Home inSight A Firsthand Account of the Protests in Egypt

A Firsthand Account of the Protests in Egypt

Joshua R. Goodman

Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Cairo, Egypt
It began as a normal day. I arrived in Cairo for some much needed rest and relaxation, a chance to take my mind off of the stress of waiting on PhD decisions, visit some old friends, and brush up on my Arabic. With political crises still seething in Tunis and Beirut, the region was awash with tension, as tense as I had seen it in my three years living there. It never entered my mind that of all the cities I intended to visit, Cairo would soon be the most volatile.

It was about 3:00 in the afternoon, and I was scheduled to meet my Arabic tutor in a café next to the old campus of the American University of Cairo—in Tahrir (Liberation) Square. As I turned onto Talat Harb Street, just a block or two away from the square, something immediately seemed different. I was greeted by the sight of police cordons blocking off the street to traffic, and what seemed like a small group of people milling about in the street. The shops all appeared to be closed. I turned to a shopkeeper and asked him what was happening. “A demonstration,” he replied, “against corruption and the government.” I was taken aback with shock.

In Egypt, demonstrations are rare and most often staged, and to put the word “corruption” in the same sentence as “government” in the public discourse is both dangerous and almost unheard of. I pressed the shopkeeper for more information and he told me that the demonstrations were organized on the internet, Facebook, and Twitter. Aware that this was no simple gathering of people, I crossed the cordon in order to see what would happen next.

As I walked down Talat Harb street, I saw that I was heading for a group of perhaps 100-200 people milling about in the street. I joined a group of bystanders on the sidewalk and a single thought tickled the back of my mind, “Today, we witness history.” But the implications of what was beginning to unfold in front of me were still unclear.

The first thing that struck me about these protestors was who they were. While a barely functioning Egyptian civil society cannot currently be said to support a middle class (as we understand it here in America), this group was undoubtedly the closest thing to it: young men and women, mostly university-aged, dressed largely in western clothing, chanting slogans for democracy and freedom. It was clear to me that this was a truly popular, pro-democracy demonstration, and to my growing surprise, state security officers (henceforth ‘police’), while slowly growing in number, merely controlled the sidelines. They were following, not driving the crowd, who had taken up the chant “hurriyeh,” (freedom) as they began to march toward Tahrir Square.

I found myself shuffled into the square with them, and I took a position on a raised median in the middle of the square, on the north side of the traffic circle near the museum, beside a growing number of people taking pictures with small hand-held cameras and telephones. What began as a relatively empty square was quickly filling with demonstrators converging from downtown (east), the Nile cornice, (west) and the north. To the south, towards the Interior Ministry building, police forces were gathering in number in full riot gear, and more soldiers were arriving in police trucks by the minute.

The stage was set, all the actors present, but the intentions were still unknown. The demonstrators approached the police with growing boldness, holding signs with pro-freedom slogans and chanting “freedom” and “democracy” and waving Egyptian flags, but they soon became more blatantly anti-regime: “Down with Hosni Mubarak” and “Down with the government.” A group of young women sat down right in front of the police line. But despite the growing boldness of the demonstrators, it was still the chant of “Selmiyyah” (tranquility) that governed the conduct of both sides for now. While this was developing, I found myself with a front-row seat, on the raised median right between the opposing lines. My camera had not taken a rest since my arrival in Tahrir.

Now, the international media reported that a crowd of protestors attacked and attempted to hijack a water-cannon truck, however, they failed to detail the events leading up to this attempt. From where I was standing, it was undoubtedly the police that initiated this first escalation. For the past hour, security forces moved with the crowd, containing them but allowing them to gather, advance, and retreat at will. But suddenly their strategy appeared to change from containment to dispersal. The water truck in question, at this moment located behind the police line, rumbled to life, and as it began to inch forward, the water cannon opened up, spraying a jet of water at the demonstrators. I had to make a hasty retreat laterally to ensure that I stayed dry as the police line parted and the truck began to roll towards, and into the crowd, passing me by perhaps 20 yards.

