Jess Hurd


The Day of Rage – Remembering The Egyptian Revolution

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Today I woke up from a nightmare, I was back photographing the Egyptian Revolution. It has been ten years since the start of the Arab Spring when the people stood up to dictatorship and oppression in the Middle East.

The story  began in Tunisia in December 2010 and it became clear that if the revolt spread then Egypt would be key in the region. I had worked in Cairo before covering a peace conference and was very aware of the oppression living under Hosni Mubarak. Political dissent was crushed, people were tortured.

Myself and video journalist Jason Parkinson headed to Cairo for the Day of Rage on the 28th January 2011. We stepped out from our hostel deliberately looking like tourists, the secret police were searching people on the streets, our plan was to make it to one of the main mosques for the end of Friday prayers. People were in the street as the mosques were overflowing when they were attacked with live rounds as they knelt. It was chaos, tear gas was fired from the top of armoured personnel carriers and people were running everywhere.

The attack on Egyptians praying was shocking. It galvanised opposition to the the regime, millions joined the revolt across the country. We joined a rolling demonstration, which gathered pace and people through the city shouting “Down down Mubarak!”, the protesters were ambushed on every turn, this was planned suppression.

I was keen to stay with the body of the protest, so that we were not picked off, but we were caught in cross fire and had to shelter, documenting the wounded from baton rounds.

I was grabbed by the handle on my camera bag from behind. Jason threw a punch at the guy and we tried to run but I was grabbed again, this time by the throat and held against against a wall as two men wrestled Jason to the ground. We were marched to the frontline of police by the undercover officers, I was desperately trying to get my International Federation of Journalists press card out of my back pocket and was shouting “press press!”. We were thrown in front of someone senior and begged for our release, aware that this could go very badly for us.

The commander decided to release us under orders to leave the country immediately and seized the memory cards from our cameras, but we had already switched the cards and he took empty ones. We considered this a lucky escape and headed back toward to our first floor hotel room on Tahrir Square, hoping this would be a safer option to keep documenting this revolution. It turned out it was not, as ricochets struck the window sill and sniper fire narrowly missed us.

Covering the moment when people collectively forgot their fear and stood up to a barbaric regime was exhilarating, what a moment in history to witness. We were largely welcomed by the crowds as British press, people were so keen for their stories to be told and the revolution to be televised. Mubarak had other plans, this was a Twitter revolution, social media democratised and organised the protests. The regime pulled the plug on the internet and phone networks.

We hooked up with Egyptian journalists from the local syndicate and had 24h support from the National Union of Journalists legal department. Thankfully we were also helped out by a UK colleague who allowed us to used the WiFi in his hotel every morning.

Protests raged every day with battles on the streets. Our hostel was situated where the tanks were stationed, across from the museum with snipers on the roof and a torture chamber in the basement. The torture of choice was to pump up the testicles with water until they burst. I didn’t get much sleep. The constant fire fights and threat of the secret police coming for us was ever present. We left the windows wide open because we didn’t want glass shattering on us and we soaked a blanket will water in case we were firebombed. We slept in gas masks or had them by our side.

Our first trip out to Mohammed Mahmoud Street (as it was renamed), was a baptism of fire. A man stood in front of us waving his arms in the air shouting “sniper, sniper”, blocking us from the bullets, we had to zig-zag out and regroup. The bravery and selflessness of people we encountered was an real inspiration.

We filmed people being carried off the street clutching the backs of their heads with blood pouring down their necks. The side street mosques opened their doors to the wounded and as we documented, quickly became mortuary’s. With shock, grief and panic across everyone’s faces.

Facebook was fairly new as a social media platform and our colleagues used it to check in on a photographer’s site, to make sure people were safe and well. We also set up emergency texts in case we were apprehended. An agency colleague sent us one of these and we engaged the appropriate people. It turns out he was bundled into a car, blindfolded and mock executioned. Thankfully he was released.

One event that especially scarred me was in Tahrir Square on 30th January, it was dusk and people were milling around. Opposition politician Mohamed ElBaradei swept into the Square with a tightly packed crowd around him. I was separated from my colleagues and found myself crushed so badly I couldn’t move. My arms were above my head holding my camera and men around my began to grope me everywhere, inside my clothing, my breasts, inside my underwear. I was in panic mode, I couldn’t move to defend myself, flashing through my mind was that I would be striped, raped, beaten or crushed to death.

I couldn’t breath. I couldn’t shout for help for fear of attracting more of the mob. It felt like a coordinated attack. In a moment I saw a gap in the crowd and managed to dodge, swerve and push my way past the grabbing hands. I was shaken and hyperventilating when I found my colleagues. One said he had witness the assault but couldn’t get to me through the crowds.

At the time I deliberated and struggled with the idea of publishing what had happened to me. I wrote an article and sent a draft to trusted friends and colleagues. The feeling from some was that this would distract from the revolution. I chose not to publish, which was wrong in retrospect, I didn’t want to become the story. But when subsequently other women were attacked, horrifically, including TV presenter Lara Logan, I was hit with such a wave of guilt, that I could have done something to warn others, to prevent this from happening haunted me. The image of a woman being dragged through the streets with her light blue underwear is still etched in my dreams.

We encountered other atrocities, during the battle outside the museum where camels were deployed, we were run off the street by a mob brandishing machetes. We got away but a women following us was bludgeoned and hacked to death at our hotel door.

We hired a cinema in Bermondsey when we returned home to showcase people’s work documenting the revolution. We raised money for the family of an Egyptian colleague who had been killed. We passed union motions against the politically motivated targeting of women journalists and engaged the support of the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, which has been invaluable and hopefully made our colleagues more trauma aware and resilient.

I still reflect on the Egyptian Uprising with an array of different emotions. It has meant dealing with chronic anxiety, a fear of large crowds and confined spaces, also working at night.
But I will never regret bearing witness to the mass revolt and people feeling their power.

Jess Hurd

Check out more:

Egyptian Uprising photos

Jason N. Parkinson Archive

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