Magdi Mostafa is an artist who works with sound and visuals. He represented his friend, the late artist Ahmed Basiony, at this year’s Venice Biennale. Basiony, who was thirty-two, was killed on January 28 in Tahrir Square.
Bidoun: [Points to Bidoun 24, Sports] So the cover of this issue was an accident. It was the end of January and we were looking for an image of a Tunisian weightlifter, and we couldn’t find one. So we were like, “there’s a protest in Egypt. Maybe an Egyptian?”
Magdi Mostafa: It was all about being an accident, trust me. I thought I was just meeting some friends downtown. “Let’s meet in Tahrir, okay?” But I wasn’t expecting anything — I was making fun of it until the last moment. I was a little bit hopeless because of what happened before. But I thought, let’s go and see. There’s nothing to lose. The presence of so many people was a surprise to everyone.
B: So you were there on the 25th, for the police day protest?
MM: We started on the 25th. There was no plan to come back the next day, actually. We just wanted to do something for one day, to say, “We are here!” If they had just let us go home, things might have been different. The violence… caused a lot of rage in people. We were angry. It’s like we were looking for excuses every day to come back — and they kept giving us an excuse. So we came back the next day, and the day after that. That wasn’t planned either — thanks!
B: So you didn’t know it was a revolution right away?
For me, on Friday the 28th, it was a revolution. Before Friday, it was protests. But Friday, you had all these categories of people together, and people coming from far away. They came from Giza, from Cairo, from Shobra — from everywhere. And they came through the streets. The movement in the streets gave people a true image of what was happening, very far away from what they had seen on state television. You’d just open your balcony and see people moving like water toward Tahrir. And we were calling to people to leave their houses. “Stop being negative and come join us!” So there was just a massive amount of people. All kinds of people, not just educated or civilized or young. A lot of women, a lot of older people. Everything. This togetherness, and the voices, and the power of having the right. That was something. It didn’t belong to certain people anymore. It was everyone.
B: And you had to fight your way into Tahrir, right?
MM: That day Tahrir Square was completely closed by security. And from Friday prayers until six thirty, we were trying to get into the square. And then after we finally did succeed in pushing the security back and opening the square for people to get in, there were still back-and-forth attacks. The police wanted to have the square again, and we were pushing them back. And we wanted to reach the Parliament building itself.
B: When the story gets told, people remember what happened as this peaceful protest, of people giving their dreams and giving their spirit, or maybe even of police brutality, like on the day of the camels. But people actually beat the police.
MM: For me, it was truly a war. There was a factory of people taking out the pavement. There were people breaking the pavement into small pieces. Another group bringing these rocks to the front lines, holding them in their clothes or their bags. Everyone had bags full of rocks and we’d throw the rocks to the people at the front. And with a big number of people at the front, mostly young men, it was a strong attack. Like a cloud of rocks.
People improvised. Copied each other. If you did something, and you did it well — if it worked — you’d find everybody doing the same thing. That’s one of the things that made the protests successful. People distributed information about how to face the police — what to bring with you, what to wear. Things were shared online beforehand, shared on Facebook and stuff like that. Bring vinegar to deal with tear gas. Wear bike helmets. What kind of shoes to wear. The Egyptians really proved that they have the skills to fight a war that day. There is this image in my mind, this sound. There was a group of people hitting the street signs, the big ones, with rocks, stone on iron, and it made a terrible sound, like an F-22 flying overhead. If you were the police, and you saw the smoke from the burning cars, and then this huge sound — it could make you believe there were two million people coming at you. It was really amazing.
B: Why rocks? A rock won’t necessarily knock a policeman out, for example. How does it work?
MM: The goal is to push them back. If you imagine that you have a wave of rocks coming at you, like a wave of water, you step back. So we were creating a wave of rocks… and we move forward. And they push us back with tear gas and rubber bullets. But we were also talking to them, trying to reach the human inside the uniform. The police are just doing a job — they don’t believe in what they do. And I believe that it worked for some of them. You know, if he catches you, he doesn’t hit you. He drops his weapon or something. Maybe his superior is more violent, but the policeman himself is not that violent. They know why we’re there, they’re the same age as us. They’re not living on a different planet.
