x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The ebb and flow of dissent on Cairo's streets

You know when a protest is taking place even if you can't see it, because of the chanting.

All of a sudden I found myself searching for something to climb on to - a pillar, a tree trunk, the base of a statue - anything to get me out of the way of this surging mob that was pushing me from behind. There were at least 100 people bearing down on me - and pressing down on them, at least three times that number of riot police dressed in black with fists flailing.

I was at the rear of the crowd, so as soon as the first screams were heard I was able to seek refuge on my perch and watch the crowd flood past. Noticing the advantageous view from my elevated spot, some cameramen and reporters tried to elbow me off, but I stood my ground. Leaning on my piece of concrete, I was able to take notes and, as the tide of black uniforms was slowly sucked back to their starting positions, I was able to ring in the story to my editor. Another protest in Cairo, another day at work.

There have been demonstrations in Egypt, mainly in the capital, for a couple of months now. Some have called for constitutional change, others for minimum wage increases, another for the end of the 30-year emergency law which restricts civil rights in the country. They all look very similar. You know when a protest is taking place even if you can't see it, because of the chanting. Black-clad riot police, uniformly distributed, line the streets for miles around the demonstration site, and make a human barricade three or four deep around the protesters.

Outside this cage, at a distance, high-level officers in plain clothes watch every move, sometimes drinking tea and smoking, waiting for something to get out of hand, talking occasionally into their walkie-talkies. Behind the riot police are plain-clothes men, known on the street as "baltageya" or thugs. They do most of the beating if anything goes awry. Inside the human barricade, the angry, sweating, passionate protesters are allowed to vent their frustation for the allotted time. Often, it is the same faces and the same chants. Sometimes it turns into a social event for some, as they end up smoking and chatting, catching up on news.

Journalists mill around asking questions, and exchanging facts or checking the spelling of names with other reporters. "You going to tomorrow's protest? Yeah? OK, see you there. Wanna grab a coffee first?" Opposition politicians use the demo to broadcast their messages for change, demanding reforms and warning of dire consequences if they don't get what they want. Teenagers climb on each others' shoulders and shout profanities at the police, who look as though they haven't slept in a few days and smell like they haven't showered in a month. Frustration rides high and emotions can sometimes spill over into violence, especially if the crowd tries to break through the barricade. That's when the highly decorated officer with a hardened face gives the OK, and a wave of black uniforms crashes in to the mob.

Whoever falls under their feet gets trampled. Whoever they grab hold of gets manhandled. If the police are in the mood, some protesters will be rounded up and thrown into a paddy wagon. The rest escape with bruises on their bodies, scratches on their necks and blood on their faces, limping and shocked. Women scream, men chant, empty bottles of water fly through the air. Then, within a few minutes, it is suddenly over. Order is restored, the protesters slope off, the police brush down their uniforms and the demonstration is over ... until the next one, that is.

Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo