As the recent death toll in Egypt surpasses 500, news of Muslim Brotherhood supporters being slaughtered in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square has been an especially tragic manifestation of the powder-keg that is “post-revolutionary” Egypt. Just days before, our photographer found himself embroiled in an MB protest near to that now-tragic location. While this story does not in any way compare to the events that are currently transpiring there, it might shine a light on the varied make-up of the protesters and on just how tense, chaotic and unpredictable the situation in Cairo is.
Now I’m thinking, “I’m that guy.”
That night, I was planning on going to my cousin’s wedding. I spent the last five days of Ramadan with my family in Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, then went to my aunt’s in Cairo. At 4pm, near El-Hegaz Square, a Muslim Brotherhood-organized protest marches past her balcony.
Illegal and underground for sixty years, until the Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood decried the ousting of Egypt’s first democratically-elected president Morsi as a coup. The whole trip, my family was trying to scare me from going near protests. They said I’ll get attacked or robbed. But from the balcony, I can only shoot crap photos, so I grab my mom’s phone and a Canon 6D and head out onto the streets. I’ll “be back in a minute.”
The protesters are peaceful.
They pose for me, throw up Morsi signs.
I’m pulled onto that Toyota pickup, next to the speakers mounted to the truck. They’re blaring protest chants.
I’m on the roof getting great shots. I’m thinking, these are going to look so good framed on my wall.
I spot a dozen men on the sidewalk, walking parallel to us, writing graffiti — “Morsi is my president,” “No CC,” and “CC is a murderer,” phonetically referring to the current leader and coup-mastermind General al-Sisi. They’re hitting everything — walls, awnings, buses — bombing in broad daylight.
I jump down, run over and ask permission to shoot, in Arabic. “Yeah, we’re not afraid,” they say. Then, this burly man runs up to the door of the Saint Fatima Church which the nearby square is named after. He spray-paints “Islameya.”
Islameya means “Islamic” and is short for masr Islameya. In this context, on that door, it’s “Egypt is Islamic.” An older protester runs right up, pleading with him to stop: That’s against Islam, because Lakum deenukum Waliya Deen — “For you is your religion, and for me is mine.”
The vandal clocks him. Several others run up, drag him away and egg the vandal on: “Write it! Write it!”
I’m snapping away. I’m stepping closer. The photos are getting better. I have permission. I’m cool… Until he turns around.
“Why are you taking pictures of me?!” he yells. Before I have time to think, he lunges at me, spray-can aimed.
I swing my camera down, cradling it like a football. He’s aiming for the camera, but he’s spraying my neck and face. Next thing I know, twenty people surround me. Hands on my arms, on my legs, around my neck. They’re trying to tear me apart.
The tagger has me in a headlock, so I have my camera in a headlock too. “Erase the pictures, erase the pictures right NOW,” he screams in Arabic. It hit me then that I was fucked. I did exactly what my family told me not to do and exactly what they warned me about was now happening. Worse yet, I know how this story ends.
“Smash it!” the mob chants. With the camera in a death grip, I scroll through his photos in the viewfinder, deleting them all one by one. “I erased them!” I scream back, “There are no photos!” He lets go and hurries back to tag the rest of the church doors. Someone yells, “He’s a spy!” and “He copied the pictures from the card to the camera!” Wait, what?
And just like that, more protesters pile on me, closer, tighter, arms swinging, slapping, throttling. Someone rips at the camera and, at the same time, head-butts my face so hard I’m sure my teeth get loose.
I’ve been told that once a mob turns on you, that’s it. I’ve seen it happen.
Hands are coming from every direction, pulling more than hitting. In my head, I see all those internet videos of angry mobs beating people to death. I see Gaddafi strapped to the hood of a car, a horde descending, pulling, pulling. Then, blood. Then, pieces of Gaddafi.
All I know is that they want the camera. Now, it feels like the most precious thing in the world to me and I can’t let it go. I realize that’s not entirely reasonable. Then, a closed fist hits the back of my skull. I scream as loud as I can, “I’m a Muslim! I’m with you!”
“Give me your memory card!” someone yells. I do, head down buried in my shoulders over the camera. It’s good enough, I think, but then they peel my fingers off the camera, one by one and it’s gone. Someone pulls me out of the pile and yells, “Just go, go!”
“I just got robbed,” I answer, “I can’t leave without my camera.” I still have two days left in Egypt. My cousin’s wedding. My job. “This is crazy. You guys just robbed me.”
“We’re Muslim,” someone says. “We don’t steal. He has it, over there.” “No, he has it.” For an hour, I’m bouncing around the crowd. Now it’s sticking out of some dude’s pocket. “You can keep my memory card,” I plead. “I just need my camera back.”
“What country are you from? Your Arabic doesn’t sound Egyptian. Do you work for CNN? I don’t believe you. You’ll get it back in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square. We just want to make sure there are no pictures on it.”
My stomach sinks. Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square is 10 miles away. All the marchers converge there. Sitting by some computer in a secluded building, accused of being a spy, with thousands of protesters shouting outside… That is absolutely the shittiest place I could ever be.
I call my mom to let her know. “They did WHAT?” She’s furious. “Give him the phone.”
“It’s my mom. She wants to talk to you.” I can hear her screaming at him through the phone like I’ve never heard her scream before. “I’m sorry, I’m very sorry,” he spurts. “Fifteen minutes and he’ll have it back.” Lies. “Why’d you call your mom, man? That’s messed up.”
Three more hours of this. Miles. We’re definitely not in my neighborhood anymore. Everyone’s screaming at everyone else. Chaos. Nothing happens, so I have to call my cousin who is in the Muslim Brotherhood. I don’t want to bother him on his brother’s wedding day, but I don’t want this story to end in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square. I want my camera back.
“Well, why didn’t you say you were his cousin from the start, man?” Five minutes later, the camera’s in my hand, and the memory card too.
“Don’t ever let us see you in Cairo with that camera again.”
They shove me in a cab. The driver’s face looks like an angry mob just shoved a guy into his cab, like, “Ooh, you did something bad.”
They were not good Muslims. They were assholes.
Ten minutes later, I boot up the data recovery software and get all my pictures back.
(Photos: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)