B: The relationship between violence and nonviolence is so complicated. People have guns here. And you know, if you’re going to throw a rock, wouldn’t it be more effective to shoot a gun? But then it’s not actually more effective. The rock is not just a rock. It has a softness as well as a hardness. And the same with the police. They’re holding their positions, or fighting with gas, even though they could just shoot people.
MM: They did! They did! I’m telling you, after a certain point, they just started shooting people. There was an end of the chapter, when they realized that the target was the police itself. Then they went crazy. “You are very greedy. We left the square for you and now you’re attacking us and you want to take the parliament. What else?” They didn’t realize it was a revolution; they thought it was just a protest. And we were pushing them back, back, back.
B: And then what happened? Or why did it happen? When the police started shooting… Why did they lose control? Were there just too many casualties or something?
MM: I think… there was an accident. We had taken some of the police cars, the big vehicles with the box. A lot of people were taking them and burning them. But then somebody thought about using them against the police, to trick them. We found people who were really good drivers, and then we packed two of these vehicles with protestors and just massive amounts of rocks. And the trucks drove very slowly to the police lines, pretending to be police, and people in the square played along, pretending to throw rocks at them. And the police were preparing to let them pass. And then suddenly, the drivers accelerated very, very fast and destroyed three police cars, and people jumped out of the boxes and started to attack the security and the police. So this pushed them back like fifty meters, because it was a huge surprise. Some of them fell and were injured. And at that moment they just opened fire on everyone. It was a decision. Some of the snipers on the roofs started to use true bullets, shooting at the cars and the vehicles. A guy died right next to me. So they lifted the ban on using true bullets, and I’m not sure whether they put it back later that day or not, because after that I had to leave because of my injuries.
B: What happened to you?
MM: I had been in the box of one of those vehicles. I’d gone in part because I had a motorbike helmet. You know — if you have something to protect you, you better be in the front, because other guys have nothing. And I took a rubber bullet from one of the snipers. I was bleeding from my head.
B: It went through your helmet?
MM: I didn’t close it, so it came here. [Gestures] This man and his daughter saw me. I was not sure what had happened, and they weren’t sure, either. So they said, “Okay, we have to take you now because we’re not sure how deep that wound is.” And they took me to my home. I didn’t trust any hospital at the time — the security forces were taking people even out of ambulances.
B: A lot of people were killed that day, including your friend Ahmed Basiony. Would you mind telling us what happened?
MM: We went to the square every day together. Ahmed was always carrying his camera — he was filming all the time. And he was wearing a gas mask. He had a sort of performative attitude. On the first day he was wearing a sort of worker’s costume. He was always wearing something that made him very visible. And I think that was one of the reasons why they recognized him so easily. He was wearing a gas mask from Russia! I told him, “Come on, it’s tear gas, not chemical war!”
B: Was he making art?
MM: I think he was documenting more than anything. He was collecting material. We all were.
B: You said it was kind of performative.
MM: That’s just the way he is. I mean, he didn’t film himself. It’s just something in his character. He was not always a serious guy. He was laughing all the time. But he was serious about what he believed in.
So on the 28th, after we had fought our way into Tahrir, Ahmed was interviewing people in the middle of the square, asking them if they believed that we were all sincere in doing this or not. What’s their expectation and blah blah blah. And he was in the middle of an interview when that thing with the police vehicles was going to happen. So I told him where I was going, that I’d come back for him.
After I was injured I wanted to call Ahmed to tell him I wasn’t there anymore, don’t bother to look for me. But the phone network was down already, so he didn’t know what happened. I believe that he went to look for me when I disappeared. He knew I was by myself.
And he took a rubber bullet, too. What happened was, he was trying to film some of the snipers with his camera set to night shot. So he climbed up on top of something and started filming those guys. And they shot him, and he fell to the ground, and a police car hit him. I really believe it was planned—if he’d just fallen by accident people would have helped him. At the very least I think the sniper planned the shot so that the car would hit him when he fell. His camera was lost, it was full of amazing material. And then they put him on a motorbike and took him to the hospital, but he was dead already.
When I came to Tahrir the next day, I went looking for him. I had no idea what had happened—those first three days, there were so many people in the square and so much going on, we’d lose each other by the end of the day. So it wasn’t unusual to have lost track of each other. But then that day, Saturday, he didn’t show up. And later we called his house and found out he hadn’t been home for days. So we started looking for him in the hospitals, but we couldn’t find him.
B: How was he eventually found?
