Originally published at thedailybeast.com, 14 September 2011
Over the course of a few hours on Feb. 2 in Egypt this year, the uprising that eventually toppled the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak appeared to be on the verge of catastrophe. During one of the most notorious events of the revolution, groups of men wielding whips and sticks charged into the square on camels and horses in a bid to kick out the protester
Several civilians were killed during the incident, which eventually became known as “The Battle of the Camels.” But now there may be some justice for those who allegedly had a role in one of the movement’s darkest moments.
In the week leading up to that particular Wednesday morning, thousands of antigovernment protesters had managed to secure the symbolic heart of Cairo following the nationwide demonstrations that erupted on Jan. 25. But there was an uneasy atmosphere across the capital. Following the disappearance of the police from Egypt’s streets, groups of stick-wielding vigilante groups erected makeshift checkpoints outside their homes to ward off potential criminals. At times, Cairo felt like it was teetering on the cusp of chaos.
In Tahrir Square, a carnival atmosphere prevailed as families sat around picnicking and protesters banged drums to a chorus of anti-Mubarak chants. Then the scene was interrupted in terrifying fashion.
Seven months after the incident, 25 suspects are now standing trial, accused of ordering the attack. Among them are Fathi Sorour, the former speaker of the Egyptian Parliament; Safwat al-Sherif, the ex-leader of Mubarak’s old National Democratic Party (NDP); and two former MPs.
Much like the hearings taking place in Egypt’s other landmark trial—that of its former leader and his sons—the case has not been without controversy. The judge has already banned live broadcasts, while earlier in the proceedings police prevented some journalists from entering the courtroom.
There is also some raw emotion surrounding the case. One man who was in Tahrir Square at the time of the incident was Wael Khalil, a blogger and socialist activist who said that protesters that day had been “in danger of being overrun.”
“We didn’t know what we were up against,” he added. “We didn’t know how many there were and how much worse it would get.”
Eventually the attackers were routed, an experience that Khalil said made the protest movement feel “invincible.” Yet he admitted that for a while demonstrators were wondering if they would be the victims of a “bloody massacre.”
Aside from the bitter memories involved, the trial could well serve up a tantalizing inside account of a crumbling autocratic regime’s desperate last spin of the wheel.
On Tuesday the judge heard from Safwat Hegazy, a leading Islamic cleric who took part in the Tahrir Square protests.
According to him, some of the camel riders and other attackers who were apprehended by demonstrators on Feb. 2 confessed they were hired NDP thugs.
Egyptian newspaper reports have also claimed that the pre-trial investigation has unearthed evidence that Sherif, the ex-NDP leader, contacted other members of the party to recruit help in crushing the uprising.
According to a camel tour guide near the pyramids, who knows some of the men who charged into Tahrir Square that day, there is no doubt that the regime was complicit in the attacks.
“They were paid by rich businessmen and told to go to Tahrir Square,” 44-year-old Zaki Sultan told The Daily Beast.
“They were angry that their business had been affected by the uprising. They were scared about the country.”
He named a parliamentarian who he claimed was involved in organizing the attacks, although that MP is not one of those currently being tried.
Egyptians are experiencing a two-track revolution. Hosni Mubarak might be on trial, but a judge’s ruling that a number of key future hearings will take place behind closed doors has raised suspicions about the process.
And while the parliamentary elections scheduled for November point to a revolution in good health, recent threats by the military that it will reinstate martial law would suggest otherwise.
The court hearings surrounding the Battle of the Camels might lay to rest some ghosts, but there are plenty of demons lying in wait along the road ahead.