'I was tear-gassed in Cairo...'



As the Arab Spring spread from Tunisia to Egypt, the people of Cairo took to the streets to protest against Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule. Within weeks the 83-year-old president had resigned.


Oxford student Harry Darkins, 21, explains what it was like to be stuck in the middle of it all.


There were rumours that something was going to happen even before 25 January. A couple of people in my class were activists and they were talking about protests.

But many of us thought it was unlikely. We thought any uprising would be quashed. Or no one would bother. Many Egyptians were resigned to living under a dictatorship.

I'm studying Arabic at Oxford and was doing a year abroad in Cairo. I arrived in September 2010, but went home for Christmas and returned to Egypt on 3 January.

There was a police holiday on 25 January - the first day of protests - but we thought that was the end of it.

We were a 15-minute walk from Tahrir Square and our road was closed off, but we weren't scared at all. We just went to school as usual. I was surprised to hear in newspapers and online later, that the police had used tear gas.

Things got really bad the following Friday - the 'Day of Rage'. When the rallies were in full formation, we could hear people chanting from outside our house. I could even hear gun shots. I saw the interior ministry building in flames.

We got gassed quite badly in our streets. My friend's grandma, who is Egyptian, even felt tear gas from inside her house. There were vehicles launching canisters. They sounded like shells - like something you see in a film. They hit the ground and exploded, with white gas streaming out. Our area was consumed by it. It felt like we were in a war zone.

In preparation for the 'Day of Rage', the government cut off all mobile telephone lines. We were having a party the night before and texts were blocked. I couldn't call my family at all. The Internet was down for the whole time during the revolution.

The phones came back up after a couple of days and we got a few text messages from the Egyptian Government. Basically propaganda through the network. It said: “We have the best interests of Egyptians in mind, so go back to work.”

There was a curfew from 8am to 3pm. We attracted more attention being foreigners, so we tended to stick to it, especially once we started hearing reports of foreigners being targeted.

The Government were already blaming outsiders for what was going on, saying it was a conspiracy. They were employing thugs who were targeting rich properties, a lot of which were rented by non-Egyptians.

The Foreign Office didn't order us to leave, but we didn't know what was going to happen, and flights were going very, very quickly. My father got our tickets. We spent a night in the airport because we couldn't get there without breaking the curfew. We wanted to stay in the city because we loved living there, but it was obviously getting scary. We had to go home.

We went back to Cairo three weeks later - and it felt completely different. The atmosphere had changed. It felt fresh. Many pavements had been painted in the colours of the Egyptian flag. Mubarak had gone, and the people had got what they'd wanted. It's an experience I'll never forget.

Harry Darkins was talking to Anthony Pearce.


More in our 'I was there' series

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'I helped in the battle to overthrow Gaddafi'
'I set up camp at St Paul's Cathedral'
'I worked the last night at News of the World'
'I travelled 3200 miles to see the Royal Wedding'