaming and hurling shoes at the television screens in Tahrir Square. As soon as it was over, hundreds of thousands marched to the Presidential Palace, some forty kilometers from Downtown, and were surrounding it by early dawn on February 11. This was it. Either Mubarak was going to order the army and security to liquidate the revolution using all means necessary, effectively causing a bloodbath, or he would be pushed by SCAF to resign. Later in the afternoon, a helicopter transported the president and his family to the Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh, and the vice president announced that Mubarak had surrendered authority to SCAF. The high command instantly declared its intention to withdraw from politics after a six-month transition period, which would supposedly end with the passing of power to an elected authority. After eighteen days of popular defiance and more than one thousand martyrs, a new chapter had begun.

* The information in this section is based on dozens of personal interviews with demonstrators as the revolt unfolded, as well as Al-Shorouk newspaper’s eighteen short documentaries that recorded the daily developments of the uprising.