On breaking up and a bar named Freedom

horreya stella_fotor

 

It is a sign of growing up, I think, that when my relationship came to its predictable – but still quietly devastating – end last week, I didn’t turn to a vodka (or three) to wash away my broken-heart blues. Nor did I call on the army of hardy friends who used to commiserate with me in these things (partly because I now live in Cairo and said friends, such as I still have them, are inaccessible for reasons of sheer distance). Nor did I sit for hours in a slightly darkened room, chain-smoking cigarettes and listening to maudlin love songs (David Gray, anyone?) in some tragic parody of a lovesick teenager.

No. This time I chose to Keep Myself Busy in a bid for Germanic efficiency, rather than the Gallic grand gestures I used to favour. My logic is this: all the energy, time and mind-and-heart space I invested in the great love must be transferred elsewhere if I am to survive this. I’m not sure the logic-over-love scenario is one that works for everyone, but it’s applicable in my case, partly because our end – sad as it was – was always out there on the horizon, like those storm clouds that linger on a beautiful day. And as with all good dramas, we’d had several dress rehearsals along the way.

So I called every good friend I had and set up dates and activities that would keep me occupied for at least the next several days. I went shopping in City Stars with one and spent a glorious afternoon lunching and shopping (why does trying on a new pair of shoes seem to reach the parts of a female soul that other things can’t?). And I called another good friend for a more cultural evening Downtown – somewhere I rarely venture to these days from my cosy Zamalek bubble.

Thus it was that we spent a suitably intellectual – and very funny – evening catching up on life over mezze in one of Cairo’s oldest restaurants, venturing to the Townhouse Gallery afterwards for a spot of Culture, and finishing up in Horreya, or “Freedom” in Arabic – a Downtown institution and rare alcohol-serving ahwa that is the haunt of wannabe intellectuals, trendy expats and a surprising number of gay men – both foreign and, dare I say it, Egyptian.

It had become almost a rite-of-passage for me – this trip to Horreya – seeing as I’d lived in Cairo for more than a year and hadn’t yet ventured there. With dreams of domestic bliss and babies disintegrating faster than a cheap Downtown dress, and sad singledom furiously beckoning, a trip there seemed more important than ever. In other words, swapping faux Zamalek glamour for hard-core Downtown grunge – two harassed-looking waiters, grim fluorescent lighting that did nothing to hide the grimy ceilings and floors, ominously cracked mirrors, and a menu that seemed to consist entirely of Stellas – made infinite sense to me at this particular point in my life.

So we ventured in and found a table and had a Stella each and I tried surreptitiously to people-watch through the broken mirror opposite me. In places like this, obvious people-watching is not cool – a bit like getting your camera out at an exclusive dinner party. I was struck by the hideously bright lighting first, and then the men intently playing backgammon in a corner (in the non-alcoholic section, this being Egypt after all), and then the huge crowded table behind us, packed with people so disparate it was impossible not to wonder what could possibly have brought them all together.

It turned out that it was a very sociable gay Yemeni who was responsible for this. Determined to spread the party mood around, he insisted we be given a plate of food from his table. As he told us when he ambled across, he was celebrating, of all things, the acquisition of a British passport, which he’d gained by marrying an older Englishman three years ago.

I was surprised, given the Daily Mail-inspired Cretan maze of British immigration law, but happy for him. “Do you love him?” I asked, after he had told us for the third time about the three homes his husband had bought for him and the different countries he could now live in (with England being very low down on the list). His careful pause before the “yes” suggested that love – on his part, at least – may not have been the main motivation for this particular union.

Did Horreya live up to its hype? In many ways: yes. Would we have been invited into the celebrations of a gay Yemeni and his entourage in the generic coffee chains that I frequent in Zamalek? Never.

