Photo Essay: Recent Images and Stories from Occupied Tahrir Square

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By now, images of tent cities in public spaces have become synonymous with Occupy Wall Street. Yet, before the Occupy Movement, as Arab Spring uprisings took shape in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and beyond, the Arab world was changing. In Egypt, the people revolted against censorship, unemployment, inflation, brutality, and corruption. Violent clashes echoed through the news channels. Mubarak resigned. Egypt’s socio-politcal changes became increasingly complex. Journalist Stephen Yang photographed Cairo from November 27th to December 12th, during and after the parliamentary elections, the country still “temporarily” ruled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. He visited the protest tent cities remaining in Tahrir Square, though smaller after suffering violence at the hands of police forces — still fighting, still being attacked.

In our slideshow, Yang shares a few of his images, along with some first-person insight into the state of protestors still camping out in Tahrir Square, certain misconceptions perpetuated by the “Western mainstream media,” how an outsider journalist avoids conflict, and how Egyptian citizens self-police internal violence. It’s just one perspective, but it’s certainly a fascinating one.

Photo credit: Stephen Yang. Tahrir, Egypt.

“When I arrived, everyone was getting ready for the first round of parliamentary elections. Tahrir Square was still somewhat occupied by tents and people, although the crowds had dwindled since March. There were still civilian led checkpoints and bag checks. But by the time I was leaving in early December, the square seemed almost completely empty and the civilian security was gone. A lot of the frustrations seemed to be vented through the elections and the hardline protesters at Tahrir Square were losing support from the general public.”

All photographs and commentary by Stephen Yang.

Photo credit: Stephen Yang. Tahrir, Egypt.

“This is Gameel Nasef Mounir, 20, a Christian from the Shoubra district of Cairo, just north of Downtown. He said he had been in Tahrir since January 28th, 2011, leaving every few weeks to go home and change his clothes. He said he had been shot in the leg, gotten 71 stitches in his head and stressed that in the square, Muslims and Christians were there to support one another: ‘We eat in the same plate, drink from the same cup, and we all take care of each other as one family.’ While he remained in the square, he said ‘I am not optimistic about the future. Nothing has changed.”

Photo credit: Stephen Yang. Tahrir, Egypt.

“This is a photograph of two men gathering stones and bottles, hidden under a tarp to bring to a fight. I was walking around, taking photos, when a fight broke out on the other side of the fence and these guys ran over and jumped the fence, revealing their stash. Two men were shouting at one another, then started to throw glass tea cups at one another, then rocks. Both men started to gather others at their sides, shouting about how they would get more of their friends, who seemed to appear quickly from nearby. What was striking was that as soon as the crowds appeared, another crowd of mediators also appeared. Some were shouting ‘sorry’ to the other side, arms raised, trying to get one group to back down. Eventually, the mediators took the offended parties out of the square and no one was hurt.”

Photo credit: Stephen Yang. Tahrir, Egypt.

“This is a boy holding a fake gun and a sandwich early in the morning on December 1st, 2011. I was with Ahmed Sobieh, my friend and fellow journalist, walking when the boy flashed what appeared to be a gun under his shirt. His demeanor was not aggressive, so I aimed my camera and he pulled it out in a cocky, joking way. A few seconds after, a man ran over and shook his finger at me, clucking his tongue. The boy left. Ahmed turned to me and said ‘Was that real? It looked pretty heavy.’ I had seen toy guns around and also knew that Egyptians do not give guns to kids. The people are very good at self-policing. I have seen kids with sticks looking for a fight confronted by older, unarmed Egyptian men who disarm them of their weapons.”

Photo credit: Stephen Yang. Tahrir, Egypt.

Have you ever felt unsafe?

“I had made friends with two Egyptian guys in March and we went around photographing and interviewing people over the course of two weeks, so between the three of us it didn’t seem dangerous. Having local support was key to staying safe and getting good access to subjects. In some cases, it was just as surprising for them as it was for me to talk with people in the square. Overall, people were very supportive of our project and we felt safe.”

Photo credit: Stephen Yang. Tahrir, Egypt.

“There was one time when we were taking a photograph of a man with a homemade weapon that a crowd gathered around us and pushed us away from the subject, scolding us and accusing us for portraying Egypt negatively. We had some empty threats shouted at us — ‘We’ll break your camera if you take that photo’ to me and ‘Are you Egyptians? Shame on you!’ to my friends. After we explained that we were journalists and we had a responsibility to show all sides of what was going on, the crowd backed down.”

Photo credit: Stephen Yang. Tahrir, Egypt.

“Being able to have a dialogue with people, not just taking the photo and running away, proved an effective way to deal with aggression. There are a lot of people who believe that foreign journalists are spies or are being paid to feed media propaganda. Sometimes they would assume the worst first. However, if you talk with people, even angry ones, they eventually calm down.”

Photo credit: Stephen Yang. Tahrir, Egypt.

“This photograph was from a fight between street vendors and occupants of Tahrir Square late Tuesday night, November 29th, 2011. The vendors were accused of dealing drugs, causing problems and being opportunistic. Allegedly, the actual fight started after an argument when a street vendor threw hot water on a man. As the fight progressed from glass bottles to rocks, fireworks to Molotov cocktails, and later small firearms, large crowds fled Tahrir, heading northeast, pushing the fight away from the square. I was on an overpass with others watching the two groups throw stones at each other from rooftops and Molotov cocktails on the ground. Here you can see the broken glass and the flames from one of the cocktails. A couple hours later, the fight was dispersed and people went home.”

Photo credit: Stephen Yang. Parliamentary elections in Cairo, Egypt on Monday, Nov. 28, 2011.

From what you’ve witnessed, what does the “Western press” have difficulty understanding or expressing?

“Egypt is a diverse place and many aspects are generalized by the press. Some of this is more practical than it is intentional. If you were to just to read the news that appears in mainstream Western media regarding Egypt, it would appear that city-wide chaos is breaking out every few weeks. Even during these protests and fighting, there is a large portion of the city and population which is going about their daily lives. Three, four blocks away from a conflict you can find people sitting at a cafe having tea. However, good news does not always make it to the front page as much as dramatic conflicts and acts of violence. Related to this point is that while many people fighting, there are many who immediately flock to a fight to help disperse it. Egyptians are very good at mediating one another. For every fight I’ve seen, there’s another party who steps in to try and resolve the conflict.”

Photo credit: Stephen Yang. A pro SCAF rally in Abbasia, a district of Cairo, Egypt on December 1st, 2011.

“Another aspect that is under-reported is that many people desire a moderate or even liberal government, but are discouraged by the difficulty of creating a new, coherent liberal platform. Many of the people we interviewed expressed support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi parties because they were better organized and had clear leadership, not because of their religion or because they want Egypt to be an Islamic state… I personally believe that even if the Brotherhood were to take control, they would not immediately institute radical religious laws because they would come under sharp criticism from the people, who really want a fair and democratic system. The real question is how long can a religious ruling party sustain a moderate platform after they take power. It is easy to promise to be moderate, but much harder to protect these values once in power.”

Photo credit: Stephen Yang. Taken far away from Cairo near a town called Bahiriya, which is in the Southwestern desert. Osam is praying at dawn, before breakfast.

Photo credit: Stephen Yang. Bahiriya, Egypt.