Ahmed Rehab has been hit 24 times with an acrid cloud of tear gas — stopped in his tracks as he and thousands of other protesters march for democracy in Egypt.
“It’s a painful experience,” Rehab said in a telephone interview Sunday from Cairo.“ But as soon as the effects are gone, you think of going right back into the calls for freedom.”
Unlike other American travelers, the Chicago-based civil rights activist, who heads the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), went to Egypt in anticipation of the simmering revolution.
Rehab has been one of many thousands of Egyptians who have taken to the streets in an attempt to oust longtime President Hosni Mubarak.
Rehab, who headed to Egypt on a personal mission, walked among the thousands of protesters Friday as rubber bullets whizzed by, tear gas canisters exploded and police hit protesters with batons, he said.
“We felt inspired the whole time,” he said. “We knew we were creating history.”
On Sunday, thousands of demonstrators remained at Cairo’s central square, chanting “No turning back the hands of a clock,” Rehab said.
A strict curfew remained in effect, so shops were closed and the streets were mostly empty expect for military soldiers perched on tanks at major intersections throughout the city, he said.
Rehab, who is also the secretary of the Chicago-based Egyptian-American Society, said he plans to stay in Egypt, where he was born, for another month. He’s documenting his experiences on his blog: ahmedrehab.com/blog.
On a personal mission of her own, Madeline Murphy Rabb intended to take in the ancient pyramids and architecture on her trip to Egypt. Instead, she has been caught in the crossfire of a momentous time in Egyptian history.
Rabb had been in Egypt since Tuesday with her sister, Laura Murphy. The pair took the trip, part of a “Grannies on Safari” tour, to celebrate Rabb’s birthday, Rabb said in a phone interview Sunday from Luxor, a city 400 miles south of Cairo. She declined to say how old she turned on Jan. 27.
“There is a part of me that is extremely excited to be witnessing this change and this revolution among these amazing Egyptian people,” said Rabb, an art consultant and the former executive director of the now-defunct Chicago Office of Fine Arts.
Rabb, who participated in the March on Washington in the 1963, said initially the protesters exuded the same peaceful spirit as those who participated in the march for civil rights.
“The feeling my sister and I experienced was this real urge to join in the revolution,” Rabb said.
But as the days went on, the situation escalated. The women watched from their hotel balcony in Cairo as tear gas blew through the city streets. The smell of smoke made its way across the Nile River and onto their balconies, Rabb said.
Crowds of people, including police, inundated the streets. In one instance, their tour bus couldn’t make its way through the crowds and the women had to get out and walk to their hotel, she said.
On Friday, the tour group headed south to Luxor, where they expected the demonstrations to be at a minimum. Instead, the group has been stuck on boat that was supposed to take them on a cruise of the Nile River. Rabb and her sister, who is an official with the American Civil Liberties Union, hope to cut their trip short and fly out of Egypt on Monday.
Despite the turmoil and interruption in their travels around Egypt, Rabb said it has been worth it.
“The best birthday gift was seeing this people’s revolution,” she said.