The Digital Journalist
Sesame Street

by Dana Smillie, Cairo

We decided that the elongated bruise on my left arm is a thumbprint. My purple and black and blue medal of honor. I am still not sure if it is the mark from one of the 'government loyalists' dragging me from behind down a flight of concrete stairs, hoping to get me to the ground so they could smash up all my camera gear, or the thumbprint of one of the photographers that pulled me out of the melee. Doesn't matter really.

It was an odd week. On Monday, Laura Bush arrived in Egypt as part of a Middle East tour. She visited the pyramids. She met "prominent Egyptian women." She joked with Egyptian schoolgirls. "Auntie Laura" taped a segment for the Egyptian version of Sesame Street. She praised President Hosni Mubarak's "bold and wise" steps to open up elections in September. She reminded us that building democracy takes time.

A day later, the polls opened for a referendum on the proposed amendment to Article 76 of the Egyptian constitution which would allow multi-party elections in Egypt.

The opposition promised to boycott the referendum announced by Mubarak in February and approved by the parliament a few weeks ago--they said it didn't go far enough to ensure free and fair elections. The government promised to crack down hard on any "demonstrations" in Cairo on referendum day.

Demonstrations in Cairo always kind of go like this: A few hundred passionate, politicized intellectuals take to a venue—most lately the Journalists' Syndicate or the nearby Lawyers' Syndicate—to wave their banners and chant their chants. They are surrounded by riot police vaguely resembling Darth Vadar wearing oversized crash helmets-- but with baby faces and the wide eyes of young country boys freshly plucked from the village-- who generally outnumber the demonstrators 5 to 1. The opposition yells and screams. The Darth Vadars look on in curiosity, moving forwards and backwards, tightening ranks or loosening them according to the orders of their Masters.

Lately, however, we have had a new twist to the plot. Government supporters are now taking to the streets, waving posters with images of Mubarak and signs hand painted in English (catering to the foreign media) saying "YES MOBARAK" (sic). Until a few days ago, I had seen them get close to the passionate opposition, yelling slogans back and forth from across a fence, separated by the baby Darth Vadars. Occasionally a torn poster or sign was catapulted to the other side but that was the extent of the confrontation. Sticks and stones can break my bones, but slogans will never hurt me.

It is widely rumoured that these energetic government loyalists, the Pro-Mo's if you will, are well compensated for their efforts. My colleagues and I met some boys after the melee on Wednesday, who declared that they were paid LE 20 (about $3.50), plus a quarter chicken and a Pepsi to go out and demonstrate. And they would get another LE 20 when they brought the Mubarak sign back. One insisted he was a card-carrying member of an opposition party, but had no job and needed the money. A part of me wonders if these two boys were not opposition activists looking to spin some yarns for the foreign media, but I want to believe them.

On Wednesday morning, I get an early-ish start with a writer colleague to check out polling stations. We have bad luck, seems that not everyone got the message that accredited journalists were free to enter the polling stations. No. It is forbidden. Why? Orders. From who? My boss. A few quick calls to other photographers confirm that I am indeed having a Bad Cairo Day, while they are happily photographing democracy in action. I contemplate a change of career or a move to Southeast Asia.

Then the demonstrations begin.

We hurried over to Saad Zaghloul in time to catch the tail end of a demonstration by the Egyptian Movement for Change, a loose coalition of activists also known as the Kefaya, or Enough, group. The Darth Vaders had penned in about 25 oppositionists, who were holding up their signature yellow stickers with "KEFAYA" in Arabic printed in bright red. I was taking rather dull pictures when I heard a loud commotion and saw the cameras running to the far end of the street. The Pro-Mo's had arrived.

Like wild animals released from a cage, they swarmed down the street, pumping their fists in the air, shouting the old refrain "With our souls and our blood we sacrifice ourselves for you, oh Mubarak"—all charged up on Pepsi and chicken no doubt. The Darth Vadars fell back, and let two private automobiles separate the Pro-Mo's from the opposition. Eventually the Masters called off the mob. I later heard several reports of incidents where the Pro-Mo's had physically attacked and verbally harassed retreating opposition members.