Without police cover, the truck was soon surrounded by demonstrators and was besieged by bodies, bottles, and rocks. From about 75 yards away, I could only watch as a man climbed on top of the rocking truck and began striking the water cannon. Almost immediately, he was pursued to the top of the truck by a man who then grabbed him and tossed him like a rag doll into the crowd below.

This was the apparent signal that both sides had been waiting for. Riot police armed with batons rushed the protestors surrounding the truck in the first clashes of the day. But the entire event had been spontaneous and poorly coordinated, and the limited group of police found themselves surrounded and outnumbered. Like a Spartan legion, they grouped behind their shields and attempted a hasty retreat, using their batons against protestors as they surged forward towards the line of police regrouping at the south end of the traffic circle. What struck me, though, was the continued (relative) restrain shown by both sides despite this escalation, and cries of “Selmiyyeh” that continued to reverberate off of the walls of Tahrir Square.

As the police regrouped in preparation for another possible clash, a new chant sounded from the crowd, or perhaps more correctly, from a newly arriving group of demonstrators advancing into the square from the direction of the Nile and the Arab League HQ building. The chant was “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great). This marked the arrival of members of the Muslim Brothers.

According to state media, the Muslim Brotherhood was responsible for organizing the protests. Nevertheless, these protests were well underway by the time they arrived. What I saw was in keeping with what the Muslim Brotherhood claimed, namely, they would not participate in an official capacity but would support the protestors. I saw no evidence of any attempt by members of the Brotherhood to steer the discourse of the demonstration towards an Islamic theme.

The police began to advance up the square until they controlled about half the traffic circle but the mass of people prevented them from moving any further. Behind the cordon, police with grenade launchers stood ready. On the other side, a makeshift stage had been erected and occupied by men and women holding megaphones and leading anti-regime chants. Once again, I found myself with a front-row seat for what was about to unfold.

I cannot say with any certainty precisely what led to the first salvo of gas canisters fired by the riot police, but as the protestors continued pushing against the riot shields, the *whump* of the launched was subdued but unmistakable. The pop of the canister and the hiss of the gas releasing into the crowd was more pronounced. *Whump* *whump,* two more gas canisters were fired into the crowd, one directly at the stage, hitting its mark and at once, the crowd began to disperse, running away from the fumes.

Up until this point, the police concentrated their efforts and arms against the demonstrators themselves and left the bystanders relatively untouched. But this was about to change. Another gas canister landed in the square, between the stage and the police line, some 50 yards from my position. This area of the square was already relatively clear as four or five canisters were already launched. A young man, clad in jeans, a tee shirt, and a black and white checkered Kuffiyeh wrapped around his face rushed the canister, grabbed it, and hurled it directly at the police line. His aim was perfect and the riot police began to flee. In truth, the police displayed more panic than the demonstrators.

This exceeded the limit of the authorities’ tolerance, as their restraint dissipated in a cloud of confusion and tear-gas. The police began firing gas canisters indiscriminately at protestors and bystanders, attempting to clear the crowd at all costs as the line of police began advancing north, intent on clearing the square. With my camera in hand, I decided it was high time for me to leave before the volleys of gas turned into rubber bullets or worse.

As I turned to leave, I suddenly felt two strong pairs of hands grabbing me from behind. I spun around and found myself face to face with two plainclothes men. After countless travels in Egypt and the Sinai, I realized these members of the Egyptian Mukhabarat, the dreaded secret police/Egyptian intelligence. One grabbed my camera arm while the other held me firmly by the shirt and started pulling me south, towards the police forces and further away from my planned escape.

