Egypt’s revolution through a million eyes

A scene from a video showing an unarmed man being shot and killed by police in Alexandria, Egypt. (YouTube)

Repulsive, vicious and grotesque. These three words aptly describe the now widely-circulated video of an alleged Egyptian police van intentionally hitting a group of peaceful demonstrators on one of those narrow side streets of Cairo, knocking down at least three young persons and terrorizing a startled group of onlookers and passers-by.

In some strange way, this speeding vehicle came to symbolize an entire regime heading down a road with no brake pedals and a tank full of determination to crush head-on whatever and whoever stood in its way. All I could think of while watching this footage is what it must have felt like for the poor victims’ families to see these outrageous images played over and over on Al Jazeera.

Evidently that “incident” was part of an insidious pattern, for another similar video surfaced only a few days ago on several social networking websites. The video appears to show a diplomatic van running over a crowd of Egyptians at full speed like a ruthless beast of prey before taking flight, leaving the injured and the critically wounded — perhaps even the dead — scattered on the street. This video, according to Al Jazeera, was recorded on 28 January, the “Friday of Rage.”

That day witnessed quite a few other bloody episodes of this sort of rampant “terror on wheels,” like the horrific attack by water cannon on civilian protesters while they were praying by armored police cars on Qasr al-Nil bridge, or the huge fire truck which deliberately slammed into a young man, knocking him unconscious in Damanhour city. So much for the Egyptian interior ministry’s publicly-announced replacement of the police slogan from “The police and people in service of the state” to “The police in the service of the people.” I guess old habits die hard.

Yet nowhere was the savagery of the Egyptian police more sickening than in Alexandria, where another video showed an unarmed civilian being shot execution-style by police officers. By now millions have seen the video of the young man walking slowly toward the officers, raising his hands in the air and placing his life in theirs, probably thinking that there was absolutely no way “law enforcement” officers would ever hurt an innocent and clearly unarmed man. But the crack of a gunshot could be heard, as the man fell to the ground — just as he had started to back away from the officers. Off screen is a woman, either the person who took the video from a roof top, or someone with her, shouting “You animal! Why are you killing people!” Her horrified scream and sobs speak for all of us.

We have to hand it to the Egyptian regime also for introducing a fabulous new word into our vernacular — baltaga, which roughly translates as “thuggish behavior.” It was used to describe the scene when out of nowhere a bizarre and rather colorful caravan of horses and camels accompanied by a handful of pro-government supporters and agents stormed Tahrir Square and attacked pro-democracy demonstrators with sticks, swords, stones and molotov cocktails. This baltaga transformed what had been an exemplary and peaceful popular uprising into a frighteningly bleak landscape of street fights and stone-throwing battles, costing the lives of several persons and injuring hundreds more.

It is not only tear gas canisters, batons, water canons and rubber bullets that are in store for the common Egyptian protester these days. The arsenal of oppression apparently includes speeding vehicles targeting pedestrians, fire bombs, bands of thugs and cutting off Internet and telephone service. It also includes cracking down on journalists, both Egyptian and foreign — especially Al Jazeera, which saw its offices attacked and closed, its licenses withdrawn, its equipment confiscated, its staff detained and its signal removed from Nilesat.

But with today’s technology, every person on the street with a cell phone can be a reporter and the entire world can bear witness almost in real time to what happens in the dark alleyways and secret corners of a police state. Yet even this has its risks.

Ahmad Muhammad Mahmoud, a reporter for Al-Ahram newspaper, became the first journalist to be killed during the uprising when he was shot dead by a sniper while taking cell phone images of a demonstration in the street below his balcony. Someone must have seen a serious threat in that little camera phone to coldly take an innocent life for it. A symbolic funeral march was held for Mahmoud, attended by thousands, on 7 February.

We owe thanks to the media — in all its forms — for its comprehensive coverage of the Egyptian revolution. This round-the-clock reporting of events probably saved lives. Just imagine what would have happened to the young men and women demonstrating in Tahrir Square in the absence of local and foreign reporters and camera lenses.

If it weren’t for this coverage we wouldn’t have known about the atrocities that were committed against Egyptian activists in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez, nor of the scare tactics and violent intimidation used in the attempt to squash the voice of the people.

We can be sure that by the time the dust settles and the smoke clears, plenty more incriminating pictures and videos will appear, chronicling a popular revolution in the making with all its glorious moments and its dark phases. For documenting everything from the colorful protests in Tahrir Square as well as the baltaga, the huge marches of millions in Alexandria and Cairo, the awful scenes of cars running over pedestrians, we owe our thanks to many people whose names we will never know. One we will always remember, who gave his life, was Ahmad Mahmoud.

Ahmad Barqawi is a Jordanian freelance columnist and writer based in Amman, Jordan. He has done several studies, statistical analysis and researches on economic and social development in Jordan.

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