Portraits of courage: Meet Egypt's revolutionaries

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The world was gripped as youthful crowds stormed Tahrir Square – but who were the Egyptian revolutionaries? The award-winning photographer Kim Badawi endured beatings, bullets and tear gas to find out

These are the faces of a generation that changed history, their grim expressions of defiance testament to surviving weeks of violent protest that were to result in the overthrow of one of the Middle East's most powerful dictators.

The individuals in these pictures, taken by the award-winning American photographer Kim Badawi, come from all walks of life, from interpreters and students to café workers and the unemployed. And in the breadth of their backgrounds, they symbolise a wider movement challenging decades of authoritarian regimes across the Middle East.

Change, however, comes at a price. Hundreds died and many more were injured during the violent clashes in Cairo's Tahrir (Liberation) Square, which became the centre for a protest that refused to buckle under an onslaught of tear gas, beatings, water cannon and bullets.

The popular demands for an end to President Hosni Mubarak's rule began on Tuesday 25 January – Egypt's Police Day, a national holiday made official by the president in 2009 to recognise the efforts of the police in maintaining a secure state. The protests were prompted by a Facebook group set up in the name of Khaled Said, a 28-year-old Egyptian man beaten to death in Alexandria last year by two undercover policemen.

Events were given momentum by the example set in Tunisia, where widespread demonstrations forced the country's president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, to flee to Saudi Arabia in January. He was ousted after public anger was sparked by the death earlier that month of a 26-year-old who had set himself on fire outside the governor's palace in central Tunisia when his only means of income, a fruit and vegetable stand, was confiscated by the authorities.

The victory of the people in Tunisia inspired the Egyptians to overcome a deep-seated fear of police and security forces. A campaign spread through word of k mouth was accelerated via Facebook and Twitter, galvanising hundreds of thousands into action, and resulting in scenes of chaos. It was at this moment of turmoil that Badawi, a 30-year-old documentary photographer of French-Egyptian descent, arrived on the scene in downtown Cairo. "Shots would be randomly fired, sometimes followed by screaming and waves of frightened masses," he explains. "No one knew who had been shot nor by whom. In the days and nights that followed, the number of demonstrators grew.

"People from all professions, factions and religious backgrounds were gathering in the square day and night, and started to engage in peaceful debate and conversation in public spaces and transport. This was the first sign of change. There was no more guarded speech. And this, in Egyptian society, was unheard of."

Badawi followed various youth activists over the course of the protests; one such, Mood Salem, recalls: "Against all odds, we succeeded in gathering hundreds of thousands of people and getting them into Tahrir Square, despite being attacked by anti-riot police using sticks, tear gas and rubber bullets against us. We were being collectively punished for daring to say that we deserve democracy and rights, and to keep it up, they withdrew the police, and then sent them out dressed as civilians to terrorise our neighbourhoods."

In a single day alone, Salem was shot at twice, "one time with a semi-automatic by a dude in a car that we, the people, took joy in pummelling". The protests, he adds, involved "people from all social classes and religious backgrounds... choosing hope instead of fear and braving death on an hourly basis to keep their dream of freedom alive".

It was not just the protesters who were caught up in violence. Badawi himself was lucky to escape with just a beating when a mob of pro-Mubarak protesters turned k on him. "The intensity of the strikes grew until I put my elbows out to put my hands to my head, and then I was down. It was as if I had invited the mob to turn me into a human pinball... people were coming at me from everywhere, hitting me everywhere."

Yet, some time later, he witnessed a moment when the barriers between protesters and police were broken: "A young 'street' boy standing right next to me among the line of protesters, obviously recognising a relative among the riot police, threw himself around the policeman's neck and they embraced. For a second, their faces illuminated as they both turned toward the sky and smiled."

After 18 days of what had become a stand-off between the Egyptian people and the regime that had maintained a stranglehold on democratic protest, their world changed: on 11 February, Mubarak stepped down as president – an event that could yet result in Egypt becoming a democracy.

There is still a long way to go. Tens of thousands returned to Tahrir Square last Friday, calling on the military-led transitional government to scrap the long-standing Emergency Law allowing detentions without trial, and for the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force general appointed to the role by Mubarak on 29 January. The demonstrators were met with force, as soldiers and plain-clothes security officers beat them and tore down their tents.

But that will not slow the wave of popular protests taking place throughout the region. In neighbouring Libya – at the time of writing – these have tipped over into near-civil war, with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi on the brink of being defeated by a popular movement united in its hatred of the repressive dictator. Time yet, then, for many more faces like those pictured here to make themselves (and their rights) known.

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