At this point, only one thought echoed through my head: “YOU CANNOT LET THEM TAKE YOU.” My second thought was for my camera and the hour of footage contained within. As I tried to tear away from the two officers, I screamed “American! American!” In vain I tried to maintain a grasp on my camera, but as I broke away—or more accurately was let go—a final tug broke my grip as one of the officers gave me a hard stare and said “You go NOW!”
I was free and did not have to be told I was in a dangerous spot. I turned and fled north, and as I did so, two more gas canisters landed directly to my right and left, one no more than ten feet from me. Luckily, the gas had not yet begun to pour out from the cans and I was able to put a good 30 feet between them and myself before I heard the telltale *pop* of the canisters going off. I cut a hard right and vaulted over the rail and down the nearest side street. My day in Tahrir was over; class was understandably cancelled.

The gas cleared the square, but the threat of crackdowns did not keep Tahrir empty. While I was there, I estimated the crowd was easily in the tens of thousands. The masses returned that evening and held vigil all night, declaring an open-ended sit-in. Throughout the night, the marching and chanting of the demonstrators could be heard until the police moved in and once again cleared the square. The next day proved tense, with threats of zero-tolerance crackdowns coming from the authorities across state television. As I sit and write this, the protestors have once again taken to the street marching and chanting against the regime.

Thursday, January 27, 2011
A form of calm has settled over Cairo this afternoon, but there is no mistaking the undertone of tension, uncertainty, fear, but also excitement. Despite the crackdowns of the past 48 hours, the movement shows no signs of weakening. In fact, the opposite appears to be the case, with promises of new protests set for tomorrow after Friday prayers, with the potential to draw vastly larger crowds, not merely through Facebook, but mobilized through the mosques.

The protestors have made their goals crystal clear: nothing less than the removal of the current regime, with ire being directed against the figure of the President, his son Gamal, who many see as the leader-in-waiting (and also one of the heads of the ruling National Democratic Party or the Hizb al-Watani), the Interior Minister and leader of the feared state security forces, and at the regime generally.

There is no hiding the fact that the Egyptian people view the government as they did on the eve of the 1952 revolt against the monarchy: entrenched, corrupt, and self-interested. The major difference is that in 1952, it was the army that overthrew the monarchy whereas today, the protests are coming from the people themselves. While in Tunisia, the army stepped in to support the people, the position of the Egyptian army—the true powerbrokers behind the state—remains unclear.

Our painfully under-qualified and uninformed Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has come on television and announced her continued support for the “stable” Egyptian regime. Her choice of words is as unfortunate as her position. Perhaps a better choice of words would have been “entrenched,” but the Egyptian street believes that America has abandoned them, and her words have done major damage to America’s image and the goodwill that Obama’s Cairo speech had generated within the country. They ask me: “Why does America and Barack Obama abandon the Egyptian people? We only want freedom! We want the same thing America has! Why is that so wrong?”

So far, the demonstrators have come from the Egyptian middle class, which is highly educated (across Cairo at any one time there are at least 700,000 university students, perhaps significantly more). These people are increasingly secular and liberal, and as education levels have risen, so have demands for more freedom. But another storm is approaching, one that may unite this small middle class with the millions upon millions of uneducated masses, for whom the basic necessities of life are significantly more important than abstract concepts of freedom and democracy.

The price of basic food supplies such as meat, grain, rice, and sugar has doubled over the past few years, while simultaneously, real wages are falling. If the government fails to intervene, the masses will eventually react. Already the masses have expressed their support for the protests, uttering identical vitriol against the government and their abuses as the more active opposition. These are two groups within Egyptian society, with different complaints but the same antagonist. As of now, it appears these masses have remained on the sidelines, but time will tell how long this will last.

Friday, January 28, 2011
The phones are down.
The internet is down.
The metro and buses are not running.

A general curfew has been called for 4:00 PM and the street below the balcony of my downtown hotel is almost completely empty, except for a few groups of stragglers attempting to return home. We knew today would be chaos, but I am not sure the government was prepared for the scale of the demonstrations. If Tuesday’s protests in Tahrir numbered in the tens of thousands, today’s easily numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and that is not including Suez and Alexandria. As I write, the general curfew has been extended across the entire country, and in some cities, the army is moving to restore order.