Here in the heart of downtown Cairo, all the contradictions of daily Egyptian life came together in one glorious tumble – like a washing machine in full spin. A gay man could celebrate his marriage and the fruits of it in a society where homosexuality does not exist, in a café that looked like a traditional Egyptian ahwa but served alcohol, and in a space where different nationalities and classes and age groups blended together happily, in a kind of Boho Benetton ad. But it is the curse of our post-modern age that I could never quite forget that I was in Horreya. A dive by any other name is surely still a dive.

And, no matter how much I may want to deny it, age catches up with you in the end. We stayed for a couple of hours or so, nursing our individual beers, enjoying our conversation and the food we had unexpectedly been given. I happened to catch sight of the time at around 10.30pm and asked whether my friend wanted to stay. Neither of us, it turned out, wanted another beer, and she was also in need of a toilet break. The toilets here are terrible, she said, so it might be easier to go home. I agreed, willingly. Our night had been eventful, funny and suitably satisfying and it led me on this occasion happily to my bed.

Once I was incapable of leaving a party early in case I missed a piece of the action. Is it wisdom or cynicism now that assures me there will always be a party going on somewhere and I will, in fact, miss very little I haven’t experienced already? It seems to me that, with age, a bite of the apple is now often as satisfactory – if not more so – than a whole one.

That’s got to be a good thing, somewhere down the line.

(Full disclosure – I wrote this piece around six years ago now, when my last relationship was coming to an end and as I was approaching my 40th birthday, but never got around to publishing it. I have not been back to Horreya since. )   

Cairo: Remembrance of Things Past

party 2

Another season in Cairo after an especially long sojourn back home and I am already missing old friends. I have returned after a fresh wave of departures – the yearly diaspora that is part of life for foreigners here. This round has been especially harsh; it feels like my circle has dissipated overnight. I thought I had taken precautions to maintain my friendships as my relationship with S deepened, but I hadn’t counted on the loss of impetus to make new ones.

The ghosts of old friends pervade the city. In that home on the corner, I once partied late into the night, as old Egyptian belly dance movies flickered on a wall behind us. On another occasion – it must have been winter – we huddled up on the balcony with our drinks over a makeshift fire, shooting the breeze til dawn and exhaustion crept in. When other friends lived there, I attended sunny barbecues in the walled-off garden – a rarity in this city of grey high-rises – eating mezze and grilled meats and watching piles of empties mount up in the corner.

In that flat just up the road, other friends held sophisticated soirees attended by a lively crowd of diplomats and journalists and activists, as the Nile sparkled beautifully in the distance. In this favourite restaurant – now sadly closed – I met many friends over the years, sometimes for big crowded brunches, at others for intimate one-on-ones over fluffy scrambled eggs and toast. We talked about our relationships, our jobs, the joys and challenges of babies, the choices we had made that had brought us to this place at this moment in time.

At that café overlooking the Nile, I brunched with other friends – long, lazy Lebanese breakfasts with Om Kolthoum providing the soundtrack, punctuated by the sounds of the river, cooled by industrial-sized fans. There were felucca rides too with varied friends – more motorboat than traditional felucca in this stretch of the river – but a chance still to escape the crowded streets. On one memorable occasion, I wandered here with a couple of friends for an early morning felucca after an all-night party, drinking in the silence as the sun crept up.

Just around the corner, in that flat with the huge terrace, were more amazing parties – tables laden with food and drink, a butler, sometimes a DJ – and a whole crowd of people who have now departed. Over the years, I have attended parties and gatherings in almost every street in this upscale neighbourhood and their memories linger in the air – Gatsbyesque reminders that the best always seems to be behind us. I am not sure if it is the city that has changed or me. I suspect we have both grown wearier over time.

In this crowded arts centre many years ago, I saw a stirring oud concert with my love at the time – the man who brought me back to this city after my first visit here. Down that busy main street, I sat with a dear friend for mint tea and shisha, discussing our demons and the difficulties of being students again in our 30s. Here too, I walked down to Tahrir with other friends during the revolution – such as it was – a few years later, sometimes fearful, sometimes in awe of my adopted city. I remember our journey down here towards the square in a big group on the night Mubarak fell.

