The Middle East Channel

With eyes red from rage

As we ran from Cairo’s Tahrir Square into the side streets, protesters smashed pavements and threw them at the black-clad security troopers in their ill-fitting helmets. I found myself next to a man in a turban and the long-flowing Egyptian gallabiya popular in the countryside. His eyes were literally red with rage. He had uprooted ...

MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

As we ran from Cairo’s Tahrir Square into the side streets, protesters smashed pavements and threw them at the black-clad security troopers in their ill-fitting helmets. I found myself next to a man in a turban and the long-flowing Egyptian gallabiya popular in the countryside. His eyes were literally red with rage. He had uprooted a metal barrier and was smashing it into the paving slabs. As huge sections of paving came free he picked them up with two hands, lifted them over his head, and hurled them, screaming, in the direction of the police. From among a small group of fellow protesters, a middle-aged woman in a headscarf approached him and tapped him on the shoulder. "Son, we didn’t come to harm our own country," she said calmly. The man, sweating and grunting, stared at the woman, then picked up his last slab and lifted it high above his head, ready to smash it down on her. Three other protesters jumped on him. As they held him down his screams and grunts turned into sobs. The protesters gave him water and left him weeping on the curb.

Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where demonstrators have gathered to call for Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, is a place that knows protests. I came across the angry villager in 2000, at one of the first protests I attended as a journalist working in Cairo. Students had organized a rally to decry Israeli treatment of Palestinians during the uprising that started that year. But Mubarak has ruled Egypt by emergency decree for three decades, and demonstrations are technically banned. Before 2000, they were extremely rare. After the Israeli crackdown against the Palestinian uprising inflamed passions in Egypt, the authorities thought tightly controlled demonstrations could be a useful safety valve. Yet even though men like the angry villager turned up to protest against Israel, it wasn’t the only source of their anger.

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Amil Khan is a former Reuters Middle East correspondent and author of The Long Struggle: The Muslim World's Western Problem.