Getting back to Tahrir Square in the middle of the celebrations after the fall of Mubarak was a lot easier than getting out of Egypt on 3 February had been. In our apartment on the eighth floor, glued to al-Jazeera, my flatmates and I had watched on TV what was happening in the street below – the men riding into the square on horses and camels, the petrol bombs, the casualties. Our building was guarded by a group of men with big sticks. When people started throwing rocks at our balcony, we decided it was time to leave.
Buying an air ticket was one thing; getting to the airport quite another. The British Embassy offered nothing, not even advice. The university tried to be helpful but at the last minute decided it was too dangerous to get us out, even with a security escort – though they did warn us not to draw attention to ourselves as foreigners. Curfew or not, the middle of the night seemed the best time to leave. So I took the ‘international’ label off my university bag, packed my laptop, a clean shirt and a copy of Ezra Pound’s Cantos in it, and with my flat-mates headed to a friend’s apartment. It was only ten minutes walk away, but that was ten minutes nearer where we might catch a cab the next morning.
There were roadblocks every 15 metres. The first two, where the men knew us, were easy; the third was a problem. There were two very vocal pro-Mubarak men, one with a large machete, demanding our passports and asking why we had not left yet, since our embassies were telling us to do so. He looked at my laptop and assumed I was a journalist or an Israeli spy. We managed eventually to convince him that we were students going home. He handed me back my British passport, put his thumb up and said: ‘Italia.’ I returned the gesture. He kept his thumb up and said: ‘President Mubarak.’ I kept my thumb up too, then left very quickly. There were a few soldiers at the next checkpoint, and they escorted us most of the rest of the way. It was nearly four o’clock; the ten-minute walk had taken over an hour.
At seven the next morning, with a pillar of smoke rising from Tahrir Square, we managed to flag down a taxi. The car threatened to fall apart on every speed bump but the driver didn’t take any rubbish from anybody. There were yet more roadblocks on the way. At the first of them, one of the men let his taser off ‘by mistake’ a few inches from my face. At the next, there was a large group wielding souvenir swords for tourists, which we nervously admired. One of them tried to check my computer for photos but it was so slow booting up he couldn’t access any of them. After that it was a clear road to the airport bar.