I am the only one left now.

For such a big city, Cairo expat life can feel remarkably provincial – like being on a university campus, with just a few degrees separating you from everyone else in your narrow, privileged circle, and the same unspoken awareness that time is transitory and real life on pause. I remember the many parties I hosted myself – the revolution party, end-of-curfew party, pre- and post-Ramadan celebrations, birthdays, X’mas and New Year’s shindigs. The vast majority of those who attended – both Egyptian and foreign – have now left, their lives overtaken by new jobs, new destinations, husbands, wives or babies.

There are new people now. I met one the other day – a young American girl of 23 who has been here for a year, breathless in her love for her new life here. I was like that once, I think, but I am weighted down by memories now. Goodbyes are more painful when you are far from home – your friendships more intense, heightened by the knowledge that sooner, rather than later, you will part.

In time they will renew themselves – I have been here long enough to know that. For the moment though, I am in limbo, mired in the past, not quite willing to embrace the future.

Eighteen days: A Tribute to Tahrir

In the future, when someone asks me where I was when I heard the news that Mubarak had finally stepped down, I will have to be honest and say this: I was putting away our shopping. That’s the way life goes – after 18 days when our world consisted of either going to Tahrir or watching it on TV, all seven of us were somehow away from the TV at just that moment when Suleiman finally conceded defeat. In 30 seconds, as someone pointed out, 30 years of this country’s history was irrevocably changed forever.

We hugged, we danced around our living room and then we grabbed our coats and headed straight out to the place where it all began: Tahrir.  We had made this journey so often over the last 18 days, always with different emotions. I remembered the first Friday of this revolt – the day of rage – when our internet and phone services were cut and police and security men manned each street corner.  Somehow we’d made our way to Kasr-El-Nil Bridge where we watched the battle of the bridge unfold, amazed at the courage of the men and women on the frontlines as they pushed their way through the tear gas and bullets, in silent shock later as  we watched the city burn.

I remembered wandering around Tahrir the next morning as buildings still burned and tanks took over the streets and wondering where we went from here. Cairo was at war, but no one was entirely sure who, or where, the enemy was. The police had disappeared and looters raided the streets at night. But the city re-grouped and re-discovered itself and volunteers came out in their thousands to protect the streets.  Soon after, there was that wonderful second Tuesday in Tahrir, the first million man march, when the sun shone down and it seemed like nothing could still the voices of hundreds and thousands of people who wanted – for the first time in their lives – to be heard.

Then there were the terrible days after – an aberration in this overwhelmingly peaceful revolt – when hired thugs roamed the streets and Tahrir became a bloody battleground. Civil war loomed and Cairo, for the first time, became a dangerous city to venture out in.  Yet somehow, the men and women in Tahrir remained and thousands flocked there again the following Friday, unsure what the future held but knowing that, in Tahrir at least, there was still hope.

When I went on Monday last week, I doubted, for the first time. Tahrir had become a carnival, a revolution theme park, as I dubbed it. Hawkers sold everything from roasted sweet potatoes to popcorn, there was a trendy music band in one corner and all urgency seemed to have been lost. The celebrations seemed to me premature – Mubarak remained in power and the old guard, seemed, if anything, to be tightening its grip.  Tahrir was intoxicating, as always – in there, it seemed impossible that the revolution could fail. Outside, on the surface at least, the country was returning to normal.

But when I went again last Tuesday and I could barely move because of the number of people there, I realised that Tahrir had simply gained a new kind of power. Ordinary Egyptians – people who had never dreamt of change – were flocking there in droves to experience it for themselves. We bumped into a friend’s colleague from out in Haram, a working class area near the pyramids, who said he had been too scared to come to it before. He had only seen a few images on State TV, but he’d been told how wonderful it was by his friends. He was overwhelmed now – by the crowds, the sense of freedom, the music, the impromptu chants and the ability to say out loud what people had only said before in the privacy of their own homes – we want the end of this regime.    