Despite my attempts to wait out today’s demonstrations by spending the day in a café in the southern suburb of Ma’adi, and despite the enormity of the city, avoidance proved impossible. At some point I clearly had to head back downtown to my hotel. The first taxi brought me about halfway until we hit a road we could not pass in the eastern side of the city. On the way, we passed a number of traffic circles blocked by burned trucks and police vehicles and piles of burning tires.

After I was dropped near Manchea, close to the famed Cairo Citadel, I was lucky enough to find a station wagon taxi and a group of about seven or eight people who were going to attempt to travel back into town. The cab zoomed off and headed downtown along a route that would take us by al-Azhar and the Khan al-Khalili. We made it as far as al-Azhar University. This area, known as Hussein, was the site of major demonstrations earlier that day, and as the sun set and night fell, protestors continued to occupy the streets and overpasses.

Our cab had come to a stop by a partial police roadblock down the street and it appeared the road was closed. But we saw a few brave cars drive around the blockage and our driver decided to follow, heading back towards al-Azhar Bridge and Opera Square where my hotel was located. We made it just around a corner before we encountered a large group of people in surgical masks moving towards us and yelling: “Turn back, go back!” “Closed, blocked!” And looking down the road, it was clear why.

The riot police had taken control of the road and were methodically clearing the street, pushing the protestors back by firing tear gas and advancing up the street. As we rounded the corner, my eyes and throat began to burn and my nose watered. Riot police continue firing a steady stream of teargas up the street. This was clearly as far as we could go. The rest of my journey back to the hotel was by foot—a jumble of back alleys and side streets. I was lucky that a young Egyptian man around 20 years old took me by the hand and offered to take me back to my hotel. I know Cairo well, but not its maze of back alleys.

The unrest is spreading and things are clearly spiraling out of control. The protests are gaining momentum. No one is so deluded into thinking that President Mubarak has any popular support, but fear and isolation—the most powerful tools of a repressive government—have previously kept opposition at a standstill.

Today’s events have sent a clear message to the regime that the people of Egypt are no longer afraid. Demonstrators are calling on the armed forces to join with the people in Egypt, just like they did in Tunis, as the tanks begin to roll into Cairo. The police are beginning to equivocate. This afternoon, state security forces were withdrawn from the city of Alexandria. In Cairo, there are signs that they are reluctant to continue engaging the protestors.

Demonstrations in Cairo continued to escalate throughout the day, beginning at the end of Friday prayers. Tires and cars burn across the city.

10:00 PM
Tahrir Square
A German staying at my hotel asks if I would like to attempt a walk down to Tahrir Square. I agree, grab my passport, and we depart the hotel. Despite the curfew, many people remain in the streets and the police seem calm. As we approach the square, two police cars are on fire, painfully close to the Egyptian museum. Across the street and behind the museum, a large building is on fire and black smoke is pouring out. This is the headquarters of the NDP, the national ruling party. The gathered demonstrators point and cheer. The occasional bangs of tear gas canisters echo from the walls of Tahrir, along with a new sound, sharper and more pronounced. Have the police begun using rubber bullets? I cannot see and no one has any information for me.

Near me, a crowd has gathered atop something and the atmosphere is festive. As we approach, I see it is an armed personnel carrier abandoned by the police and occupied by demonstrators as a trophy. They are attempting to break inside. Suddenly, there is a noise in the opposite direction. It is a growing yell. I turn and see a small group of masked protestors running towards us, yelling for us to run, to get away. Again my eyes begin to burn, followed by my nose and throat. I can barely see; barely breathe.

The commotion grows, but this time I am better prepared. My experience on Tuesday reinforced the need for a pre-planned route of escape, and I quickly grab my friend and bolt up a side street, the same one that facilitated my escape earlier in the week. The escalation continues. Egyptians keep asking me when Obama and America will help them.

