The First Time I Got Hit With Tear Gas

If you were on the ground during the Arab Spring, it’s hard not to see disturbing parallels to the protests in America now.

A man in a face mask makes a peace sign in a crowd.
Aymann Ismail in Tahrir Square in 2012. Courtesy of Aymann Ismail

The first time I inhaled tear gas was in 2012. I was in Tahrir Square, in downtown Cairo, where just one year earlier, half a million Egyptian protesters declared victory over the military dictator Hosni Mubarak, who formally resigned as president after 30 years of rule. After the elections that followed, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi won and promptly attempted to grant himself broad autocratic powers, which drew large crowds and journalists like me right back to the square.

The tear gas canisters I breathed that day bared bold block letters: “Made in the USA.”

The gas hurt. It forced my eyes closed. I ran away, but that didn’t stop it. It crept down my nose and into my throat. A lump hardened in my neck. I was back for more the next day with an N95 mask, but it didn’t help much. My windpipe was inflamed for days.

It’s through these memories that I am processing the protests that have enveloped American cities as they’ve faced tear gas and police violence. The images of police in riot gear advancing quickly down the streets and attacking protesters can feel straight out of the earliest days of protest in Egypt.

At the time, even as it unfolded, many Egyptians were in denial it was happening. Mohamed Fahmy, who goes by the artist moniker Ganzeer, was in Tahrir Square from the very beginning. He told me people were dismissive of what was coming: “We would say things like ‘Egypt is not Tunisia.’ ” He vividly remembers the first loud bang that volleyed gas into the air.

“People were staring at it hanging in the air before it hit the ground,” he said. “They didn’t know what that was.” The Egyptian police, then the Egyptian military, fired so many rounds of tear gas that they very nearly ran out—until they were able to purchase more from America.

Ganzeer was compared to Banksy and Shepard Fairey in the New York Times, though he hates being called a “street artist.” Nevertheless, his protest art got him arrested, and to avoid becoming a political prisoner or worse, he fled to the United States, where he now resides. The past couple weeks have been déjà vu.

Among other things, the uprisings in Egypt were also triggered by episodes of police brutality caught on camera. On Facebook, a group rallied around one particularly gruesome case and victim, Khaled Saeed, and the first rallies were organized. But it wouldn’t have become a full-fledged revolution without the Egyptian police’s violent attempts to crack down on the peaceful protesters, which in turn legitimized and perpetuated the protests.

In the past week and change, I’ve watched video in America trickle out of militarized police gassing protesters, striking them with vehicles, and shooting them rubber bullets. Just like in Egypt, the crackdowns have tested protesters’ patience and methods.

In Egypt, Ganzeer said, “I remember particular incidents where there would be someone feeling the need to address the police, standing in front of them trying to speak to their hearts. That didn’t work. You can’t speak to their hearts or to their soul.

“Of course the army would never fire on civilians,” he remembers thinking. Then the live rounds came.

Egypt is not Tunisia. America isn’t Egypt either. Dalia Fahmy, an associate professor of political science at Long Island University, is not enthusiastic about the comparison. “Does Egypt have targeted police brutality? Yes. But it’s on ideological lines. You can’t say that there is 10 percent of the Egyptian population that is black, but 60 percent of the prison system,” she said, referring to the American carceral state. Egypt and America also have vast differences in history and economic disparities. Here, the protests have boiled from 400 years of black enslavement, disenfranchisement, and official violence.

But Fahmy does understand why the comparison is on some people’s minds. “We talked a lot about the birth of citizen journalism during the Arab Spring. That’s why Mubarak was very quick to cut off the internet, as if there’s a magical switch,” she said, referring to videos that documented police brutality before the revolution. “You could make that kind of parallel. Citizen journalism is the most powerful counter to the state narrative during the Arab Spring, and today it’s the only way we’re getting justice.”

And there are other similarities. “Trump called the protesters in D.C. the other day terrorists,” Fahmy said, referring to a letter from the president’s former lawyer that Donald Trump tweeted. “I was shocked when I saw it this morning. That’s exactly what happened in Egypt. That’s exactly the narrative that happened under authoritarian regimes, right? They’re against the security of the state, so they’re terrorists.” In Egypt, the regime’s supporters soon grew more comfortable with state violence against the protesters.

The factors that led to revolt in Egypt and the United States are not far apart, but the early response looks much the same. Disproportionate force with dubious reasoning, assaulting the press, tasteless photo-ops, telling people not to believe our eyes: Anyone familiar with how the autocratic regimes of the Middle East clung to power will notice the similarities. That’s made many of us with these memories nervous about what’s to come.

“Everyone is probably tweeting, ‘Stop talking about the Arab Spring,’ ” Fahmy said. “But you have to remember that in politics, as I tell my students, there are winners and losers.” Fahmy has studied the ways regimes in revolutions vie for power, and she said the Arab Spring does have lessons for the movement taking hold in America today: “To think the Arab Spring was going to happen and the people were going to simply get what they deserve is naïve. To think a series of protests is going to lead to structural change is also naïve.” When she looks back to what went wrong with Egypt’s revolution, it has everything to do with what happened after the protests.

Back then, Ganzeer protested all day and produced protest art all night. In hindsight, he wonders how else that explosive emotional energy in Tahrir Square could have been spent. “The actual problems arise when the people who are with the protest eventually get tired, and their principles and beliefs are manipulated by the need for things to return to normal,” he said. That’s where things started to fall apart for Egypt: “They have to put food on the table. They have to pay rent.”

In Egypt’s case, after Mubarak’s resignation, people mostly just went home. Many thought the days of military dictatorship were over. But with most of the country’s political infrastructure intact, the military reasserted rule quickly. Egypt’s revolution was undone, but Ganzeer believes that Americans are on the right track in widening their scope: “It’s not about a few bad cops. It’s not about Trump,” Ganzeer said. “It’s about the transformation of the entire system.”

“Just Like Occupy Wall Street failed, the Egyptian revolution failed,” Fahmy said. “There was no strategic plan—and this is what comes from political science literature—there was no charismatic figure, there was no coalition formation, there was no vision that had been cultivated for a few years before the revolution. And so post-revolution, there was a series of infighting.”

She said she sees mixed signs this time. “We’re seeing people call for the defunding of police, and that’s already starting to happen. So it could be that this is moving toward success. But without leadership, without vision, without a plan, just as the Arab Spring failed, and Occupy failed, this could be a fleeting moment,” she said.

Like many people, I’m watching the protests of the past few weeks with hope. But I can’t totally curb my skepticism. I felt that hope once before. For a period, Egypt felt changed. For the first time in my lifetime, heated debates in coffee bars over who the best soccer clubs were were replaced with arguments over who’d win their first-ever vote.

Nobody in Egypt talks politics anymore. The coat I wore to that protest in Tahrir Square still reeks of tear gas.