A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil, that good may come of it... We are too ready to retaliate, rather than forgive... And yet we could hurt no man that we believe loves us. Let us try then what love will do: for if men did once see we love them, we should soon find they would not harm us. Force may subdue, but Love gains: and he that forgives first, wins the laurel.
William Penn

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone...
George Fox

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Engulfed in a Burst of Violence in Tahrir Square, or, "I had it Coming to Me!"

After reading about demonstrations planned to protest President Mursi today, I take the metro to Tahrir Square. At 5pm the demonstration is well underway, and though it is by far the largest demonstration I've seen here, it hasn't yet reached the 'mass demonstration' proportion the news had reported it would be. Nevertheless, traffic has been completely cut off, and there is great tension in the crowd, which is a mixture of anti-Mursi demonstrators and Mursi supporters. As with all the demonstrations I've observed here, there isn't a policeman in sight.

At the edge of the crowd I talk briefly to a man carrying a large Egyptian flag with a cross and crescent perched on its pole. He confirms that it is a symbol of peace between Coptic Christians and Muslims. Another man, Mohammed, approaches to ask lots of questions about me. He wants to know where I am from and what I'm doing here. I explain I am an American, and that I am walking for peace. He seems incredulous that an American could be walking for peace. The conversation turns to Israel and Palestine, and though he says he believes in peace, he also believes the Palestinians have no choice but to offer armed resistance against Israel. I explain my belief in non-violent resistance, as I have done so many times here, but he shakes his head.

"Who do you hate?" he asks. "Israel or Palestine?"
I tell him that though I believe the Palestinians are suffering injustice at the hands of the Israeli government, I don't hate either. Mohammed shakes his head again.
The subject turns to God, and now Mohammed wants to know which book I believe comes from God. I respond that they have all been inspired by God, but one has to know God; the books aren't the ultimate authority. Again, he is incredulous.
When I ask what Mohammed is doing here, he says he is an anti-Mursi demonstrator. I ask him if he thinks there will be any violence today.
"I don't think there will be violence," he says.
 I ask if the anti-Mursi demonstrators will react with violence if Mursi supporters use violence against them.
"There will be no violence, " he responds.
A few people have gathered around us to hear the conversation, and as I walk away, a man holds my arm.
"Be careful," he says.

Tahrir Square is actually an enormous traffic circle, and I move to the center of the circle, which is elevated above the greatest part of the crowd, to take some photos and videos. The crowd has grown to occupy half of the circle, and there is growing tension as Mursi supporters yell angrily at the demonstrators. I photograph a man straddling the horizontal part of a lamp post draped with a banner high above. I switch my camera to video mode and pan the crowd below: large banners with the faces of people killed last January are being waved, as well as dozens of large Egyptian flags. Demonstrators are shaking their fists in the air, and Mursi supporters next to me yell at them and angrily flick their hands to dismiss them. Some Mursi supporters close to the stage begin to throw things at the demonstration's leaders, and some scuffling breaks out. I decide to move in closer. As I push my way forward I want to catch the anger in the crowd on video, and I notice some of that anger seems directed at me, especially on the part of Salafist Mursi supporters. Nevertheless, I keep filming and pushing my way closer to the stage. An isolated fight breaks out; a young demonstrator pursues a Mursi supporter through the crowd. His friends are trying to stop him. The chanting becomes angrier, inciting the crowd and prompting counter chanting by Mursi supporters. A few more isolated fights break out around me, then in an instant, the whole crowd is fighting; a sudden, violent squall on a sea of angry, shouting faces. As I'm being jostled, I'm focused on getting this all on my camera, with one hand held high to film, while I use the other to fend off blows. I'm doing all I can to keep from being knocked over; the rioting crowd is now moving like a slow but powerful current, and I'm being swept along with it. One man has pulled out what looks like a riding crop to beat someone with. Another man goes to the ground a few meters away. I want to help, but I'm occupied with keeping myself from going to the ground, and with this strange compulsion to film it all. While I'm scared, I keep my Nokia above me in video mode, trying to keep it aimed on the crowd while I'm being knocked around.

Then my camera is snatched out of my hand. Because I'm trying to keep from being punched or knocked down, I don't see who has taken it. I react by grabbing the shoulder of the man in front of me. The look on his face tells me I've got the wrong guy, and now I notice men who appear to be salafists  giving me hard looks. One of them is yelling at me. I release the man's shoulder and see another man clicking away at me with his mobile phone camera. Though he's also being shoved around, he's smiling; perhaps the only smiling face in the mob. He apparently senses the irony in the situation. I then push my way towards where I'd seen the man on the ground, but he's gone. At this point I decide I've had enough, and I wrestle myself out of the crowd. By the time I've reached the edge of the thickest part of it, the fighting has stopped. The squall has gone as quickly as it appeared.

I get back to the elevated center circle, dazed by the party atmosphere here. The people who are watching the crowd seem only mildly interested in what seemed like a major riot to me. A group is gathered, beating on traditional drums, singing,  and having a good time. I walk to the farthest part of the circle to smoke a cigarette. I notice I am shaking.
Before I leave, another group sets an American flag on fire, chanting in Arabic. I'm trying to determine whether they are Mursi supporters or anti-Mursi demonstrators. Maybe both are involved. Maybe this is one thing they can do together peacefully. 

No comments:

Post a Comment