Despite the curfew, thousands remain in the streets, chanting against the government. I speak with some of the demonstrators. One of them tells me of his motivations. He says his main complaints are financial: he talks about drastically rising prices and simultaneous falling wages. He worries that soon he will be unable to feed his two children, or even shelter them as his rent is also rising. He tells me the government’s income continues to rise, along with the money coming from America, but that the people have not seen any of it. Taxes continue to increase but the people are seeing less and less in terms of services and aid.

The protestors show signs of growing coordination. Attempts were made to take over NDP party headquarters (before it was burned). Tanks have begun to roll into the capital, greeted by the protestors as potential liberators. There is no signal yet as to the intentions of the army.

12:30 AM
President Mubarak just gave an emergency address to the nation. He declares that he has heard the cry of the people and will address it immediately. He promises to dismiss the current government (in an Egyptian context this refers to the council of minister or the cabinet), indirectly acknowledging that the recent elections have been universally considered fraudulent. The extent to which his promises will be kept shall immediately be called into question. The people do not believe he will act and recognize that even if they do, a cabinet reshuffle will replace Mubarak cronies with yet more Mubarak cronies. No member of the opposition will be included, mostly because there aren’t any. But it appears that tonight, the protestors have at least made their point and the government is now unable to ignore the demands of the people. This does not bode well for Gamal Mubarak’s chances of succeeding his father.

The people have heard promises before but they have proved to be empty rhetoric. I do not expect these words to be enough.

2:30 AM
I am drifting off to sleep when I hear the first shots ring out, more of a pop than you hear on TV. I count about ten, then screaming and moments later, more shots. I leave my room and head down the hall towards the common room and the balcony. Two workers at the hotel are sitting on the floor in the far corner, and when they see me, they frantically motion for me to get down and be quiet. More shots, closer this time, right outside of the window. I get down on the floor and crawl on my hands and knees to where they are sitting. More yelling.

Muhammad, one of the hotel workers, says to me, “The police are shooting! Killing! Dead in the street. Anyone in the street, he runs away and they shoot him in the back. I saw one man right now, I swear to Allah, shot, dead, he has no gun, nothing.”

The shooting has stopped and we hear screaming from below. Slowly, Muhammad creeps to the balcony and opens the door; we inch forward and look to the street below. There is a small crowd, maybe seven people, hurrying about a car. They pick up an unmoving figure and try to load him into the backseat. There is blood everywhere, and I see he is still bleeding. One of the men below shouts at the driver to go to the hospital, another shouts back, “What hospital, this man is dead.”

We peer further out, to the sidewalk below. There is a large pool of blood on the sidewalk, and drag marks, like you see in a bad horror film, going out onto the street. I force myself to look further, down the sidewalk, and see more evidence of the carnage that is unfolding below me, pools of blood, and a line of bloody footsteps corresponding to the stride of a seriously wounded man trying to flee. There is no more sign of his fate.

More shouts, not angry or panicked this time, but authoritative. I look in the other direction and see two policemen marching up the street, yelling and the men below, their hands on their weapons in a threatening gesture. My companions grab me and pull me inside, shutting the doors on the scene unfolding below. One is crying. “Why?! How many have to die for one man? These are my brothers, our brothers. Mubarak just said the people are the country. They are killing Egypt.”

He begs me to call my embassy, to tell the Americans what is happening, to tell the world. I tell him I will call my embassy and I promise to him that I will tell my story to anyone who will listen. The girl on the phone sounds like some intern, and she feeds me what I imagine is a canned response:

“Stay indoors.
Obey curfew.
Confirm your travel plans.
Don’t do anything stupid (Yes, she actually said this to me).”

“Oh and for more information, state.gov will be issuing a travel warning soon on the intern… ooh, that’s right, you can’t get access to the web, can you?”

