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Arab Spring
DAVID EPSTEIN
July 23, 2012
The wave of revolutions that toppled governments from Tunisia to Yemen changed the lives of many London Olympians—for better and worse
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July 23, 2012

Arab Spring

The wave of revolutions that toppled governments from Tunisia to Yemen changed the lives of many London Olympians—for better and worse

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AS THE fastest sprinter in Egypt's history, Amr Seoud is accustomed to getting places first. But this was different. Seoud was among the initial wave to arrive at Tahrir Square in Cairo on the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011. At first he saw scattered groups of people hanging out "like they were on vacation," Seoud says. But they were there with a purpose. A month earlier in Tunisia, 26-year-old fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi had set himself on fire and died after being harassed by police and having some of his wares confiscated. The resulting protests in Tunisia against police corruption and political authoritarianism brought down president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

In what soon would be known as the Arab Spring, a tsunami of political uprisings that swept across North Africa and the Middle East from Morocco to Oman, Tunisia's government was the first to fall. Egypt's would be the second.

January 25 was National Police Day in Egypt. Tens of thousands of Egyptians had already joined a Facebook page calling for a protest of police abuses and three decades of "emergency" laws that had allowed indefinite detention without trial. Seoud also had a personal reason to attend.

In 2006 he had been pulled over in Cairo by police who wanted to search him and his girlfriend. One officer pushed Seoud, setting off a fistfight. (A coach helped Seoud avoid arrest.) "That's how it was," Seoud says. "You'd get in trouble for no reason, so I hated the police."

By the night of the 25th, as police descended on Tahrir Square, activists streamed in. Many had been called to action by "ultras," groups of Egyptian soccer fans. By midnight 100,000 people were in and around the square. In the wee hours of Wednesday the 26th, police opened fire with rubber bullets, tear gas and concussion grenades.

On Friday, as riots spread through Egypt, Seoud retreated back to his neighborhood, where residents had set up a 24-hour watch to protect them from government retaliation. That night, Seoud was lying on the hood of a parked car talking to a neighbor when bullets sprayed from a passing ambulance. Seoud was unharmed, but "that guy right next to me, he died right away," he says. Other neighbors blocked the ambulance and killed the two police and two government loyalists who were inside.

Over the next two weeks more than 800 Egyptians died in clashes between protestors and police, and thousands more were injured. The fighting finally subsided on Feb. 11, when Egyptian president Hosni Mubarek stepped down and the constitution was suspended.

BY DEC. 6, 2011, when athletes from 21 countries gathered for the Arab Games in Doha, Qatar, the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya had been toppled. At the opening ceremony some of the battle scars were on display.

Mohammed al Rabti, a 33-year-old rower, led the Libyan delegation into the stadium, but he did not bear the flag. The battling in Libya had left up to 30,000 dead, and Rabti had lost his left arm while fighting the forces of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. And yet he beamed with pride as he strode before the red, black and green banner. That flag had replaced a Gaddafi-imposed all-green one, which mirrored the leader's political manifesto, The Green Book. "He wanted even our blood to be green," said Mohamed Lwila, an official with the Libyan delegation. Noting the restoration of the pre-Gaddafi flag, Lwila said, "We died for these colors."

For four decades Gaddafi stifled Libyan sports. The country has almost no pools, for example, because Gaddafi considered them a waste of water. According to Haffed Gritly, Libya's team doctor and delegation chief in Doha, nobody wanted to tell the dictator that pool water can be filtered and recycled. (Gritly knew the dangers of defying Gaddafi; he had helped smuggle medications to rebels, and his name was later found on Gaddafi's hit list.)

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