Protesters run away from tear gas fired by riot police near Tahrir Square in Cairo. Photograph: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
The novelist writes from Tahrir Square where the advice is to wear a gas mask and write your name on your arm
November 23, 2011
"Eat a good breakfast. Take a rucksack with a gas mask and swimming goggles. Write your name on your arm. Write your details into a message on your mobile. And go to the Square." The tweet appeared after three of the (at least) 38 people killed in the streets of Egypt over the last three days proved impossible to identify. It was picked up by the well-respected Egyptian daily al-Shorouk and published to #Tahrirsupplies – the hashtag that collates what you can bring in to the square if you want to help.
Egypt is much more than Tahrir Square. People across the country are demanding the abdication of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf). On Tuesday night as the news cameras concentrated on Tahrir, the army and police were attacking citizens in other places: Alexandria, Assiut, Aswan, Damietta, Ismailia, Luxor, Mahalla, Mansoura, Sohag and Suez.
And yet, of course, in this age of spectacle it was the images of Tahrir that were most shocking. We could hardly believe that Scaf would allow that image which had become such an icon across the world – Tahrir Square teeming with citizens, decorated with flags – to reappear clouded with teargas. But they did.
Throughout the day on Tuesday thousands poured into the square. By early evening it was clear that this was Revolution II. In the small hours of Sunday the little field hospital in the small mosque of Ibad al-Rahman had been pleading for a stethoscope, a blood pressure gauge, betadine, cotton wool.
By Tuesday afternoon there were five field hospitals around Tahrir stockpiled with equipment and medicines – all donated by people coming in. Two, Omar Makram Mosque and Qasr el-Doubara Church, cross-reference specialisations. On a wall between them someone has written: "We are the Square: A Church, a Mosque and a Parliament."
The revolution is using what it learned in January and February and adding to it. Signposts, information, directions. Young men on motorbikes ferry the injured from the front lines to the field hospitals. The organisation is breathtaking. And the creativity: when Malek Mostafa – a popular, newly married young activist had his eye shot out by the army, one of the great black lions on Qasr el-Nil bridge suddenly sported an eye patch.
The revolution is now aware how dear it is. Everybody talks about its cost. On Tuesday 200 young doctors walked into the square together in their white coats and distributed themselves among the hospitals – in a few hours one of them, Dr Rania Fouad, had been killed. The people notched it up: the revolution had just become dearer – more impossible to abandon.
On Tuesday night Field-Marshal Hussein Tantawi made a speech reminiscent of Hosni Mubarak in its detachment and tardiness, its formal emptiness, its moral vacuity. And then the teargas started in earnest. People stood their ground because they knew the army wanted to claim that the speech had satisfied people so they'd left.
Events are so many and so fast that it's hard to claim to "know" anything from the midst of them. Yesterday morning Tahrir Square was clean and tidy, settling in for another day of the sit-in; the mood utterly determined.
Just down Tahrir Street, however, I could see the clouds of white teargas. The army and police are using at least two kinds of gas. One hangs around in a dirty white cloud. Another is transparent; you only know it's there because your skin starts to burn and your eyes and all the insides of your head and your chest. Three people so far have choked to death. In a flat on the 10th floor above Tahrir we had to wear gas-masks, the smell was so strong. I've seen a boy convulse and shake, his eyes turn upwards in his head. In the square, a young woman slipped off her gas-mask to say "tell them no one speaks for the shabab, the young people, and we're not leaving till the army council leave".
At 3pm yesterday a group of university sheikhs from al-Azhar brokered a truce and the army stepped between the young people surrounding the ministry of the interior and the police. How real is this? What does it mean? How long will it last? The minister of the interior, in any case, has not been near his office for three days and operations are run by General Hamdy Badeen, who commands the military police. So if police and army are under one commander, how is it that two hours later, at 5pm, a gas canister suddenly crashes out from behind the lines of protecting army and the attacks on the protesters start once again?
Here are things we know: the demand of the protesters is for Scaf to step down from the presidency of Egypt and hand over all powers (except defence) to a civilian government or presidential council. The people will back any one of, or combination of, three of the potential candidates for the presidency; the ones who have refused to meet with Scaf over the last two days.
Every time the military gas bomb a street or fire another shot the people become more determined to see the back of them. In Revolution I the ministry of the interior was the declared enemy of the people. Over nine months Scaf have protected it from any attempts to reform, restructure or investigate it. Since July they have been working with it. This is one of the reasons why Scaf must relinquish power – because they have allied themselves completely with the enemies of the people.
The protesters are unarmed. When the army and police attack them they fight back bravely, using stones from the street, lobbing back gas canisters, keeping up a constant chanting and a constant drumming on the metal lamp-posts and street-signs, occasionally shooting fireworks. The square is well aware of the contrast between their drumming and fireworks and the deadly thud of the sniper and teargas canister.
The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood has declared against the protests. This has been a very bad move. They're perceived to have sided with Scaf against the people. They've caused a split within their own ranks: some members of the Brotherhood have disobeyed orders and obeyed their consciences and joined the protests. But the Brotherhood can no longer claim that the numbers in the streets are due to the Islamists – the numbers we've been seeing in the streets of Egypt since Saturday night are mostly without the Brotherhood.
We're saying these are "Ayyam el-farz" – the days of sorting, if you like. The situation is very intense. On Wednesday night, at that flashpoint where a truce was brokered at 3pm and broken at 5pm, the army and police shot protesters at sunset prayers. The field hospitals in Qasr el-Doubara Church and Omar Makram Mosque are calling for neurologists; the motorbikes have brought in 50 cases in the last 10 minutes.
© Ahdaf Soueif 2011
Guide to gas sprays
CS or tear gas
The active ingredient is a white powder, 2-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile, which causes streams of tears, a burning sensation in the eyes, the nose and throat, and can trigger chest tightness and vomiting. CS gas was first used here on rioters in Toxteth in 1981, and since 1995 police officers carry a CS spray; it is widely used by US police.
This spray's active chemical, phenacyl chloride, is weaker than CS but longer lasting and more toxic: a potent eye, nose and throat irritant which can cause burns, short breath, and a burning sensation in the chest. CN gas is sold under restrictions in some US states. Police forces increasingly favour pepper spray (oleoresin capsicum) over CN, because it works faster and is less toxic. In the UK, police are not authorised to use CN gas.
Of the three riot control agents, this is the most potent and long-lasting. It has dibenzoxazephine, which causes intense irritation of eyes, skin, throat and lungs. Breathing it in can cause a fluid build-up in the lungs that, in an enclosed space, may lead to death by asphyxiation. CR was used against anti-apartheid protests in South Africa. It is authorised for use by UK armed forces when otherwise soldiers would resort to guns. UK police are not authorised to use CR. The US does not use it because the spray is carcinogenic.