The Spark: Starting a Revolution


Egyptian activist Ahmed Salah's account of the 2011 protests in Tahir Square and the toppling of the Mubarak regime, in the new journal The Brooklyn Quarterly (with Alex Mayyasi, photo by Alex Mayyasi). (You can read it on Atavist’s multimedia platform here. And if you are so inclined, they are raising money to help launch the journal via a Kickstarter campaign to fund the first issue.)

“Tahrir” means “liberation” in Arabic, but the symbolic value of Tahrir Square goes beyond the name. It is the beating heart not only of Cairo but of the entire nation, surrounded by symbols of the government’s power: the headquarters of the regime’s political party and of the Arab League, a major mosque where state funerals take place, and a massive bureaucratic building called the Mugamma. Egyptians have rallied there in protest since the days of British rule. Western businesses have also left their mark on it: enormous billboards top the surrounding apartment buildings, fast food chains line the sidewalks, a Ritz Carlton is under construction, and the old American University in Cairo lies at the southeast end of the square. A three-lane traffic rotary fed by seven streets dominates the central space; the entire square has a surface area equal to 10 American football fields. On its northern edge stands the Egyptian Museum, where on a normal day tourists line up for hours to see treasures like the burial mask of King Tut.

Yet January 25, 2011 was not a normal day. Around 4 p.m. I gazed up at the iconic pink stone of the museum as I approached Tahrir — with 6,000 other Egyptians marching all around me. When we entered the square, we realized we were entering a battlefield. Several people joining our rally told us that security forces had blocked the nearby 6th October Bridge spanning the Nile. Police were fighting to keep a similar-sized crowd on the other side of the square from crossing to our side. Dense smoke clouded the square, but I could make out the hazy forms of protesters and a dark tide of police opposite them.

Very few of the people around me had been to a protest before, let alone the sort of violent confrontation this was sure to become, and yet with a yell, they charged forward without hesitation. Spreading out into the open space, they sprinted four or five hundred yards to the frontlines halfway across the square, all the while ducking the stones and tear gas canisters that rained down on us. I remember thinking — even as I huffed and puffed in the back — that this was the scene I had always dreamt of seeing. And now I was seeing it.