Cairo is on fire, as I write this. Not literally but there is fire in the air. The revolt yesterday – the day of anger, as it has been dubbed – had been planned for some time (using Facebook of course) so most of us were aware of it. On the expat email service I belong to, anxious emails had been shooting back and forth for the last week. Should I attend? Do foreigners belong in demonstrations like this? Would it be safe?
The general message to us, reinforced by warnings from the various foreign embassies in town, was to stay indoors. There were few details regarding the place or times for the demos, apart from the fact that they would take place in several unspecified locations. So there were spirited debates on how big the actual protests would be – or whether they’d actually take place at all. Oh, the police will outnumber protesters, said one old Cairo hand. I wouldn’t expect much. Another friend, who lives in Maadi, a leafy suburb south of Cairo, proposed meeting up. I don’t think you’ll be able to get through town, I said. Of course I will, he said. This is Egypt. Nothing’s going to happen.
And yet, you couldn’t help but wonder. Tunisia has had a profound effect on this part of the world. That once insignificant Arab country has become the benchmark for change, the mascot for the nascent pro-democracy movement. The idea that ordinary protesters could remove a long-standing, deeply unpopular president, through (relatively) peaceful revolt, without the use of religious ideology, has powerful echoes here. The average Egyptian longs for change but has long-since ceased believing that it could happen. Tunisia proved otherwise.
So when thousands flocked the streets of Cairo , I wasn’t surprised. It started off slowly, with a few hundred protesters in various parts of the city and then slowly mushroomed into something more, with thousands flocking into Tahrir in Downtown, the heart of Cairo. Friends who went for the early part of the day said there was an almost carnival-like atmosphere, especially on the fringes of the demos. There was still no sign yet of how big it would become, though there were frantic texts and mails from all over the city. One friend who’d gone into a Downtown hotel to watch was told by the manager during the afternoon that a million people had amassed and were marching over the bridge towards Parliament.
That’s the thing about this revolt or protest or whatever you want to call it – it epitomises just how multi-media our world has become. The dissemination of news, thanks to mobile phones and the internet, has become truly democratic, for better or for worse. I remember watching the first Gulf War live on TV way back in 1990, on a little TV in my university halls, and being amazed at the images in front of me and the fact that a real war was taking place live on TV. Yesterday, I watched the images live on Al Jazeera and the BBC, while simultaneously following it online on several newspaper websites, receiving regular emails on the expat email service and talking to friends on the phone. There was also Twitter, of course, for those who follow it and YouTube– those ultimate 21st century multi-media tools. There’s even a Wikipedia page already devoted to it – check this out here:
In any case, the salient points are this. Egypt, a country famed for its political apathy (let’s not forget that demonstrations of any kind are actually banned under the emergency laws) has suddenly become politicised. The fact that the protests have continued today, in express defiance of the government, is remarkable. Yesterday was relatively mild – either because the police were taken by surprise because of the sheer size of it or, more likely, because they were under strict orders to handle it all with restraint. Yes, there was tear gas and water cannons and rubber bullets but I’ve seen similar tactics in demos in London, which have degenerated into even more violence. I suspect the government’s tactic was to allow a day of unrest in the country – to allow Egyptians to let off steam, if you like.
Today is different. The crowds that gathered in Tahrir today did so defiantly, knowing full well that their chances of being beaten up or arrested or both were high. All reports indicate that there has been more brutality today – the government is cracking down. It’s difficult to know which way it’s going to go because it’s fair to say that what’s happened has taken every body by surprise, from the politicians and the media to the average citizen. It’s difficult too to shift that innate cynicism and lethargy that pervades Egyptian society, after 30 years of rule under Emergency Law. And yet you can’t help feeling that something fundamental has shifted in the Egyptian psyche. Where we go from here is anybody’s guess.