Before beginning this post in earnest I want to make something very clear: Today was an immensely positive day. It was one of the biggest protests in history, and from what I saw, was conducted with a remarkable level of peacefulness, cooperation, inclusiveness and respect – though the reports I am hearing of a gang-rape in the middle of the protest (not the first such incident) certainly indicate this wasn’t universal. In anycase I’ll post a proper photo-blog about it tomorrow and a write up should appear the day after that on newmatilda.com.
What I want to talk about today is a truly dark element that I did witness directly today. Some other journalists and I had gone down to Tahrir in the very early morning to see if we could catch the Fagir (dawn) prayers. While we were standing round, some young men – teenagers probably – ran past us, one with his shirt off, one with a black eye. While the journalists I had come with followed them hoping to ask them what had happened, I went in the direction they had come from.
When I got there I found an ongoing commotion, at the centre of it was a man the mob was accusing of being a thug and an instigator, there to cause trouble and start fights. He was dragged off by a a number of men and pushed into a makeshift prison. It appeared to be a fenced off power sub-station, which had now been transformed – with the use of barbed wire and a padlock -into a makeshift open-air holding cell. The idea had been, I was told, to make a mock prison, as a creative way of talking about the need for justice regarding the crimes of the Mubarak regime and the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces. When asked if it had now been turned into a real prison, and whether those inside were prisoners, the self appointed wardens answered in the affirmative without hesitation or embarrassment.
A total of three young men were being held inside, two with their hands tied behind their backs. There was a little hostility to me taking photos, but there were also others concerned at what was going on who insisted on my behalf that I be allowed to work. Eventually, an Egyptian journalist, a British journalist and myself were let in and got to speak to both the captors and the captives.
Speaking to the prisoners was instructive, none wanted to be on film, at least two out of three seemed completely wasted. My guess would be they were high on heroin, which fits with the pattern of the “baltagiya” – often petty criminals enlisted by police to carry out the regime’s dirty work in exchange for leniency, or money for a hit, or both. They also, when questioned, began to spout a lot of the usual state TV lines, about there being weapons in the tents, and there being naked people in the square (which the weather, let alone Egypt’s conservative culture made extremely hard to believe). By the end of our encounter it seemed to me that the young men being held were indeed there with the purpose of making trouble.
Of course this still leaves the question of how they were dealt with. This is made more troubling by the fact that nearly 12 hours later, when we returned to the square with one of the many mass marches, the prison was still in operation. The man I had seen taken captive was still there, sleeping on the ground. The other two were gone, having been collected, we were told, by the father of one of them. They had been replaced by two others, however, who were accused of committing petty crimes.
The whole story raises a lot of troubling questions for the protesters in Tahrir and those around the world that would emulate them. Much is made of the openness, the lack of coercion, the generally peaceful and positive lawlessness of the people power movements. In a scenario like Tahrir, where the police and other figures of authority have been driven out, others, generally men with a tendency for powertrips, tend to step in and take their roles. What’s more, we can’t just label these guys the baddies, and leave it at that. As the story I mentioned earlier of another woman being raped in the square testifies to, there is some need for those strong enough to enforce a code of basic decency. It does not, unfortunately, spring into being spontaneously and consistently.