MM: I mean, his brother was always looking for him. And by chance his family found him in one of the hospitals, in the fridge. What’s really strange is that they had a form for the family to sign—if they wanted the body, they’d have to sign away their right to press charges. And lots of people did it. Even though Ahmed died fighting for those rights, you know? But not everyone felt the same way. There were a lot of family conflicts about Tahrir. Everyone was hiding from their parents. So even though people were paying with their lives for those rights, there were people who were like, “No, we just want the body.” And it was a tragedy, because he was such a special person. His loyalty… he lived for what he believed in, for his teaching, for his art. That’s why so many people are sad about Ahmed, because they knew him. He didn’t care to be internationally known, he didn’t care about the market. He was himself, he liked what he did. And he was a very promising artist.
He always wanted to film the truth. I heard that there were people in the square who tried to stop him from filming, and he said, “No, there will be a judgment for this, and we have to have a proof that it really happened.” He paid his life for that.
B: Did you guys talk about art while you were in the square?
MM: You know, the action was always bigger than art. So in the end, you forget about being an artist and you get into just being a citizen. I mean, I was recording stuff, too — I have materials, images and sound and videos, but I haven’t even opened them yet. I have folders of stuff, but I don’t know when I will open them.
B: What do you think you’re waiting for? What is it that you don’t know? Is there a question that goes around in your head? Something you’re waiting to see?
MM: I think one of the greatest benefits of this revolution is that a lot of people have questions in their heads. The future is unknown — and this is really healthy. The definition of safety and stability was that you always knew what was going to happen. You were in “safe hands.” But now we don’t know. I like that I don’t know. To me, this is good news. So I think that the questions that are in my head are the same as everyone’s: what will happen tomorrow?
For me, specifically, I wonder if it was really worth it. To have lost so many people. To be worth it, things are going to have to go somewhere a lot better. I mean, if you want to change a law, or if you want to change presidents, the price shouldn’t be all these people. The price can be an election or something. But if you pay with the lives of all these people, then you have to change the whole history. There should be a wave of changes, new pages in history, for us to be able to say that it was well worth it.
B: This might be a weird question, but did you have any dreams that you remember? During the revolution, or after?
MM: I’ve had some dreams about Ahmed. I’ve seen him twice. But those are the only dreams I’ve had. Just his face, or him talking to me. I am representing him in the Venice Biennale. It’s like an homage. I think it’s the right time for him to be representing his country. I mean, he was qualified, apart from being killed. [Laughs] He’d applied for the one before, but he didn’t get it. Anyway, in my dreams, I have seen him smiling after the proposal of Venice. I was very hesitant to participate, because from my point of view there’s a bit of a promotional aspect for the people who do it. It’s also a bit exotic for me to be presented as his friend and as a representative of the revolution. But even his family suggested that I do it. And then seeing that smiling face of his was for me a sign of something. I needed to see him that way.
B: Do you still go to Tahrir?
MM: I went every Friday, until recently. Right now I have nothing to say. I want to have a solid idea of what’s going on before saying something, and right now I don’t believe most of what I hear. I’m not sure about a lot of things. It sounds good, what you hear in the news, but you never know what is happening backstage.
B: What’s changed for you? Are you still talking with people about what happened? And how do you feel about the way that the media sort of seized on “the martyrs” as a way of talking about the revolution? It seems perhaps limiting, in a way.
MM: It’s a difficult question. One of the biggest challenges is that not everybody has the same level of awareness. Most people would rather skip these difficult times and not struggle at all. And I think this is the perfect enemy of our dreams. There are a lot of people still living in the past, and this is the biggest challenge.
So I mean, yeah — every chance I have to speak, I speak. I don’t hesitate, because it’s the only way, I think, to change awareness. I live in a really traditional neighborhood uptown. I take the subway — I don’t have a car — and people next to me on the train would start talking. And some of them would say, “Fuck the revolution!” Things like that. I never keep silent, even if it will lead to an argument. It’s a rule I have for myself, a way of being loyal to Basiony.
People really don’t know — they were brainwashed by the media, which was working really well at making people believe that every other media source was lying or working with Israel or both. Most Egyptians are really kind and they want to believe in the goodness of others. So I speak in the name of being there, and I can show some images of things as evidence, point to a poster with Ahmed’s face on it and say, “We were friends.”