To Willingly Enter the Circles, the Square (Cairo)

Untitled. Illustration by Salma El Tarzi

We were on the edge of Tahrir Square on Wednesday 3 July when the army made its announcement. The square burst into jubilation. A member of our team checked his smartphone. He shouted over the din of drumbeats and squealing vuvuzelas: “Morsi's gone. They've appointed the head of the constitutional court in his place and suspended the elections.”


We watched the celebrations. I looked around at the people I knew, with some of whom I had shared—what do I call it, the Tahrir of yore?—and the subsequent two-and-a-half years of anger, euphoria, exhaustion, triumph, dejection. Their faces were as expressionless as mine. The only emotion I could locate inside myself was fear—not of the political future, about which I no longer felt I understood a thing, and had lost my faith and footing in—but of the very next moment: how would we get back into the square?


After ten minutes, we could not put it off any more. We had to deliver food to the intervention teams posted around the square, and the celebrations would just get more massive and feverish as the night wore on. Our team formed a line and dove into the crowds, holding tightly onto one another and trying to protect each other from any onslaught of hands. I tried to be present—if not to enjoy the festivities, then at least to notice them—but all I could think of was cutting across this heaving sea. In a distant part of my mind I wondered about fear: is it an idea or a real understanding in the body? If I did not known what I did, would I be able to feel the exhilaration, to lose myself in the crowd as I had done before? 

We reached the first intervention team and I flopped in their midst—an isle of safety in the square. This was not some slick special-forces unit in imposing uniform. It was a group of young women and women wearing white T-shirts with red lettering that said: “Anti-Sexual Harassment” and on the back, “A Square Safe for Everyone.”


It was my first day of volunteering with Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault (OpAntiSH). With everything I had heard about Tahrir lately, it was the last place I wanted to be. And yet—I no longer felt I had a place in the marches taking place all over the city; I could not stay home; and I could not turn my back on the one thing in the midst of all the madness that seemed to cleanly matter, to make sense.

I was trembling as I got out of the taxi by the Nile that afternoon and walked alone to our meeting point behind the square. As we gathered around in a circle to be briefed, a part of me was bewildered at the red nails of the girl standing next to me, at the smiles on people's faces, when on mine tragedy must have been writ large—a sort of newcomer's naiveté. I had not yet had time to recalibrate, to normalize.


We divided up into mixed teams of ten. Our task was to spread the word about what was happening and tell people what to do if they saw anything. We would move quickly around the square and stay close together—straying could be dangerous.

But I soon began to realize, as we walked into Tahrir, that it was still more or less Tahrir. Being away, listening too closely to the news—especially in these panic-fueled days—makes one misunderstand, forget the pockets of air. The square was still the square: crowded with different kinds of people, many men, many women, families, children; standing around, a few walking here and there with their hand-painted signs, others clustered in conversation, or sitting in studied silence, as though waiting. It was revolution-as-usual, normal as we now knew it.


And in the midst of this familiar, this innocuous Tahrir, eighty-nine cases of mob sexual assault had been reported since June 30. In just three days of mass protests, eighty-nine girls and women—young girls, elderly women, a pregnant woman, mothers carrying their small children—had been surrounded by mobs of fifty to hundreds of men, clawing at them, ripping off their clothes, sticking fingers inside them, in several cases beating them with sticks or metal chains or mutilating them with sharp objects or knives.


For several hours we threaded through the sticky heat of the crowds, distributing fliers and pressing the small slips of paper with the hotline numbers into people's hands. We asked everyone—especially women and girls, who nodded with somber experience at the word “harassment”—to save the numbers in their cellphones straightaway. One man in his mid-twenties spoke to me, in few words and with ringed and weary eyes, about the things he had seen on June 30. Many people thanked us. Several young men said they wanted to volunteer with us. A few others asked, with foolhardy grins, if these were the numbers they should call if they wanted to harass someone. And some men—especially older men—were adamant that nothing of the sort happens here. “Al Tahrir zayy al full!” they said, likening the square to a small, white, fragrant local jasmine, an expression meaning cleanliness, purity.

