On Friday, April 8th


On April 8th, Egyptians came to Tahrir Square, as they have every Friday since Hosni Mubarek’s February 11th resignation. These gatherings have become commonplace since the revolution. Those disgruntled with the pace of reform parade homemade, anti-government posters in the glare of the afternoon sun.

Teams of flag merchants set up shop along the sidewalk.  Little kids walk through the square with their parents, eating popcorn with the Egyptian flag painted on their cheeks. In the carnival-like atmosphere you have to stop and remind yourself that only a few weeks ago, rooftop snipers killed people on these streets.

But on Friday, April 8th a small number of the Egyptian army officers had joined the protest. The “revolutionary officers” stood before throngs of impassioned protesters—the largest gathering since the revolution—criticizing army corruption. Over a million came out to see the defected officers, cheering them as the latest revolutionary heroes while army helicopters circled over Tahrir Square.

The last time I had seen uniformed army officers standing over a crowd was a month ago.

On March 6th I was among a few hundred Egyptian revolutionaries outside the Lazoughly Square offices of Amn Dawla, the internal security branch of the Egyptian government in charge of domestic surveillance operations.

In front of the building’s entrance were two tanks. On top of the tanks twelve army officers stood watch. No one was going anywhere, but the crowd numbers increased as the sun went down.

Photo of protesters at Lazoughly Square by Dana Vachon

Despite the unwelcoming barricades and armed guards, protesters were optimistic. Just the night before, many of them had amassed outside Amn Dawla’s Nasr City complex. They had arrived hoping to break into the building and recover incriminating classified files detailing years of torture and abuse perpetrated by government agents on civilians. There was fear amongst the protesters that the agency was destroying sensitive documents to prevent future prosecution of its members.

After hours of protest, the army opened Amn Dawla’s entrance.

Hundreds ran through its halls. They scoured its darkened offices, destroyed hallway surveillance cameras, recovered files, and removed garbage bags of shredded papers:

Outside the front gates of the Amn Dawla’s Lazoughly complex, there were hopes of a similar fate.

For an hour protesters chanted their demands to enter the building. Indifferent army officers looked out at them blankly. Then there was applause and the cheer: “The army and the people are one!” A second team of twelve officers marched in from the rear to reinforce the guards on the front line.

“Why are they cheering?” I asked an 18 year-old Egyptian man beside me. “These guys have been sent in to keep you from getting inside.”

“I know,” he replied. “But for now we have to make the army feel like we love them—like they are our friends. Otherwise we are in danger.”

Two hours later, when darkness had fallen, the army shot blasts of automatic weapons fire over the heads of the protesters. The gunshots sent crowds sprinting in a frenzied melee to the street entrance.

At this moment the baltagiya (plain clothed thugs for hire from Cairo’s poorer districts) appeared, waiting in position to attack the protesters fleeing towards them. Some of the baltagiya chased and beat people with swords. Others threw Molotov cocktails into the crowd.

Back in Tahrir, I stood looking out at the uniformed officers on stage and thought back to that night outside Lazoughly Square; the insecure cheer of Egyptian protesters, the fear that inspired it, and the gunshots that followed it. The façade of the “people’s military” had revealed its first cracks that night. A month later it seemed to have vanished entirely.

In the early weeks following the revolution, army officers were the heroes of these Tahrir celebrations. They kissed babies and posed for photos with children on top of tanks. Now there was not an officer in sight—only those on stage leading the cheering masses in condemnation of the military regime that now rules this country.

Later that night, the Egyptian army declared that the officers who had joined the protests would be charged with treason. In response, protesters formed human shields around the officers in the center of the square:

In the early morning, the group was attacked. In tanks and on foot, the army charged the protesters on the Tahrir roundabout. Officers shot hundreds of rounds during the raid and 24 hours later, there were reports that two protesters had died:

Close to 5:30 am, protesters regrouped and had retaken the square.

The next morning I walked back to Tahrir. All entrances were blocked off with barbed wire and metal pipes. At an access checkpoint I was stopped and frisked by an Egyptian teenager. His sweatpants were filthy and torn. His face was covered in dust. He wore sandals and his toes were badly scraped. He looked like he’d been through hell.

Inside, the charred shells of two trucks smoked in the overcast mid-morning haze. There was a surreal intermingling of shaken, ghost-like Egyptians who had endured the night’s attacks, intermixed with fresh-faced pedestrians out for a morning stroll through barbed wire blockades, garbage, and improvised barricades.

In the midst of the scene I ran into a protester I’d met that night outside Lazoughly.

“What happened to the soldiers?” I asked him.

“Missing.” he replied. “Some say they have been killed and taken. There are large bloodstains here. No bodies though.”

Twenty-four hours later, local Egyptian news reported that defected Egyptian soldiers are among the weekend’s causalities.


Last night, a military tribunal sentenced Egyptian blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad to three years in prison for “insulting the military.”


All photos taken by Giordano Ciampini last Saturday, the day after the early morning attacks on the Tahrir protesters, unless otherwise noted.


Be sure to read Cairo: Scenes from a Revolution for more of Christian Vachon’s reporting, as well as to view his photos from Egypt.