Egypt’s day of shame

Another terrible day of fear and uncertainty. The festive atmosphere of Tuesday, when history seemed to be within the country’s grasp, feels like a lifetime ago now. If the first day of this protest was Egypt’s day of rage, yesterday should be remembered as Egypt’s day of shame.

We didn’t make it to Tahrir today. I was hoping to go early, to get a feel for what had happened overnight, but the reports that were streaming in, through friends, by email, twitter and phone, got steadily worse and worse.  Overnight, there had been more fighting and shooting in the Square. Somehow there are still pro-democracy activists encamped there, determined not to leave.  But gangs of pro-Mubarak supporters are reportedly controlling the entrances into the Square, making it difficult to get in.

Journalists are being attacked all over the city, especially in Tahrir (CNN’s Anderson Cooper was beaten up yesterday). Cameras are either being smashed or confiscated. Several journalists are missing. One, a friend of friends from Brazil, told me he was beaten and robbed of his money and camera today, by the 6th of October Bridge. I have just heard from another that the police are visiting hotels and looking for people who may be journalists.  Another told me he and a photographer had been detained by police today for 45 minutes in Kasr El Aini, near Tahrir. They managed to talk their way out of it by pretending to be tourists but they were ordered to head straight for the airport.

Al Jazeera – our main source for live coverage of Tahrir – has had its cameras confiscated so we can no longer see live footage.  The main opposition newspapers are living in fear. I heard that one paper’s office had been attacked and another is terrified – they have covered their signboard to try and deter attackers. And foreigners are now being targeted – the pro-Mubarak crowd has been told that foreigners are spies and deliberately stirring up trouble. Vice-president Omar Suleiman made a speech this evening and also blamed foreigners and ‘outside forces’ for the current problems, a message that many seem to be believing.

I know this firsthand from my cleaning lady, who managed to turn up today from Imbaba, ready to clean. We talked instead: Om Abdallah, 50, is a widowed mother of two and one of the toughest women I know. She told me she believed Mubarak after his speech (as did everyone in her neighbourhood) and she wanted the protests to stop. She saw on state TV that two foreigners had been arrested because they had been speaking against Mubarak and ‘wanted to destroy the country’. ‘The people who are doing this are not Egyptian,’ she said. ‘Some are saying it’s ElBaradei, or Ayman Nour.  Some are saying it’s planned by Americans, or maybe Hezbollah’.  What did she think? ‘I think they are Shia,’ she said.

Unsurprisingly, there are now several reports of anti-foreigner aggression – something I never thought I would see in this country.  We heard that a foreign man was beaten to death in Tahrir.  I know of a German girl, a colleague of a friend of mine, who was ‘escorted’ to the military academy in Dokki by soldiers yesterday.  On the way, a crowd gathered around and asked what had happened – when a soldier called her a traitor, she was slapped by a woman in the group.  She was eventually let go with a warning to stay inside and ‘concentrate on her studies’. She is planning to leave the country tomorrow.

So we have stayed in all day today, glued to our computers and TV, and we will continue to do so until the situation improves.  This neighbourhood is still a safe one, as far as I know, and I am reluctant to leave this amazing country until I am left with absolutely no choice. Tomorrow is another pivotal day, although I am almost tired of saying that now. There is talk of another huge pro-democracy demonstration – they are calling it the ‘day of departure’ – and this time they plan to march to the Presidential Palace (apparently, they aborted the attempt on Tuesday because they feared losing Tahrir). Last Friday, the government tried to crack down on the demonstrations by cutting off the internet and phone service, and failed. Now they have restored both but this new crackdown on any opposition – real or imagined – is much, much worse.  

Once again, we watch, we wait and we hope.

Carnage in Cairo

Cairo is on fire once again.  I am at home now and watching the footage live on Al Jazeera and it is horrifying, infinitely depressing. There is carnage in Tahrir today, and it is worse than Friday. There is gunfire, reports of petrol bombs, knives and sticks, 500 wounded, buildings on fire again – including, reportedly, the Egyptian Museum. The riot police were a common, easily identifiable enemy – now it is Egyptian against Egyptian and it is impossible to know who is friend or foe.  Until today, we worried about the army turning on its people but not this. This level of in-fighting has come out of the blue.  

We went to Tahrir earlier today and the change in atmosphere from yesterday was dramatic.  Today is the first day that I felt some fear.  We knew, from last night’s footage of the clashes in Alex immediately after Mubarak’s speech, that the pro-government demonstrators would be out, and they were. At the entrance to Tahrir from Kasr-El-Nil Bridge, small groups of pro- Mubarak supporters held signs saying “We love Mubarak” (unlike the demonstrators’ signs, which are a motley jumble of hand-written English and Arabic signs, all the  pro-Mubarak signs I saw were in Arabic, on photo-copied A4 pieces of paper). We have heard from reliable sources of money changing hands to buy pro-government support – 200LE (around £20) per person.

We made our way through the different groups and headed into the Square – again through the nominal army checkpoint.  Where yesterday was festive, today was tense, volatile.  The army had warned people this morning to stay at home. There were still a few thousand people there but nowhere near the huge numbers of yesterday.  Unlike yesterday, when everyone seemed to share a common goal, today you no longer knew whether you were looking at pro- or anti- government protesters. Everywhere, there were scuffles breaking out.  At one point, three young men – no more than teenagers –  grabbed a huge sign laid out on the Square saying ‘Game Over’ and rolled it up, stamping on it. Others rushed to them and took the poster back, rolling it out again.  There was no violence at that point but the tension was palpable.