It was this sort of momentum that in the end Mubarak was unable to control. The spirit of Tahrir and what it came to symbolise was simply too powerful to tame. It was a microcosm of the very best of Egypt, distilled into the symbolic heartland of this city. In Tahrir, class, creed, gender and age meant nothing – Muslims and Copts protected each other as they prayed, women moved freely without harassment, there was new respect for the young and the urban elite stood shoulder to shoulder with the city’s poor. I met my old professors from the American University in Cairo there and I met the man who parks cars on my street. The spirit of co-operation, of freedom and most of all, of pride was overwhelming. For the first time, Egyptians were doing it for themselves – from cleaning the streets to producing their own Tahrir newspaper.

In the end, this was a very Egyptian revolution, characterised by the warmth, good humour and tolerance that you find daily on these streets. It often struck me that, even in the darkest days of the revolt, there was little appetite for bloodshed or violence – amongst the plethora of signs I would see in Tahrir, I never saw one that called for Mubarak’s blood. For a Western-educated outsider like me, the lack of organisation and leadership often confounded me – how could a revolution possibly succeed when there was no formal opposition, no official spokesman or spin doctor to voice its demands? But here again was its strength – because the opposition was everywhere, from every stratum of Egyptian society, it was impossible to divide and impossible to fight.  It was absolutely a revolution of the people, by the people and for the people.

Today, Tahrir has been cleared and Downtown is returning to normal though the after effects are still reverberating around the world. But for eighteen days, it was the centre of the world and the effects of that will remain for some time. There may be cynicism in some quarters, especially internationally, about the future plans of the military leadership but here in Egypt, overwhelmingly, there is hope. Egyptians – driven by the men and women of Tahrir – have shown the world that anything, and everything, is now possible. The fruits of their labour will not be given up easily, despite the struggles ahead.  

When people told me before that Egypt, after January 25, would never be the same again, I was cynical.  Now I believe. To the men and women of Tahrir – I salute you.

Defiant till the end: Egypt’s deaf dictator

Mubarak remains and we are still in shock. For nearly six hours last night, we watched, we waited and we dared to hope. Twitter was exploding, and for good reason. Every source out there, from the CIA to CNN (including the NDP’s own secretary general, Hossam Badrawi) told us Mubarak was finally standing down.

The rumour mill went into overdrive: Mubarak was resigning and handing over his powers to Omar Suleiman. The Army had taken over and ordered Mubarak to leave. He’d been spotted at the airport heading for Dubai or he’d already fled to Sharm El Sheikh, having pre-recorded his speech.  Meanwhile, the Brotherhood was claiming there’d been a military coup while the BBC cut to Obama, live from Michigan, who told us history was taking place. Whichever way you looked at it, it seemed like a done deal.

We had our own dilemma – did we go and listen to Mubarak’s resignation speech in Tahrir or stay at home and watch it on TV? We compromised – we’d rush there as soon as the speech was over and join the crowds to celebrate. Tahrir was packed within an inch of its life – it was like a thousand wedding ceremonies happening at once, according to one tweeter. Even hardened news correspondents seemed overcome by the emotion. We were this close to history being made – it was like the Berlin Wall falling, someone said. And then we watched the speech and everything crumbled.

At around 10.45pm – almost an hour behind schedule – Mubarak appeared on State TV, looking more and more like his fellow beleaguered politico, Silvio Berlusconi (they share the same plastic surgeon, as one joker said). He looked neither cowed nor emotional; instead, he was forceful, upbeat, determinedly presidential. There were the same old lines: I speak as a father to his children, I will live and die in Egypt, etc. There were a few new ones: an acknowledgment of the deaths of innocent victims and vague talk of political ‘mistakes’. And then the crucial line, almost rushed through: I have decided to delegate some powers to Vice President Suleiman.