Then comes the best part:
“We at the embassy hope to see everything calm down in a day or so, so just stay put and we hope you will be able to enjoy the rest of your visit to Egypt.”

I just watched someone get murdered by the police; thanks lady.

Saturday, January 29, 2011
The demonstrators are back in the streets today, but things are different. The police are gone, withdrawn overnight as army vehicles, mostly tanks and APCs have entered Cairo and taken up positions in sensitive and strategically important areas: Tahrir Square, government and military buildings, bridges, and major streets. These locations remain gathering points throughout the day, but were, for the first time, not a place for confrontation.

The army has been received with great jubilation, seen as protectors finally arriving. Scenes of people following the tanks with shouts of support, and even demonstrators hugging and kissing soldiers repeat themselves throughout the city.

The fires have slowly gone out, but the charred remains of police trucks and tires testify to the violence that occurred here. But the army has refrained from escalation or even real engagement with the demonstrators, and things remain peaceful for now.

Out of the aftermath of the violence, a new problem rears its ugly but inevitable head: looting. Shop windows are smashed and everything is gone. Jewelry and electronics stores were the first to be targeted. Even in areas relatively unscathed by the demonstrations has fallen victim to looters and street gangs and notably the tranquil suburb of Ma’adi.

Even as the army secures the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, it is too late. Broadcasts show smashed display cases and statues. The extent of the damage is not yet known. The lesson from the invasion of Baghdad and the subsequent destruction of their national museum makes me fear for the legacy of Egyptian history.

Once again a curfew has been imposed, this time from 4:00 PM until 8:00 the next morning. But unlike last night, it appears that the majority will comply. State TV is stressing the importance of national solidarity and the obligation to prevent chaos and national disintegration.

In other news, President Mubarak has issued a rare decree, appointing Omar Suleiman as Vice President. I am not sure that the Egyptian people immediately appreciate the significance of this action. Suleiman, the head of Egyptian intelligence and a major figure in Egyptian foreign policy, is not a significant figure within Egypt. As a military man, he prefers to stay in the shadows, but he is undoubtedly a strongman of the regime, and despite public belief that it will be Gamal Mubarak who replaces his father as president, in academic circles it is widely thought that it will be Suleiman, in name or in practice, that will succeed the current president.

With the unequivocal rejection of Gamal Mubarak, Suleiman, at 74 years old, is now the overwhelmingly obvious candidate-in-waiting. Mubarak’s decision has created the framework for the continuation of military dominance in Egyptian politics and the perpetuation of the current system. I do not imagine the people will accept this decision or even really acknowledge it as a step in any direction.

Despite my initial optimism, shots again ring out tonight. I cannot be sure what motivated tonight’s violence, but it seems that with the absence of the police, law and order is truly beginning to break down. While the past few days have, at least in some way, felt familiar due to my studies of revolt in the Arab world, I think that now we inevitably are entering uncertain territory. Events could turn in any number of directions. One thing is for sure, with even the food supply insecure, I have no desire to remain here. I will leave for the airport in the morning.

Sunday, January 30, 2011 – 10:00 AM
Cairo Airport
As luck would have it, I have been able to book a seat on a flight out to Paris early tomorrow morning. The airport is a zoo; thousands shuffle back and forth, trying to get into the terminal, trying to get out. People are fighting for positions in lines to book flights. Very little is open, it is not easy to get food or water and basic services appear suspended. The terminal looks as if it has not been cleaned in days. There is garbage and half-eaten food everywhere. 20 hours until my flight departs. Time to dig in and wait.

Monday, January 31 – Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Flight delays and cancellations litter the board at the airport. At about 12:30 in the morning I find out that my 7:00 flight has been cancelled. The two Americans I sit with have booked a flight out on KLM at 4:00, which has now been taken off the board—with no information about whether it was cancelled or delayed. The only flights seeming to depart without too much interruption are the Arab carriers, apparently no too fazed by the chaos. The Europeans are not so lucky.

