One street at the centre of Cairo's violent clashes
- 23 November 2011
- From the section Magazine
Tahrir Square is a global symbol of Egypt's revolution, but nearby Mohammed Mahmoud Street is where many of the battles were - and still are - fought. The BBC's David Botti lived on the street before, during, and after the revolution and recounts its recent history.
Some of the worst clashes in Cairo over the past few days have been concentrated along just a few blocks of one ordinary downtown street.
It is Mohammed Mahmoud Street that pulsing crowds of protesters can be seen funnelling into from Tahrir Square as thick black smoke rises above them.
They surge on past a McDonald's, a pet store, various pharmacies, cafes and apartment buildings.
"At the front lines on Mohammed Mahmoud: street lamps have been cut. It's pitch dark. Very heavy police fire. Can hear cattle prods," one journalist tweeted on Monday night.
"Heavy gunfire at Mohammed Mahmoud, I think it's pellets and rubber bullets," tweeted activist Noor Ayman Noor on Sunday.
The street is largely unknown to the outside world - overshadowed by the street's neighbour, Tahrir Square. But its role in Egypt's struggle to navigate a post-revolution era mirrors that of the nation where violence still flares and people still demand change.
A Hardees restaurant and the former main campus of the American University in Cairo mark the start of a key route from the square to the Ministry of Interior, the source of many injustices which galvanised a nation into revolt.
When unrest gripped the square during the revolution and afterwards, it was on Mohammed Mahmoud that security forces often planted their vans teaming with riot police. And when demonstrators decided to push police from the square, or sometimes march on the ministry, clashes on the street could last for hours or days.
Such violence has continued sporadically since the revolution, flaring up with little warning and usually related to anger over the policies of the ruling military council.
Mohammed Mahmoud Street's role began in the early days of Egypt's revolution.
Late on the evening of 28 January - the day Egyptian protesters drove police from the streets - I arrived home on Mohammed Mahmoud Street after a day of reporting to find scores of police occupying an intersection.
They ordered me inside and I watched events of the next eight hours from my bedroom balcony.
First came the sound of metal traffic barriers scraping against the pavement as the police reinforced their position at the intersection. They looted a nearby shop for crisps and soft drinks to get them through the night. A 10-minute walk away the headquarters of Egypt's then ruling party was burning.
Then the protesters arrived.
Throughout the night the area was transformed from a typical downtown neighbourhood into a gutted symbol of the revolution's determination to end a dictator's 30-year-rule.
"If this shop is going to be destroyed and totally demolished for the sake of good change for me, my children, and my brothers I wouldn't care," shop owner Ehab El Haty told me a few days later. "I can always get another shop."
The shops had borne the brunt of physical damage from the clashes. Tensions eased only after soldiers arrived to separate demonstrators from police. The army saved Mohammed Mahmoud Street, as many Egyptians thought it had saved the country.
But as disillusionment grew with the military after former president Hosni Mubarak's fall, Mohammed Mahmoud Street once again felt the effect.
Residents and merchants learned to anticipate the violence.
A street braces
I usually knew something was about to happen if I suddenly heard the echo of sliding metal shutters along the street.
The Radio Shack was often one of the first shops to close when word of possible unrest spread. The store was heavily looted during the revolution.
Elsewhere, residents hastened to move their cars off the street. If clashes here during the revolution taught car owners anything it was that their vehicles stood a good chance of damage from rocks, tear gas canisters, or Molotov cocktails.
Fruit vendors - manning their corners at all hours of the night to the songs of famed Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum - packed up and moved inside. Their wooden stalls were shattered more than once.
The vibrant clatter of daily life in downtown Cairo would then fall silent. Sometimes nothing happened, and sometimes it did.
Five months later, violence came to Mohammed Mahmoud Street after families of citizens killed during the revolution said security forces prevented them from staging a demonstration. The clashes lasted for nearly 13 hours. Tear gas wafted into flats, cars burned, a steady hail of rocks seemed to hover permanently over the ground.
Two policemen, separated from their unit, moved through an apartment building in search of water and shelter.
And then the street was back to normal.
Throughout all of the post-revolution unrest, daily life in Cairo has no choice but to keep bouncing back.
The resilience of Mohammed Mahmoud Street was perhaps most clear as I interviewed neighbours after clashes early on in the revolution.
Everyone was pitching in to clean. Employees of the Costa Coffee hammered up boards to protect the already shattered windows. Families swept away the rubble, and small food shops opened for the first time - though their shutters remained half drawn in case violence flared again.
But November's latest round of clashes appears to be the worst Mohammed Mahmoud Street has seen.
"Mohammed Mahmoud Street looks apocalyptic. There are fires everywhere, sirens, smashing glass and gun shots," wrote a journalist on Twitter as Cairo entered a fourth night of unrest.
He then added: "It's so dark on Mohammed Mahmoud you can only make out where the police are from the muzzle flashes."