The Kefaya people held a presser consisting of a statement made by a spokesman on the steps of the Journalists' Syndicate building to a dozen or more cameras jostling for position. As other Kefaya members joined ranks and rolled out their banners, it turned into the usual demonstration type thing that I had seen so many times in recent weeks in one of the only places left where activity of this type was remotely tolerated.

Predictably, the Pro-Mo's turned up, and the Darth Vadars, who only were two ranks deep (not the usual 5 or 6 ranks deep), stepped back to let them in to the opposition demonstration. The young men had such hatred in their eyes. I guess 20 pounds buys a lot of passion these days. Anyone could see it would only turn ugly.

And of course it did. The Pro-Mo's slowly forced their way up the stairs, pushing back the Kefaya people. The Kefaya people resisted, verbally taunting the Pro-Mo's, defacing Mubarak posters with their yellow "Kefaya" stickers. Sticks holding signs and banners turned into bludgeons. Passions running high on both sides.

REFERENDUM RAGE: Opposition groups and government loyalists clash in Cairo.

photo by Dana Smillie / Polaris

What happens next is a blur.

A Pro-Mo hits me. I kick back, shouting in English and gesturing angrily. They have no idea what I am saying, of course.

Then, my camera is knocked from my hand and hits the stairs. I dive to retrieve the camera. As I stand up, my back is to the mob.

Several men grab me from behind and drag me backwards, holding on anything they can, my arm, a bit of shirt, my camera bag, my camera. I hug my camera tight and start screaming NO. My heart is racing, I am falling into an abyss and I have no way to stop it. My colleagues in front of me somehow yank me out of the melee.

By this time I am pretty well shaken, and go to a corner to regroup. Lens damaged in the fall, but sort of works if you turn the focusing ring REAL hard. Then, I realize the CF card is gone. Shit. I jam a fresh one in and start wandering back into the scuffle on the stairs staring at the ground mumbling 'card, card, card'. A few people ask what is wrong and I tell them I have lost my memory card.

By some small miracle, within minutes a hand presses the lost card into mine. It was, of course, the card with the best pictures of the fights.

By this time I have lost my desire (and ability) to take wide-angle photographs close to the action, and hang back as the Pro-Mo's finally seize the stairs of the Syndicate, cheering and shouting, and burning banners from the opposition group. The fights continue. Some Kefaya people are cornered in front of a garage, and the Darth Vaders let the Pro-Mo's in to beat them up.

The stories start to trickle in. Did you hear they had a woman on the ground, they were beating her, kicking her, tearing her clothes, groping her breasts? One woman was abused, came up for air and defiantly dove back into the melee, bring it on motherfuckahs. (Later I read that she is a lawyer, and was going back in to get a positive ID on her assailant.)

Journalists and activists alike were beaten and abused. Women were specifically targeted by the mob of angry men, their veils torn from their heads, their clothing ripped from their bodies, hands grabbing and groping in every imaginable place in an effort to humiliate and frighten them. All the while the uniformed security stood by doing nothing. It was one of the most ugly displays of government force I have ever seen since I have been in Cairo. So calculated, so deliberate, and so entirely unnecessary. Democracy indeed.

After finishing my work for the day (I still had to get that elusive ballot box shot), I returned home and mindlessly filed pictures while drinking a beer. I spoke to a few colleagues on the phone, traded war stories. I smoked a cigarette. I went to bed.

The next morning, I woke up in a daze. I started reading the news on the internet. With each report I became increasingly outraged. As each story recounted the abuse, especially directed toward women, I became more frightened, realizing how close I had come yesterday to losing all my gear and getting a lot worse beating than one nasty bruise on the arm. The rage didn't go away. I replayed the whole scenario over and over like a bad television news clip. Even a hard hour and a half of Ashtanga yoga couldn't shake the images from my mind or settle the nauseating feeling of falling backwards.

I call a fellow female journalist who got dragged to the ground and kicked around. Are you OK? I think we are both in a mild state of shock.

I disappear for a few days to the Red Sea with some friends. I compare the changing colors of the sunset sky on the mountains and the water to the changing colors of the bruise on my arm, and referendum day in Cairo seems, thankfully, a million miles away.

© Dana Smillie

Dana Smillie is a photojournalist based in Cairo. She has covered Iraq, the Vatican, and the Middle East, in stills and video, for clients worldwide. She is represented by Polaris Images.

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