Revolutions have a way of sticking with you – emotions run high, change is imminent and the sense of possibility is euphoric.
The images of Egypt’s January uprising were striking, forever engraining the momentous events in the memories of those who witnessed them and captivating the world’s attention for weeks.
“Egyptian Freedom Story: 25th of January Revolution” is a photo documentary capturing the most frightening and thrilling moments: the fight for freedom, the high price paid, the celebration and the aftermath.
“Freedom Story” follows through until the March referendum and includes a special chapter titled “Art of the Revolution.” The book stands out because of its implicit acknowledgement that the Egypt story is still in the making — as opposed to happily ending on Feb. 11 when Hosni Mubarak stepped down.
As the power of the people galvanized into a mighty force, the first of the glorious 18 days were tumultuous. Violence and uncertainty made way for hope, persistence, and eventually, victory — pictured step by step in this cleverly choreographed photo documentary.
After the celebrations came the clean-up efforts, then renewed protests, a contentious referendum and an art scene colored for good by the life-changing experience.
“Art and literature are what stay after all this is over,” said Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, who — along with partner and friend Samy Al Tobgy — put the book together.
Fahmy, a journalist and now CNN producer, wrote the comprehensive introductions to the seven chapters of the book. His own story with the revolution is equally engrossing.
I met Fahmy just after his return from covering the Libyan revolution, on the very day Muammar Qaddafi was killed.
An Egyptian, Fahmy grew up in Kuwait, attended university in Canada and then made his way to Iraq as a stringer for the LA Times in 2003; after which he wrote “Baghdad Bound: An Interpreter’s Chronicles of the Iraq War.”
After experiencing Egypt’s uprising both as a protester and a journalist, Fahmy decided it was equally important to document as he had done with Iraq; this time, choosing the visually gripping medium of photography. Over 200 photos taken by more than 30 mainly Egyptian photographers who were on the streets tell the story of the revolt.
After a stint as a senior producer with Al Hurra TV in Dubai, Fahmy came back to Egypt on January 22 “to relax and get away from news,” ironically enough. He was in the tranquil Siwa oasis before the uprising erupted, but made it back for January 25 as friends and Twitter were abuzz with the planned mass protests.
“When I arrived I realized that it was very serious, that people were very angry, and I saw people getting hurt…young girls and older women [protesting]. I stayed until 1:30 am when [security forces] teargased massively and attacked people,” he told Daily News Egypt.
The sense of frustration was palpable, and on a personal level, he had his own gripes with the former regime. His father, an outspoken critic of the government, was banned from entering Egypt for eight years. “Our family has paid the price. …There’s all this repressed anger inside, so when you finally see a way to channel it — I went all out in every sense of the word,” he said.
On January 28, after the telecom blackout, he found himself alone, joining the march from Mostafa Mahmoud Square after Friday prayers and ending up in the infamous battle on Kasr El-Nil Bridge. A man beside him was shot with a bullet in the neck and pronounced dead on the scene. He saw a close friend nearly crushed in the stampede as protesters retreated, helped him up, then lost him to the crowds.
“There was no going back,” Fahmy said, recalling the moment when, like hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, he realized that there was only one way forward.
He had applied to CNN a few months before and got a call signing him up as a producer just as the world’s attention turned towards the iconic Tahrir Square. But that also meant he was now covering the protests as opposed to participating in them.
“I was no longer the story. Just days before I was giving interviews to Canadian TV…and then I was on the other side of the camera,” he said.
Images speak volumes
Initially, Fahmy wanted to write a book about how the revolution affected artists in Egypt, as their voices and canvasses flourished with renewed vigor. His friend Al Tobgy had begun compiling photos so the two joined forces and the book was completed in about a month.
“I wrote the captions, I gathered some photos from friends, and I wrote intros to the chapters of the book. I put in my favorite chapter which is the art of the revolution, the graffiti,” he said.
In the foreword, Dr Farouk El Baz, writes, “The authors of this volume have succeeded in collecting a perfect set of photographs. These were contemporaneous with the event, taken on the spot and expressing a multitude of emotions, with hope on top of the list.”
Riveting images show a sea of people facing off with security forces, batons swinging, clouds of teargas, burning tires — bravery and resilience taking on a life form. The army taking to ravaged streets, protesters greeting soldiers, an officer carried on the shoulders of protesters chanting against the regime.
One of the most expressive photographs is a black and white, two-page spread of a man strolling through the ruins of the burnt down NDP headquarters and all it symbolizes. Others show prayers in Tahrir Square as choppers circle downtown Cairo, flags waving and witty signs held up boldly.
Then, the unexpected and medieval Camel Battle, one of the most horrific days of the revolution filled with blood, flying rocks, numerous injuries at field hospitals. Some scenes are difficult to look at, some we’d rather forget — but it is for that very reason that they need be documented, to keep the memory alive.
But more so, to show the climb upwards from that darkest night to the following days — captured perfectly by a picture of a packed and durable Tahrir.
“I consider the photographers the heroes of this book,” Fahmy said. “When you’re a photographer or a cameraman, you need to be in the front line getting that money shot. …photographers are brave and risk their lives more than anyone to get the right image.”
The ups and downs, the happiness and the disappointment of those days led to victory, and as the intro to the chapter on post-Mubarak Egypt predicts, “…those who spent 18 days in Tahrir Square will never let another ruler dictate their future.”
Still, as the country prepares for its first post-uprising parliamentary elections, the mood has changed and it’s increasingly important to look back at photos of the March referendum, a reminder of the sense of ownership and hope that existed then.
Throughout the struggle, artists made resounding statements, whether on the walls of the city, in the signs of protesters, or through the faces of the martyrs — and since many of these images have disappeared from view, the chapter on art is vital to immortalizing the work and that spirit.
“It’s a medium that strikes people and makes them think,” Fahmy said.
The collection of photographs will indeed leave you reminiscing about the power of a united people, and its limitless ability to bring about necessary change.
The book is available at Diwan, Alef Bookstore, Virgin Mega Store, Volume 1, Book n Books, Bookspot, Kotob Khan, Anglo-Egyptian Bookstore and Azza Fahmy jewelry stores as well as online at Souq.com.
Mohamed Fadel Fahmy in Libya.