On Tuesday 25 January, Jog creative director Robert Smith, accompanied by photographer Timothy Soar and another member of his consultancy, flew to Egypt to complete final snagging on their branding and exhibition design work for the Cairo International Book Fair.
The consultancy had been working on designs for the event – which attracts more than 2 million people each year – since the beginning of December. The fair was due to be opened on Saturday 29 January by President Hosni Mubarak and the Jog team wanted to put final touches to their work and photograph it.
The day Smith and his team arrived in Cairo marked the beginning of a series of escalating protests across Egypt against the 30-year regime of Mubarak.
Smith says, ‘We’d had a project manager on the ground in Cairo since the beginning of January and he’d mentioned to us beforehand that organised protests were expected but I don’t think anyone really knew what was going to happen.’
The team were on site at the Cairo International Conference Centre in the suburb of Nasr City throughout the week, while just a few miles away city-centre protests were growing larger and more violent. ‘Even on the Thursday you could have been in Cairo and not known anything was happening,’ says Smith, ‘But you would certainly know about it on Friday.’
Friday 28 January is now referred to in Cairo as ‘Day of Rage’. Despite the Egyptian government suspending Internet and mobile phone services, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of the capital. Protesters set fire to the headquarters of the ruling National Democrat Party and battled with police, who were eventually forced to withdraw and were replaced by the Egyptian army.
Mubarak himself took refuge in the presidential palace – cancelling a last-minute visit to the book fair where he would have met the design team. Smith says, ‘The Minister for Culture had visited the fair and seen our work. He then apparently spoke to someone close to Mubarak and we were told, “You’re going to meet the president.”’
‘We were issued with our security passes at 4pm – but between 4pm and 6pm the situation deteriorated rapidly.’ After witnessing protesters marching past the conference centre on their way to the city, Smith and his team were given a driver and bussed back to their hotel – which lay on the other side of the rioting.
Smith says, ‘Our route took us over the 6 October bridge – which was one of the flashpoints, and we crossed after the rioters had beaten back the police. We could still see the police in the distance and hear tear gas canisters tinkling on the pavement. On the bridge itself protesters were running around setting everything on fire.
‘We certainly didn’t feel safe, but we weren’t under direct threat from the protesters. One person who had just lobbed a petrol bomb into a police van looked around at us, but we weren’t the target.’
Smith says, ‘From the hotel we had a view of the NDP headquarters going up in smoke. We saw the police pulling out and then heard the rumble of heavy artillery as the army moved in.’ Soar shot video from the hotel and also from a drive through Cairo on Saturday morning.
The team managed to fly out of Egypt on Sunday. 30 January – although at one stage the plane they were on taxied back from the runway to return to the terminal. ‘The rumour is someone from the Egyptian Government had been on board’, says Smith.
Jog created more than 1640m2 of exhibition stands and 4000m2 of building and tent wraps for the book fair, as well as entrance sculptures, wayfinding, lighting and an internally-lit wall for the VVIP area – ‘which was essentially exclusively for Mubarak’s use’, says Smith. The fair, unsurprisingly, has now been indefinitely postponed.
Smith says, ‘Whatever happens now there will be a real shift in power in Egypt – Mubarak has been in power for 30 years and there is no structure to replace him. We got to know a lot of people in Cairo very well and we really feel for them. Whether they’re wealthy or poor, all will be affected.’