The Truth Behind Tear Gas (Take Part)
As Friday prayers came to an end on Jan. 28, 2011, the sound of chanting echoed through the streets of Cairo. “Ya ahalaino endammo leena!” the voices called. “Oh, people, join us!” It was three days since protests against President Hosni Mubarak’s government first erupted across Egypt and the first day of the weekend, allowing for more people to take to the streets. The Mubarak regime had cut off Internet and cell phone service. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood had been detained. An evening curfew had been declared.
Mohamed ElGohary, then a 25-year-old activist and blogger, had just returned to his apartment in El Hussein, a neighborhood a couple miles north of Tahrir Square, when he heard the chanting. A pudgy, gregarious fellow, ElGohary looks a bit like an Egyptian version of Seth Rogen. He sports rectangular, tortoiseshell glasses, has curly dark brown hair, and has a weakness for flaky baklava. It was a brisk winter day, and ElGohary threw on a jacket and stuffed a wad of Egyptian pounds into his shoe just in case he was detained by the police.
Outside, he met up with a group of a hundred protesters, and for the next six hours they zigzagged through Cairo’s chaotic streets, making their way toward Tahrir, where the protests were centered. The police were out in full force with their navy uniforms and rifles, standing menacingly atop parked vehicles. Then it happened: ElGohary heard the crack and hiss of a tear gas grenade landing on the ground nearby. White smoke poured out of the canister and filled the air. He started coughing and shuddering. He fled into an alley and doused his face and eyes with Pepsi, which Tunisian friends who’d helped overthrow their own government two weeks earlier had told him inactivates the noxious chemical. But the tear gas kept coming. “The feeling was suffocating,” he would recall. “I wasn’t able to see properly. I was barely able to breathe.”