Shocking document of Egyptian Winter Revolution

Egyptian cameraman Bahgat's exploits have earned him an almost mythical reputation among revolutionaries, many of whom describe him standing serenely with his camera in the thick of the action, seemingly immune to the ammunition and chaos exploding all around him.

by Jack Shenker in Cairo
Friday, Dec. 2, 2011

A jerky six-and-a-half minute video by a local journalist could be the most important document of the recent violent conflict

Through clouds of smoke, two black-clad and face-masked central security troops advance steadily towards the camera, pausing every few seconds to fire shotgun rounds that whistle perilously close to the screen.

On one side of the street is a column of armed riot police; on the other, hundreds of stone-throwing youths, their heads wrapped in scarves, bodies occasionally crumpling to the floor as another volley is fired.

And in the middle of it all stands the cameraman, Mostafa Bahgat. "This stretch [of road], this little distance, is the most important 15 metres of urban space in our country right now," says the 31-year-old film-maker. "If I'm not there to record what is happening then the lies of the state will go unchallenged. If I wasn't in that place, at that time, I couldn't live with myself. It's what I have to do."

The past two weeks have proved to be a turning point in Egypt's ongoing revolution, with huge anti-junta street protests coming under relentless assault from the security forces and millions of Egyptians defying the bloodshed to turn out and vote in elections for the first post-Mubarak parliament.

But although future historians looking back at this period will have ample primary source material available from a mountain of ballot papers to the hundreds of hours of footage covering rallies in Tahrir Square their most important asset may prove to be six-and-a-half minutes of jerky video, shot by Bahgat from the heart of the violence.

The film, which consists of a series of clips made over several days at the height of the unrest, directly contradicts many of the claims made by the ministry of interior regarding the type of weaponry deployed by its troops and its insistence that only "reasonable force" has been used to confront protesters.

Better than anything produced by more conventional media outlets, the footage captures the dramatic reality of Cairo's recent clashes. It is also one of the most intense recordings of guerrilla warfare ever produced and has rapidly become a viral sensation, clocking up over 100,000 hits on YouTube.

But for the quiet, softly spoken man behind the lens it's just another piece of work, albeit one that serves a vital purpose in the ongoing information war between the Egyptian authorities and the young revolutionaries who accuse the country's ruling generals of unleashing brutal violence against those who dare to speak out against them.

"People in Egypt who only have access to state TV find it hard to believe that the army could hurt or kill anyone, or that the police under the army's control could do the same.

I want to enable them to think differently," explains Bahgat, who stumbled into video journalism by accident while working as a moderator at Egyptian news outlet al-Masry al-Youm.

In early 2009 the multimedia desk wanted to cover a factory strike but was short of personnel; despite having no experience with a camcorder, Bahgat volunteered. "Since then, I haven't stopped," he grins.

At the outset of this year's anti-regime uprising, the tall, red-headed Egyptian found himself in Suez, an industrial city that in January and February played host to some of the biggest street battles between pro-change demonstrators and the hated central security forces who after three decades of Mubarak's dictatorship had come to symbolise the detachment and brutality of Mubarak's all-powerful political elite.

Having witnessed the violence himself, Bahgat decided that footage shot by others failed to convey the real drama of the frontline, and resolved to do something about it.

"When I looked at the other videos, I didn't see in them what I'd seen with my own eyes on the ground," he says. "I knew I needed to start filming myself from the frontline, and that I had to get close to the armed police in order to get proper details of how they behaved, what they were doing."

It was in Suez too that Bahgat learned how to survive amid the rocks, molotov cocktails, teargas and live bullets. He wears no helmet or flak jacket, preferring instead to stay open to the elements, hyper-attuned to the situation unfolding around him, including the shifting position of all the combatants, the direction of the wind, and the precise location of every lamp-post, phone box and scattered piece of street furniture that could be pressed into use as an emergency barricade.

"Much of the time I'm not even looking at the viewfinder; instead I'm glancing all around me, calculating what's going to happen next and whether or not I need to move," he says.

"My strongest tactic is to think back to when I was younger. As a child we jump, roll, hide and play all the time; it feels instinctive to move around in a creative way. Those instincts don't leave us, and now I know what I can use them for."

Beyond those instincts, Bahgat's only protection is a pair of heat-resistant gloves that enable him to hurl back any teargas canisters landing near his feet, and some onions and eyedrops to help combat the effects of the gas.

Bahgat's exploits have earned him an almost mythical reputation among revolutionaries, many of whom describe him standing serenely with his camera in the thick of the action, seemingly immune to the ammunition and chaos exploding all around him.

But as Bahgat himself explains, rumours of his invincibility are wide of the mark: he has been hit by gas cylinders, sprayed with birdshot, and has had eight pieces of metal in his leg for 10 months; shrapnel embedded so deep that doctors are loth to remove it.

The distinction between activist and journalist is one that doesn't concern him; he also dismisses any claims to heroism, shuffling uncomfortably whenever passersby stop to offer praise.

"I take this risk because when you see people die in front of you who are on your side, you can't go around thinking of your own safety," he says.

"My bravery is nothing compared to those who walk forward with nothing, their hands held aloft, only to be shot down, rushed back to a field hospital for treatment, and who then swiftly return to the frontline to confront oppression once again."

Bahgat now works for a private television network called ONtv, but much of his footage ends up being distributed on social media and other independent channels.

The experience of seeing such police brutality up close has convinced him that a complete rebuilding of the security forces is needed if Egypt's stuttering revolution is ever to succeed. He says he has sympathy for the police conscripts who are placed on the frontline and are given little more than rocks to fight with, but he finds it hard to view with any humanity the officers with guns, who can sometimes be seen in the video beckoning protesters towards them before firing.

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