By the end, we were stunned, speechless – and confused. What exactly had just happened? I called a friend of mine who’d been in Tahrir – M, a lawyer, who was already heading home. People were angry but calm, he said. Ninety per cent of the people there hadn’t been able to hear the speech properly and were also confused. His own understanding was that Mubarak had handed over all his powers to Suleiman and would remain in an honorary capacity – no bad thing. “It would have been too insulting for him to spell it out any more than that,” he told me. “This was his way of saying that he was resigning.”

That may well be the case but it’s become abundantly clear since that no one knows exactly what Mubarak meant – which would be farcical if it weren’t so serious (check out William Hague’s reaction last night for some classic political blustering). The only thing that matters is that he is still around (it must surely go down as one of the worst, and most incompetent, speeches in history: never have so many people been so disappointed by so little). Meanwhile, that sense that Mubarak, and also now Suleiman, inhabit a different universe to the rest of us was stronger than ever – they seemed like two grandfathers who’d stumbled into a hip hop concert by mistake.  

What’s becoming clear is that this revolution is no longer just about a clamour for democracy. It’s now a power struggle between young and old – between the old guard clinging on to tradition and power, and a new generation fighting for respect and the right to be heard, politically and beyond.  Even as they praised Egypt’s youth, Mubarak and Suleiman were sticking desperately to the old language of paternalism – appealing to the protesters once again to behave themselves and go home. Where the rest of the world sees a generation coming of age, Mubarak and his cronies see troubled children who can, and should, be put back in their place.

Mubarak’s last speech may have won him new support – and sparked the bloody clashes of last week – but it’s unlikely that this one will do the same.  The tide has been turning against him in the last few days – rumours of his estimated $70 billion fortune have been leaking out and there is less and less trust that the regime will keep its promises. Tahrir has virtually become a republic in its own right, drawing thousands of ordinary Egyptians from all over the country who are savouring their first taste of political freedom there – that sort of momentum is difficult to derail.  There is more and more public dissent – yesterday doctors and lawyers joined the protests and there were strikes and demonstrations all over Cairo.  

But yet again last night, this revolution confounded us. Today, on Farewell Friday, thousands upon thousands of people are once again massing in Tahrir and throughout Egypt. The violence that some of us expected after last night’s speech has not materialised – yet.  The army remains neutral, for the moment. There are rumours that Mubarak and his family have left Cairo – surely he must have got the message by now?  The drama continues to unfold before us: a play where everyone seems to know their lines except the lead actor.

10 reasons why this foreigner (still) loves Egypt…

We had dinner with a couple of Egyptian friends tonight and conversation turned inevitably to the anti-foreigner comments we’ve heard so much about lately. One of my friends, from Sweden, asked just why Egyptians might think that foreigners would want to harm the country.

The answer was interesting. “I think some of them just don’t understand why you’re still here,” one of them said. “There was no security, the country was falling apart and we expected you to leave. There wasn’t any reason for you to stay – unless you were spies or journalists.”

It made me think. I can see the logic in that argument and it’s one I’ve addressed before – that bemusement I see in some people’s eyes when I say that I’ve chosen to live here, instead of my comfortable first world country. It doesn’t apply to tourists – Egyptians are justly proud of their country and would be equally bemused at someone who didn’t want to visit it. It’s just that living here and visiting are two completely different things.

So – and especially in light of all the things that have happened over the last two weeks – this is a personal list of just a few of the reasons why I love Egypt – and why I chose to stay:

