The turning point in the Egyptian Revolution, Tahrir Square, Cairo, February 11th–13th
Exclusive to The Online Photographer
Words and Photographs by Peter Turnley
I've witnessed and photographed many of the most important moments of geopolitical change of the past thirty years: the fall of Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution in Prague, the overthrow of Ceausescu in Romania, the end of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the Tiananmen Square uprising and military crackdown in China to name the most important ones. After following daily from afar the uprising in Egypt, and being inspired by the wonderful and courageous photographs made by many of my colleagues who were already there, I decided last Wednesday to board a plane for Cairo. I was well aware of the potential dangers for journalists covering this story.
Of course I couldn’t know which way events would turn, but with the day of prayer (Friday) approaching, my instincts told me that a determining moment of this revolution might be about to take place. I was quite sure that one way or the other, the hundreds of thousands of people in Tahrir Square in Cairo and all over Egypt were taking the trajectory of history in the Middle East to a place where things would never be the same again. I felt I needed to move quickly.
The potential for a violent turn of history
My flight from New York City transited through Paris before departing for Cairo via Beirut. On Thursday evening, in the Paris airport, I came across a small group of French correspondents I knew from covering many previous stories together around the world. As we waited to board our flight, we watched as a news bulletin reported that Hosni Mubarak, to everyone’s surprise, had made a nationally televised announcement saying he refused to step down. Suddenly all of us, many with years of experience covering war and conflict, had a sinking feeling that we were embarking on our trip just in time to witness a moment that could involve a serious clash between the determined protestors and the Egyptian military. We knew there might be an imposition by the military of martial law.
We also assumed that the conditions we were flying into, judging from working experiences encountered in previous days by many of our comrades already in Egypt, were likely to be very dicey for us. This sudden, grim turn of mood would be only one of many during the next forty-eight hours.
I knew that many of my colleagues arriving in previous days at the Cairo airport had had their cameras bodies and lenses confiscated by Egyptian authorities. During the several-hour layover in Paris, I concealed camera equipment all over my luggage—camera bodies were wrapped in bundles of underwear and lenses were stuffed in socks. If I was going to be checked for camera equipment on arrival, someone was going to have to make a determined effort to find all my gear. My sense of purpose was now singularly focused—the only thing that could justify making this trip would be to succeed in making photographs of this moment in history for others to see. I purposely had put only one old body and lens in a very visible camera bag, hoping that if my gear was to be confiscated, this would be what was taken. Just before getting off the plane in Cairo I put a small, newly acquired point-and-shoot in one of my socks under my pants leg.
I was one of the few lucky ones on my flight going through Egyptian Customs. None of my bags were checked.
I rushed through immigration and grabbed a taxi to go directly to my hotel off Tahrir Square, the central public square in downtown Cairo that had been ground zero for the massive protests. (Fittingly, "Tahrir" means "liberation.") Several of the other correspondents on my flight were less fortunate and had all of their radio satellite transmitting equipment confiscated by Egyptian authorities.
I arrived on the outskirts of Tahrir Square at 10 a.m. on Friday, February 11th. On a tip from another photographer colleague already in Cairo, I managed to pick the best, most strategically located hotel, the City View. The choice was another of the luckiest links in the chain of events of the next two days.
I had found a taxi dispatcher at the Cairo airport who spoke a little English, and I commissioned him to accompany me, to help get me and my bags through the military checkpoints to the hotel, which was inside the military perimeter around Tahrir Square.
After dropping my bags, I quickly went out into the immense crowd of Egyptian protestors and began to make photographs. These early photographs in this set are from that day, February 11th.
The historic moment
At 6 p.m., Tahrir Square became almost silent as a voice was heard over a loudspeaker. The standing vice president of Egypt, Vice President Omar Suleiman, announced from the Presidential Palace that Hosni Mubarak was no longer in power and the army council would run the country. A deafening roar exploded from the thousands of people on Tahrir Square. I photographed people hugging and crying, many appearing almost in disbelief. Many people hugged me, a stranger, and kissed my forehead.
Someone put his arm around my shoulder in the dark, and, in English, with an Arabic accent, whispered in my ear, "Yes, we can."
Many Egyptians in Tahrir Square began to shake hands and thank and congratulate members of the Egyptian armed forces.
Parents brought their children to witness the historic moment. Here, a father hoists his baby in the air in victory and celebration.
As I looked into the faces and heard the singing and chanting of the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians that had poured into Tahrir Square, I felt a sense of peace and my heart felt lit up in a way I hadn’t felt for a while. I was in the presence of a huge group of people who had decided that at whatever risk, it was time to rise up collectively and demand opportunity for a better and more just life. Their spirit, whatever the consequences of their actions would be, felt strongly contagious.
This picture was taken on a highway overpass next to Tahrir Square in the early morning of the first day in 30 years that Hosni Mubarak was not in power.
The first Egyptian newspapers announcing the fall from power of Hosni Mubarak arrive in Cairo.
An Egyptian makes a symbolic gesture of poking out the eyes of Mubarak.
On the second morning following the takeover of the Egyptian government by the military, a small number of determined hard-line protestors continued to try to stay in Tahrir Square as the Egyptian military and police started to clear the square of all remnants of the past 18 days of protest in an attempt to bring the life of the square back to normal. A new tension developed between this small group and the Egyptian military and police.
The police preparing to move out the remaining protestors.
Questions of the future
A mother with her baby on Tahrir Square on Sunday morning, two days after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. The tank behind her, symbolic of the power of the Egyptian military, underlines the question on many peoples’ minds regarding how much the future of this young child will be influenced by the degree to which the Egyptian military will contribute to promoting a more democratic society in Egypt.
Before I finish, I want to share a few final words that will stay with me that I heard from a woman, Hoda Elsadda, an Egyptian professor of Arabic Studies at Manchester University in England. We met as I took a bus to board a plane to leave Egypt on Sunday. I asked her what she thought of the situation. She replied, "wonderful!"
I asked her if she was worried about the military.
She replied, "Of course I am worried. We all are. But this is a moment of hope, and I haven’t felt hope for so many years. We need to take this step by step. But for now, I insist on feeling happy!"
Postscript—February 17th: "Great way to start a day—wake up in Paris to a coffee, a croissant, and one of my photographs from Egypt as a double-page opening photo in Paris-Match fresh off the newsstand. Photograph of Peter Turnley by Marie-Therese Loistron, my good friend who serves wonderful expressos at my favorite morning café, Café La Fronde, in Le Marais, Paris."
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.