We finished our rounds at nine p.m. and stayed behind to deliver food to the intervention teams posted around the square, who were at this point three hours into a shift that would last until three a.m. That night, in the delirium of celebrations at Morsi's removal, eight more cases of mob sexual assault were reported in the square, including two rapes.


After five crisis nights in the square, the mass protests eased off, and the volunteers of OpAntiSH had a few days to recoup. A meeting was called to reflect, discuss evolving tactics, and share stories—to release some of what they had been through.

The atmosphere was open but respectful, shy yet trusting, teasing in moments, quick to laughter. And, despite moments of vehemence and eyes that were laden with more than I could say, it was impossibly bright—that of a big family gathering, a family whose lives could quite literally depend on each other. 

An outsider would have been very hard-pressed to guess that this group of young men and women had developed, virtually overnight, an intricate operation—of hotlines and scouts; dangerous rescue interventions; trauma response and hospitals and legal assistance and follow-up care, all coordinated by a central control room—in response to a horrifying social phenomenon. That they had decided to counter its madness with their own brand of madness: to form—in the absence of any police or state response to the issue—a renegade rescue force, and an extraordinarily effective one at that. That the majority of this motley crew of normal young people of all shapes and sizes—including, it has to be said, girls whose stature was as small as my (rather diminutive) one—were foot soldiers on the ground in these dangerous, possibly life-threatening, rescue operations. Night after night, they had developed and refined tactical maneuvers to infiltrate a frenzied (and sometimes armed) mob and extricate a woman caught in its grip.


Some of the young women involved were themselves survivors of mob attacks. At the meeting they spoke of the risk of being dragged into the maelstrom during an intervention, and how what they were subjected to in these moments did not feel like the violation of their earlier experiences, but like battle wounds they were impervious to.

Several of the young men said that they had, at first, been opposed to the idea of having women on the intervention teams, thinking they would be an added burden, a liability. They spoke movingly of how the things they had seen on the ground from their female comrades in the most critical moments had made them reflect on their own judgments, transforming their concepts of power and muscle strength, as they began to recognize that it came from another place entirely.


I marveled at this group, how they joked about the food, how they mentioned nightmares in passing; I had not seen what they had and could not fathom the burden they were bearing. I could not possibly understand what it feels like to be there, though the idea haunts me: to hold your hammering heart in your hand and willingly enter these circles of hell—to enter this roaring, airless mass of sweat and bodies and blood, carnage and unheard screams. To put your own body there, your own flesh and bones, at the risk of being groped, beaten, stabbed, or worse; to put your own senses there, your heart, your mind—to feel and witness, indelibly, girls and women being violated in the most horrific of ways. What does brushing up against that darkness do to you for the rest of your life?

And then to still be able to laugh, to get up every day, to believe... 


I still do not know, writing this, what their story is about. Is it one of self-organization and ingenuity in the Egyptian revolution? Is it one of “heroism”—the very concept makes me cringe—or, more simply, of defiant humanity? Is it one of an alternative form of resistance that gained more meaning and traction as the political process and protests grew ever murkier? Or is it a drop in the ocean in a confoundingly complex and troubled society?


A friend of mine once said, “Living in Cairo is like being in love with a manic-depressive.” The last two-and-a-half years of revolution have only magnified these extremes. The lawlessness of revolt has allowed us to bring into being processes of such audacious, creative, collective action we could not have anticipated existed in us; it has also brought to the surface some grim, ugly, festering stuff. It is as though the revolution was wrought to bring us face to face with our values, to clash and grapple with our own narratives about ourselves. It continues to strip us down to our foundations; to lay bare, and bring out, the worst and best of us—then makes us look at this fragmentary picture, as though into a broken mirror, and try to make sense of it all.  


This text was published by Wiam El-Tamimi on Jadaliyya, 2013-07-30