I made my way to some protesters to ask them what they had thought of Mubarak’s speech, and what they were going to do next. They told me that it was a ‘joke’; they had been there since the beginning and would not leave until Mubarak left.  At that point, we saw people running towards us, away from something, so we ran too. Looking back, I saw rocks and stones flying through the air, not far from the Egyptian Museum. A friend called us from Mohandissen and told us that 20,000 pro-Mubarak supporters had gathered and were probably heading towards Tahrir.  We started moving towards the exit – already there was a mini-stampede  – and walked slowly back to Zamalek.  On the streets, we passed more people holding pro-Mubarak signs  and photos and cars honked as they passed us, signalling support for the government.  For the first time, I avoided eye contact with the people I passed.

I have no doubt that there is a level of legitimate support for Mubarak. There are many who feel that enough is enough – that it is time for the protest to end and that many of the opposition’s demands have now been met. They want him to be allowed to serve out his term, even though not all belive he will keep his word. The country is in chaos and there is real fear that the economy will not recover from this for a long time.   Mubarak’s speech last night was emotional  and emotive – at times, it reminded me of Evita: “Don’t cry for me, Egypt”.  I have always served my country, he said, and everything I did, I did for the Egyptian people.  I want to die on Egyptian soil.  

But there is little doubt too that some of the pro-Mubarak people out on the streets have been bought – the evidence for that is overwhelming.   The fact that state TV shows a completely different version of events has also deepened the divide between the factions, and intensified the pro-government fervour.  The pro-Mubarak people say they want to ‘liberate’ Tahrir, with their blood if necessary.  The official opposition, such as it is, has virtually disappeared and for the first time, the anti-government protests seem to be losing momentum. If they ‘lose’ Tahrir tonight, few will have the courage to return – for good reason.  So far, the army has not intervened, and I think, on balance, that is a good thing. Whose side would they be on?

It is going to be a long night.

Notes on a revolt…

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:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_Egyptian_protests

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.

Why Cairo?

I’m always asked this – what brings a British Indian woman all the way from London to Cairo?  For the average Cairene, especially, there is bemusement – why would you give up all the conveniences and luxuries you have in London to live here?

I’ve given it a lot of thought and I still don’t know. I tell people the truth – that I had Egypt in my blood from a very young age. My mother puts it down to taking me to the British Museum as a child, when I was awe-struck by their collection of (stolen!) Mummies. I remember also watching a 1970’s Hollywood film called Sphinx with an Egyptologist (Lesley Anne Down) who goes to Cairo and gets embroiled in cursed tombs and plots to steal ancient treasures, alongside a brooding Egyptian (Frank Langella!). It’s a terrible film in many ways but the romance of it stayed with me for a while.  Apparently, I told an old school friend around then that I would live in Egypt one day. 

When I was 21 and a fresh graduate with a degree in Film and Literature (what does one do with that anyway?) and a yen for travel, I hit upon Cairo as the perfect place for a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course. It didn’t happen. Nearly 10 years later, bored and drained from too many years of PR in London, I thought about Cairo and that TEFL course once again. And then 9/11 happened and the axis of the world seemed to shift a little bit and heading out to Egypt didn’t seem like such a good idea after all.

In between, I managed a Nile Cruise, on a slightly shabby boat that will remain nameless, in the scorching heat of the June sun (which would explain why we got it at a bargain rate). So we drifted up the Nile and saw Aswan and Luxor and the Dam and took in the temples and souks and some of that legendary Egyptian hospitality – but I still didn’t make it to Cairo.

It wasn’t until I was 37 and travelling around the world that I finally arrived in the city.  Out of an eleven-month stint involving nearly 20 countries in four different continents, I allowed myself three and a half weeks in Cairo.  And thankfully, I fell in love – literally and metaphorically (how awful, I think, for a long-cherished childhood dream to dissolve in tatters around you).  I roamed the streets, drinking in the chaos and colour, from the tranquillity of an Old Cairo mosque to an incredible Oud player at one of the cultural centres, from smoking shisha in crowded Downtown streets to braving the cliches of the Khan.  But more than anything, it was the warmth of the people that stayed with me – the constant Ahlans and Welcome to Egypts, the easy smiles and the realisation – wise, it seemed to me – that nothing is more important than human contact. 

This is why I live in Cairo. I may be a cynical old hack at times but there is still romance in my soul.

Cairo Blues

I love this city. I fell in love with it on my first visit nearly three years ago, with its steaming concrete urban sprawl, the too-wide  roads I couldn’t cross, the patchy pavements I could barely walk on, the friendly – sometimes too friendly – cab drivers,  the ritual greetings I had to learn and the lingering sound of the adhan that punctuated each day.  Above all, I could feel its pulse. There are cities I’ve spent time in that have barely registered with me. Cairo was – is – alive.  Always.

But there are times when its frantic soul resonates in a different way, like static from a hundred radio stations playing at the same time. Or the sound of nails violently screeching across a blackboard. When your nerves are shot and you want nothing more than to escape the relentless din, the angry cabbie, the clogged-up traffic and persistent stares and crawl into the sanctuary of your king-size bed.  Today was one of those days.

I am tired. I am probably pre-menstrual. I have been away from the city for nearly four months. I am still acclimatising to the stifling humidity, after the crisp air of London. All of these factors made me want to jump into a cab the moment I stepped outside my office, instead of walk the approximate seven minutes it would have taken to get home.

But I did it. And once I’d crossed my personal Rubicon – otherwise known as 26th  July Street – it got easier (crossing roads here is a little like drinking alcohol – you have to build up a tolerance to it or you could be stuck on the sidewalk for a while).  I braved the man randomly welding on my left and the shower of sparks that resulted, the six different men who muttered under their breath as I passed, the long pitch black darkness that is Hassan Sabry Street and the hormonal teenagers sprawled, as always, outside Hardees and I made it home. And I’m glad I did it. It’s the little victories that count sometimes.