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.

Hello world!

I’m dedicating my first ever blog to Nick Clegg.

Just a week ago, I was sitting in my local London pub with friends, having my usual farewell dinner before returning to Cairo, when conversation turned to the upcoming election and who we’d each be voting for.

A very good friend declared that she’d be voting for the Lib Dems which provoked an inner – if not an outer – chuckle.  Why on earth would anyone vote for a party that had absolutely no chance of real power? A party that represented to me the utmost in earnest, wishy-washy mediocrity, led by a man who I scornfully referred to as Cameron-lite.

I stand duly chagrined in the corner.  I didn’t watch all of that historic debate but it’s clear that Clegg was the clear winner. It’s put a much-needed shot of adrenalin into this election and the idea of change – real change – has proved more exciting than I could possibly have imagined.  Like most Brits, I’m tired of the tedious dichotomy of Tory-Labour politics and the relentless, and hypocritical, centrism of both parties.  

Of course, the fact that a vote for the Lib Dems would almost certainly guarantee a Labour victory does fuel my fervour. Despite my disillusionment with Labour, the alternative – a Tory government led by a spin doctor – is much, much worse. And if Clegg does do the unthinkable and get into power, then good luck to him. He can’t be any worse than the status quo.