I have been at the airport for 15 hours when the first bit of good news comes my way. After days of equivocating and running in circles, the State Department has decided to begin evacuating U.S. citizens from Cairo, chartering flights to friendly countries in South Europe: Cyprus, Athens, and Istanbul. With so many flights cancelled, the evacuation is my best option, so I push my way through the crowd, which has thinned overnight as flights have left and have been cancelled, and make my way, with another group of Americans, to the private VIP terminal.

As we pull in, people are already milling about, perhaps a hundred or so, and it is not long before more begin to pour in. By the hundreds, tourists, ex-pats, students, and “non-essential embassy personnel” begin arriving, at first in taxis, but after a while, in charter buses, cars, and diplomatic Suburban caravans. Everybody wants out and embassy personnel promise that everyone will be accommodated in order to prevent unrest as the size of the crowd begins to swell.

I find myself standing in a group with a guy and girl about my age. The guy, an ex-marine, arrived in Cairo on Wednesday to, “participate in the revolution.” But like me, the events he witnessed on Friday and Saturday shook him enough that he decided to leave as well. For him, the romance quickly gave way to the brutal, ugly reality. He tells me of his experience in Tahrir on Friday night, perhaps just an hour before my own, and of witnessing a crowd of Egyptians overwhelm a French-Israeli and drag him away. He does not know of this poor man’s fate, but fears the worst. With the breakdown of law and order, I suspect he is correct and what he witnessed amounted to a lynching. Everyone is finding ways to blame Israel; no wonder people cannot solve their own problems.

As we wait, we exchange stories of our experiences, filling in each other’s blanks to reconstruct as best we can the events of the past few days. The State Department has made it perfectly clear that we may only bring what we absolutely need—one carry-on and one bag—since this is an evacuation. As a traveler, I am OK, but as students begin to arrive it is clear that many did not get the message. People have three and four suitcases with them. Some have even brought their dogs. Embassy officials announce this luggage must be consolidated into a single bag. Everything left over will most likely never be seen again. Nor will the pets be accommodated. I hope they will at least be taken care of.

Finally we get moving after signing the necessary forms. My friends and I find ourselves on the second flight going to Athens. As we are shuffled through passport control and board the plane, a wave of relief washes over me—a feeling for the first time that I have made it out with everything, including this account, which at the moment is my most valued possession. As our flight takes off, I am comforted by the shouts and applause of the other passengers shedding their tension. While my trip home has just begun, my journey is finally over.

I recall the promise I made to Muhammad to tell the world of what I saw, and I have every intention of keeping this promise. For while I am safe, comforted by the shouts and applause as my flight takes off bound for Athens and then home. I have left many brave people behind who deserve nothing less than their freedom. And their story must be told.

Athens, Greece
As we step off the plane, we are greeted by none other than the U.S. ambassador himself—one of the warmest receptions I have ever received. He personally greets each traveler with a handshake and a welcome. The embassy staff greets us like heroes. After being processed through the special diplomatic terminal, we are ferried through to the main airport, greeted by a small media frenzy. NBC, CNN, NPR are all there. I speak briefly with an NPR reporter, and many others are interviewed as well. I hear tourists tell NBC that they were fine, that everything in Egypt was OK and they never felt threatened. But the tourists, isolated from the events, cannot express to the media the true nature and weight of the events. Many of them have just come from organized tours, and many of them were recently in Luxor and Aswan, where things have been quiet. I worry that there will not be enough actual witnesses that will shed light on the events for the American people and the world of the suffering and loss suffered by the Egyptian people.

I think back to my friend, Muhammad, crying over the death of a stranger, but at the same time a fellow countryman. “The world has to know,” he pleaded with me. Not only is it a promise I made to a friend but, I strongly believe, an obligation and my mission for the coming days. While this ordeal is over for me personally, millions of Egyptians do not have the same fortune.