by Christian Vachon
A week ago one of my eleventh-grade students approached me after class. “It will be starting again,” he began. “This time the target will be against the military government. The first set of demonstrations will be this Friday, but they will continue until a second wave of the uprising will begin. This time it will demand the resignation of the SCAF” — the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. “It will be bloody and you should not go to the demonstrations. Maybe once all of the people come out, then you can come. For now there is widespread fear of Israeli spies and you will not be safe in these places for the next few weeks.”
Prophecies of impending social implosion and plots for fundamentalist conspiracies are a favorite topic for small talk in Cairo. I responded indifferently.
“Wait,” he said, before he walked away.
Then, on Sunday, the second day of this uprising, two other students came to see me after class. “The protesters were almost defeated,” they told me. “The Ultras White Knights saved the revolution.”
The Ultras Ahlawy (UA) and Ultras White Knights (UWK) are teenage boosters for Cairo’s two professional soccer clubs, Al-Ahly and Zamalek. Both fought on the front lines of the January revolution.
The student continued: “At eight last night, the CSF had run the protesters out of Tahrir Square. Security forces had occupied the roundabout. The Ultras White Knights charged from the museum, yelling the chant about how they’ll fuck the CSF up.”
I first saw the Ultras White Knights last April, in Tahrir Square, during a Friday demonstration against the SCAF. Five thousand kids holding a twenty-foot Egyptian flag came marching from a side street into the Square. At the head of the group was a kid of 15 with a drum leading a chant directed towards the police: “That’s right motherfuckers, we haven’t forgotten Tahrir, motherfuckers. And we’ll fuck you up again, motherfuckers.”
In August they led similar chants, this time against Field Marshal Tantawi, the head of the SCAF. When the match was through, CSF officers attacked Ultras Ahlawy outside the stadium. One of the Ultras was killed, run over by a security truck.
And at a Zamalek soccer match last month, hundreds of CSF were lined in sections reserved for the White Knights. “Be sure to sit beneath the stands,” a friend advised as were choosing seats. “The last match, the White Knights were throwing bags of urine at the CSF.”
Yesterday morning, I sat in my classroom at 11:30 a.m. with my 5th period English class. Beside me was the student who first told me this uprising would return to Egypt. There were bags beneath his eyes. He’d spent the night fighting in Tahrir. “I have to go back,” he told me and gathered his books together. As he stood up there was a clap, and then another. An ovation rose as he walked over to the classroom door, opened it and looked back at us.
“We have to support him,” someone said. “We may never see him again.”
* * *
This morning the street outside my apartment was empty when I stepped out. All the children I normally see playing in the street had disappeared and there was silence and the hazy sunlight of the early Egyptian winter. I hailed a taxi downtown.
“Is this another revolution?” I asked the driver, a young man in his early twenties.
He looked into the rear-view mirror and nodded. “The job of the military is to fight. It is not to rule,” he began. “The people fighting down there have no money. We are all poor. I too would be fighting if I did not work. I have a baby girl. She is sick. I cannot afford to send her to the doctor. I will drive until I have enough money to take her to doctor. Then I will go and fight.”
I met some journalists at a cafe down the street from Tahrir, away from the crowds gathered around the corner. In the past twelve hours, the narrative of this uprising has taken on a familiar pattern we all recall from the last revolution. As of this morning, as far as we know, 33 Egyptians have been confirmed dead and thousands have been injured. Last night the country watched images of bodies being carried from the front line fighting on the side streets, into one of the makeshift hospitals around Tahrir Square. In the face of this crackdown, foreigners have been targeted. This morning three students at the American University of Cairo were arrested. Another American has been arrested and deported, accused of throwing a Molotov cocktail at the Ministry of the Interior. In response the U.S. has sent out an alert, reminding all Americans that if we are arrested by Egyptian authorities, we are subject to their laws. In short, you’re on your own.
And this is why we met in an 1930s-era cafe, hidden in a side street down from the square; with stained wood paneled walls and framed black and white photos of tuxedo-clad Egyptian film stars from the 1950s. “Is the world aware of this yet?” I asked a European correspondent. “Well aware,” he said. “The news celebrities have all booked their flights. Soon they will be here with their pretty haircuts, pressed suits, their helmets and their flak jackets, pretending to be experts.”
Ten feet past the Tahrir entrance checkpoint, the Square was a maze of thousands of Egyptians. Some looked as if they had not slept in a week; their faces drawn and dusty, surgical masks hanging off the side of their faces. And ten feet inside the Square, two Egyptian men in suits and sunglasses stopped us. “You should not be here,” one said. “The square is infiltrated with secret police. They are arresting foreigners at random and the Egyptians are very nervous about foreign spies.” We wrapped our faces with scarves, put on sunglasses and walked out to the center of Tahrir. A few hundred protesters began to sprint towards the Nile. It is in these moments that built-up fear and tension, the natural state of the Square, take form. Something, anything — a loud crack, or an emerging car at the end of the Square — sends 15 protesters fleeing. Soon five hundred have joined the sprint, but no one is quite sure why. While the panicked run back, a brave few sprint forward to fight off the encroaching threat. Seeing it is a false alarm, they signal to the rest.
“You must get out now,” a friend calls to tell me. There are rumors that authorities may ignite a natural gas pipeline near by. We walked out, through the other end of Tahrir Square, across the Nile. As we walked there were blasts of tear gas coming from Tahrir. The blasts ring in series of twos and threes. A minute later I got a text message from a student: “Tear gassed,” the text said. “Lots of coughing. Hard to breathe. Don’t worry. We’ll be fine. Freedom is priceless.”
Editorial note: This article was edited to clarify which events involved the Ultras White Knights (and not the Ultras Ahlawy).
Christian Vachon lives in Cairo. He posts regularly to Twitter.