Mustafa Nabil's jeans are dirty. His glasses are smudged. His maroon striped shirt is nearly in tatters. And he holds up his hands: calloused and bruised: "Do these look like the hands of a doctor?" he smiles. The stethoscope hanging around his neck as he moves amongst the demonstrators in Tahrir Square on Thursday attests to his profession.
But Nabil still seems uncertain of how he got here, and why he can't compel himself to leave, despite the violence he saw the night before, the fact that he has a steady job (unlike many of those around him) and his mother's desperate pleas. "I'm not the kind of guy who likes fighting. I try to avoid it," he says. But the events he witnessed in the past week have made him, first, a volunteer doctor, then a demonstrator and then a fighter. And the worse it gets, the more he wants to stay.
"Friday night, I was in charge, on duty at Qasr el-Eini hospital," explains the 29-year-old lung doctor. It was the night that chaos reigned for the first time in the sprawling Egyptian capital. Riot police came down hard and violently on thousands of anti-Mubarak demonstrators, and the central Cairo hospital became a crowded refuge for the wounded.
"I was in the chest department, and the workers came in from the ER. They were shocked, telling us that there are people here everywhere, dying and injured," he says, staring at the ground. "I went down to the ER and saw the injuries. More than 70 died."
Like many Egyptians his age, Nabil is unmarried and lives with his parents. Until recently he claimed to have few outlets for his passions. During the Gaza war two years ago, he had wanted to go to volunteer his services in the besieged territory. His parents hid his passport. This time, they had less of a choice. On Saturday, Nabil's superiors at the hospital gave him permission to go lend a hand on the streets. He has barely been home since.
At first, he participated in the protests, and he helped in the makeshift clinics, treating those wounded by bullets, stones, and sticks. The numbers of demonstrators only mounted since Friday, but the injuries didn't. And as the Mubarak regime began to cough up concessions, Nabil started to have second thoughts. "On Tuesday morning, I went home and heard what Mubarak said. And I didn't know what to think, because many people said, 'that's enough. It's what we asked of him,'" he explains. He pondered the possibility as he took to the square again on Wednesday, where he heard others express frustration with the country's spiraling security, and the economy under siege.
"When Mubarak said what he said, I thought to myself, and I remembered something from the ER. A man had come to me crying. He said, 'Please come and help me. The government killed my son. I want to claim my rights,'" Nabil remembers. "At the time, it was a strange idea. But on Tuesday, I suddenly remembered it. Now we are claiming this man's rights."
Nabil's experience echoes those told by other doctors, accountants, teachers and truck drivers over the past 10 days of Egypt's ongoing upheaval: a latent dissent and frustration driven to action by vivid experience.
On Wednesday night, as pro-Mubarak supporters, thugs, and plainclothes police pushed into Tahrir Square with an onslaught of rocks and Molotov cocktails, Nabil felt vindicated by his memory of the father in the E.R. And as the fighting grew hotter, he found himself thrust unexpectedly yet willingly onto the front line, fighting back. "Yesterday, when I went to the front line, I hesitated for a second. They were throwing fire bombs. We all knew we could die. But I said to myself: we are here for something very big. And if the criminals come into Tahrir Square, the revolution is over."