In December 2010, anti-government protests erupted Tunisia, soon sparking similar protests across the Middle East and North Africa, including in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. Ten years after the onset of the Arab Spring, the photographers who captured the first passionate moments reflect on what they saw and what the events of the time meant to them.
Alessio Romenzi is an award-winning photojournalist who has covered uprisings in countries like Libya and Syria. He was in Tahrir Square in Egypt during the first week of protests in January and February 2011, which led to the ousting of the then president. Hosni Mubarak after 18 days. He reflects on this time in the country’s history.
When I arrived in Cairo in January 2011, I had no idea that the days to come would be in the history books of the future.
It was the morning of the 28th – three days after the start of the now infamous January 25th protests in Tahrir Square – when I landed in Cairo with a few colleagues. We had been reporting in Amman, Jordan, and after talking to our contacts in Egypt, there was a feeling that something big was going to happen.
That day was the first Friday of the protest. The weekly noon prayer had just ended and people started to leave the mosques, with thousands marching towards Tahrir Square. We reached one of these steps, the ground was strewn with stones and pieces of bricks. Around us, all the shops were closed, and as the crowd descended the street, in the background, the police and SWAT positioned themselves, waiting to intercept the demonstrators to prevent them from entering the square. They knew the people wanted to take the place. And the regime understood that it was not good publicity if a huge crowd of demonstrators took a main square in the city.
People were determined to make it happen. At the front of the march, I took a photo of a man walking past the crowd of thousands trying to calm them down. “Shway, Shway” (slow down) he said, assuring them that they would eventually reach the place. With the police a few hundred yards behind him, he didn’t want violence and was trying to avoid a serious confrontation. He asked them to stop throwing stones, not to agitate the police officers who were firing tear gas.
Being in the middle of this, there was a mixture of excitement, but also apprehension. You feel like you are in the perfect place to capture the historic event, but there is a certain sense of fear because you don’t know if and when the police will use live ammunition, and for how long. remain calm or keep a low profile. . They had armored vehicles and weapons and could charge the crowd at any time.
Eventually the protesters entered the square, and it turned out that many others from other directions were doing so at the same time. Tahrir is a huge square where several streets converge in its center. We later learned that, like the street we were on, there were three or four different positions where thousands of demonstrators were gathered, all heading towards the square. The police were positioned on all the converging streets, trying to block them. But the demonstrators, by the tens of thousands, outnumbered the police.
The first protest had started a few days before, but looking back, that day – January 28 – was the big day for me. That was the day it became clear that the protests weren’t going to end, that nothing would be the same – and that’s when I think the Egyptian revolution really started.
Beaten to Tahrir
The next day, the 29th, was surreal. We woke up very early and went to Tahrir Square, where the protesters were again gathered. But this time there was both the army and the protesters in a kind of calm mix. The army had cleared the protesters in and was a visible presence – as if to say “you are here, but so are we”. As we passed the army vehicles to enter the square, we weren’t sure what was going to happen: would they shoot us? I felt like I was in limbo because a day earlier they had actively stopped people from going to the square and now they were just standing there.
This presence would become even stronger in the coming days when pro-Mubarak supporters marched towards Tahrir Square. The demonstrators begged the army to stay in the square and defend it. Some were even lying in front of the tanks, not wanting them to leave, as they feared aggression from the other side. For a while, the military kept the two sides separate – positioning themselves between them – but eventually they moved out and Mubarak’s supporters entered.
With the two sides close by, clashes started. That day, a colleague and I ran into a crowd near our hotel that we initially thought were protesters, but we quickly realized that they were Mubarak supporters. When they found our cameras, they started beating us. Although journalists were welcome in the square, they were viewed with suspicion by pro-Mubaraks. The crowd beat us to Tahrir Square. And when we got there, on the opposite side, the pro-democracy protesters were armed with stones intended for Mubarak supporters. Hundreds of thousands of stones fell, with us in the midst of the clashes.
Everything was possible
In Tahrir Square in the early days, there was a feeling that anything was possible; a feeling of people united against something, against someone, and that as long as they were together they could achieve something good – or at least something better – for the country.
Unfortunately, the revolution did not unfold as people had hoped at the time. But there will always be that feeling of hope, which I haven’t experienced anywhere else since.
After Egypt, I covered other protests of the Arab Spring, notably in Libya and Syria – but the feeling on the ground was different from what it was in Cairo in January and February 2011. Elsewhere there is always had some sort of awareness that the revolution was wrong. succeed. But in Egypt the feeling was that the tyrant would step down and the country would have a chance to have a new future without a dictator in the middle. I could read this feeling in people’s eyes that there was some kind of release on the horizon. They had been waiting for this moment for ages, for Mubarak to leave and for the country to breathe.
But even then, many knew that the end of a dictatorship did not necessarily mean that something great would take its place in the beginning. People knew that unfortunately most of the time you can’t bring about such a drastic change without shedding blood. But still, it was necessary to start on the path.
When the army returned to power, after the Rabaa massacre and after the arrest of Mohamed Morsi, it was a stab in the back of those who were demonstrating at the beginning. And for many because it is as if the revolution of 2011 never happened. Because the image of what she could have been and failed to become is the disappointment that continues now.
The Egyptian revolution did not end as it began. But in January 2011, not knowing what would happen in the future, that time was the real start of something. And even now, I still believe that somehow that was the start of the idea that a different Egypt is possible.