Pass the Onions: In Egypt a Demonstration is a Riot

By Ahmed Amr – Cairo

The Egyptian uprising came to my front door last Friday and I ended up getting my fair share of America’s foreign aid budget by inhaling an unhealthy dose of tear jerking fumes, courtesy of Combined Tactical Systems. The American ‘aid’ that I inhaled came from surprisingly attractive tear gas canisters with the company’s logo and a description of the contents – ‘6230 Riot CS Smoke’.  I’m not sure what the occasion was because I wasn’t rioting. The only thing I did to deserve being tear-gassed was join a peaceful march to demand some basic democratic changes in Egypt starting with the removal of Hosni Mubarak.

It all started innocently enough when I witnessed a peculiar spectacle while having a cup of tea in my balcony – a demonstration in suburban Cairo of all places. Heliopolis isn’t exactly a hub for Egyptian dissidents so I wasn’t the only one who was taken aback by the weirdness of the event. Folks were hanging out in their balconies to cheer the young marchers on and the young demonstrators responded by asking them to come down and join the festive procession. Because I didn’t have any other invitations on my calendar, I took them up on their offer and went down to try out a few improvised slogans of my own. That’s why I got tear gassed.

Once I joined the crowd, I started mingling and asking a few questions – the kind of questions journalists are supposed to ask. Which balcony did you come from? Have you ever demonstrated before – 90% answered ‘no’ to that question. Demonstrations are still considered a novelty in Egypt. There were very few signs – just some flags – another indication that most people joined spontaneously. For the uninitiated, most Egyptians keep flags at the ready to celebrate any kind of victory against any kind of foreigners – especially Algerian soccer teams. Anyhow, my impression was that the vast majority of the marchers, who were overwhelmingly middle-class and politically unaffiliated, had impulsively decided to take part in what turned out to be a historic event.

If there was one single demand that the demonstrators seemed to agree on, it was the need for Mubarak to step down. Their favorite chant was “Al’shaab yourid isqat al nizam” which translates into “the people demand the downfall of the regime.” The phrase has more rhythm in Arabic and it seemed like a reasonable enough demand after thirty years of dictatorship. Every now and we would start singing the national anthem – “Bilady Bilady”. Since I only remember about half of it, I’d mostly just hum along. 

As we moved towards Tahrir square – a good seven mile walk – the crowd got bigger as more people came down from their balconies to join us. Along the way, people handed us water bottles, passed out goodies and wished us well. I saw grown men and women crying because very few Egyptians thought they’d ever see a day like Friday, a nationwide primal scream against dictatorship, corruption and mismanagement by the ruthless octogenarian clique that rules Egypt.

There was absolutely no leadership; this was not an organized event. But we all knew our ultimate destination – Tahrir Square. We didn’t think the powers that be would let us get that far and, as we inched closer, many turned back, discouraged by the clouds of tear gas and the black smoke you could make out at a distance of two miles. We would turn onto one street, find it blocked by riot police, and turn around and search for side streets to circumvent their barricades. One thing we all wanted to avoid was any kind of clash with the police. Every time we encountered dense concentrations of security forces, we would start shouting “Selmya” – keep it peaceful- and find another path to reach the square.  A few of us came armed with onions to alleviate the effects of the tear gas but we were all defenseless.

Some people hesitated to go on – especially the young women in the crowd.  If I was to give a rough estimate, I’d say only one of three demonstrators who joined the marches went the distance and maybe the two that turned around made the right decision. Because what was waiting for us in Liberation Square was a liberal dose of American manufactured tear gas and rubber bullets. The security forces had some other exotic American-made riot control weapons in their arsenal. I saw injuries from small pellets that were from some kind of non-lethal cluster bomb – but I think those were reserved for demonstrators who got close to the American University or the road leading to the American embassy. The police did not constrain themselves to the use of non-lethal weapons. Thirty people around the country died from live ammo.

Mubarak’s police goons came prepared for a riot and when they encountered tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators, they decided to treat them as rioters anyway and they had ample stocks of American financed and manufactured riot control weapons to beat back the crowd. The government also took the precaution of interrupting internet services and cell phones went dead all over the country.

The demonstrators who made it to Tahrir Square were a determined if naïve bunch. Few of them were seasoned activists. They came unprepared; no onions – no vinegar – not even water. They knew less about tear gas than I did. But once we made it to the square, most of them decided to stay put and camp over night and that’s when the riot police intensified their assaults. Mubarak’s goons were determined to take back the square.

The tear gas was overwhelming and thousands scurried down side streets to avoid the noxious fumes. What we found there was more riot police firing more tear gas and rubber bullets. A few people fainted and a young man watching me cough took be my arm and led me into the dark foyer of a residential building. Like most refined young Egyptians – he called me “uncle.” We went up five flights and joined others who had been invited into an apartment overlooking the square and the American University. From there, we watched the action below from the balcony – a cat and mouse game between the riot police and the young demonstrators who started picking up the tear gas shells and throwing them back at the security forces.

Things were starting to get a little bit ugly and I had an instinct what was coming next. I walked down the five flights, made my way back to the square and started walking towards Ramses Square. It was a little before midnight and as I exited the square, dozens of Army tanks and troop carriers started rolling in. The young crowd was ecstatic to see them. They flashed victory signs and chanting “The Army and the people are one hand” and “The police beat us but the army shields us.” Frankly, I didn’t know what to think. While the Egyptian Army is the most respected institution in the country, a military takeover isn’t exactly my idea of democracy. After enduring hours of assaults by the police, maybe the crowds were just happy to see somebody who wasn’t firing rubber bullets and tear gas canisters. So what started out as a peaceful demonstration turned into a police riot that necessitated the intervention of the Egyptian army.

Next time you hear Hillary and Obama wax eloquent about their support for ‘stability’ and ‘reforms’ in Egypt, ask yourself why a country that rarely witnesses a demonstration has so many riot control brigades armed with such a vast arsenal of American manufactured rubber bullets and tear gas canisters. Maybe it’s because Obama and Hillary share Mubarak’s assessment that any Egyptian demonstration must be a riot. Spare me the sanctimonious drivel and pass the onions.   

– Ahmed Amr is an Egyptian-American and the former editor of He contributed this article to

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