  1. This is my home. I’ve lived here for two and a half years now and my life, many of my friends and my work are here.
  2. Egyptians: I’ve travelled a lot and I’ve never met a warmer, more hospitable, down-to-earth and downright funny bunch of people. (My standing joke about Jordan was that all the nicest people I met there were Egyptians.)
  3. Egyptian warmth and hospitality, part 2:  apart from the countless “Welcome to Egypts’ you hear on any given day (up to and including the last two weeks) this is a country where a smile goes a long way. That’s the way life should be.
  4. The Egyptian sense of humour, part 2:  whether it’s sly, bawdy, raucous, smart or just plain hilarious, everyone here appreciates a good joke. There’s very little that can’t be, or isn’t, laughed at.
  5. Cairo. I read and dreamt about this crazy, beautiful, fascinating city when I was a child and, so far, it’s never disappointed me.
  6. That it’s multi-layered and multi-faceted and never, ever dull – from the chaos of Cairo to the beauty of Siwa to the hippy charm of Dahab and the sophistication of Gouna. And that’s just a fraction of its charms.
  7. That nearly everything is open nearly all of the time, which makes life so much easier. I can buy my groceries at midnight if I need to, which takes away a lot of the stress of city living.
  8. The sense of community and the ease with which people relate to each other – things that have only been strengthened over the last two weeks.
  9. That there’s always time in the day – or night – for an impromptu gathering or spontaneous party or just a coffee and shisha with a friend.
  10. That all the Egyptians I’ve met have always been more than happy and willing to share all of the above with me 🙂

One final thing: if you’re outside the country and ever thought of visiting, don’t let the last two weeks put you off. A lot of things happened but, for most of us, the good definitely outweighed the bad. If anything, it’s made the majority of us, Egyptian and non-Egyptian, fall in love with Egypt even more…

O Revolution, where art thou?

Cairo has returned to normal – almost.  From my flat, up high in Zamalek, I can hear the familiar sounds of the city once again – the steady honk of horns, the hum of traffic, the buzz of street chatter – all sounds that had disappeared over the last few days. Most of my friends have gone back to work. Banks and shops have re-opened and the Stock Exchange is due to open on Sunday. Even the hormonal teenagers that congregate outside the Hardees at the end of my street have re-appeared – a sure sign that things are returning to normal.

At Tahrir, the symbolic heartland of the revolution, the demonstrations go on – even if they increasingly feel more like a celebration than a protest. That wonderful Egyptian ability to turn any event into a party is alive and kicking – there has even been a wedding in the Square. When I went there yesterday afternoon, it felt like a revolution theme park, complete with popcorn sellers and cotton candy (albeit one where tanks and soldiers patrol the entrances). Most of the people heading inside could have been going out for a picnic.

Already there’s something historic about this revolution – a temptation to talk about it in the past tense (compounded by the fact that Al Jazeera started showing a documentary about it yesterday). Another million man march is planned for today and the protesters remain in Tahrir but it’s impossible to maintain much revolutionary fervour when the rest of the country is busy getting back to normal.  The government’s strategy of ‘business as usual’ and containment rather than confrontation, as well as sweeteners like the 15 per cent pay rise for public workers, is already marginalising the protest – and increasing the gulf between the protesters and the rest of the population.  

For a big percentage of Egyptians, the battle has been won: the fact that Mubarak has promised not to run for president again and is shaking up his regime (removing figures like the much-hated Ahmed Ezz) is good enough for many. The old language of paternalism has returned – I’ve heard many references to Mubarak as the father of the nation, someone who should be respected regardless of his faults. There’s a perception – helped along by the regime – that the protesters are naughty/rebellious children who should simply be told to go home by their parents.

Other Cairenes (who are nothing if not pragmatic) are simply resuming a new kind of reality – one where it’s possible for the protests at Tahrir and the ‘business as usual’ ethic of the rest of the city to co-exist.  The majority still want an end to the Mubarak regime – the disagreement is on when and how he should go.  There is a tacit understanding amongst some of these people that without Tahrir and its protesters, all the ‘gains’ of the last few days could still be lost. 

Then there is the question of how long the Tahrir protesters can continue – there may be no overt force now but the regime is keen to force them out (apart from anything else, Tahrir is a major thoroughfare for this city). There have been subtle attempts to hem in the demonstrators over the last few days – heavily resisted by those inside. A friend who went to Tahrir told me he had to queue for nearly two hours to get inside because the entrance had been narrowed. There are also reports that people attempting to take food or supplies into the Square have been stopped and the items removed. More worrying are the reports of protesters being detained – or worse – as soon as they leave Tahrir. 

From an outside point of view, the ‘revolution’ is in danger of failure – if it hasn’t failed already.  Mubarak shows no signs of relinquishing the presidency, the emergency laws are still in place and the constitution remains the same. While the regime has been engaging in (unprecedented) talks with the opposition – including the banned Muslim Brotherhood – its grip on power, and the accompanying state security apparatus, is tighter than ever. Insiders at the talks suggest that the government’s mood is hardline, with few real concessions (I heard from one good source that Suleiman’s contribution at one meeting was to read out a pre-prepared statement – when he was questioned on one point, he read out the statement again).

But inside Egypt, the mood is slightly different, at least for the moment. Many feel that real gains have been made, with Egyptians finally sending a clear message to the government, and the world, that they are ready for democracy and willing to fight for it, if necessary. The idea that they have broken the ‘fear barrier’ and the political apathy that dogged them is a powerful one. They trust that Mubarak will fulfil his promises, which will one day pave the way for real democracy and constitutional reform. It is a process that will take time and they are prepared to wait for it.   

The country is moving again, but no one knows where it’s heading. In some ways, everything has changed. In other ways, nothing has. It all depends on who you ask.

The day of no departure

The ‘day of departure’ may not have gone to plan but the ‘revolution’ seems to be back on track. Unbelievably, despite the bloodshed and bitterness of the last two days, thousands and thousands of people made their way once more to Tahrir yesterday (which must surely be re-named Jan 25 Square soon, to accompany 6 October Bridge and 26 July St and 15 May Bridge and all the other dates that mark this city.)

For the first time in 48 hours, we ventured out too, late in the afternoon when it seemed conclusive that the pro-democracy group had taken back the streets. In the morning, there were still reports of attacks on foreigners coming in – one friend sent out a group mail telling us that her friend, an American girl, had been dragged out of a car with a group of Egyptian male friends and they had been beaten and spat upon.  So we abandoned an early plan to go and stayed in – the situation seemed too volatile.

But later in the afternoon, an Egyptian friend called us from Tahrir and said that it seemed safe – he had seen foreigners and press, he said, and the atmosphere was tremendous.  We were watching the images ourselves on TV, in amazement at the numbers who were turning out. So we decided to go – a motley group of us: an Egyptian man, his Dutch wife, who has Egyptian citizenship, a German-Palestinian woman and me, a British Indian. Ironically, out of the three women, I look the most Egyptian but speak the least Arabic. My Swedish friends, who have accompanied me on all of these trips so far, stayed at home reluctantly – both tall, thin and blonde, they simply look too ‘foreign’.

So I left my British ID at home and my camera and anything that might mark me as a foreign journalist. This time the checkpoints started at the entrance to Kasr-El-Nil Bridge, rather than Tahrir itself, and we were searched numerous times along the way (my lighter was confiscated but not, ironically, my Dictaphone which I had forgotten to remove). Hundreds of people seemed to be leaving Tahrir but there were still big crowds heading in. The atmosphere was calm and surprisingly organised, though it was impossible not to feel a little jumpy after the last few days.  Piles of stones and rocks lined the roads, a grim reminder of the violence that erupted here.

Inside, Tahrir looked a little bit like a battlezone, on temporary relief from the war. On the wide road leading up to the Square, exhausted men slept on the pavements. Others simply leaned against walls, too tired even to hold up their signs. Occasionally I saw men with bandaged heads or plasters.  But in the heart of the Square, there was still something of the festive atmosphere of Tuesday, with spontaneous chants breaking out amongst the huge crowds, speeches and singing.  At one point, there was wild cheering and clapping – a rumour had gone round that Mubarak had stepped down which soon turned out to be untrue.

It is impossible not to be moved by the mass of humanity at Tahrir, this great exhausted group of people who started a revolution that is now reverberating around the Middle East.  They have come out day after day – or never left – and battled every attempt to shift them: the riot police, water cannons, tear gas, rocks, hired thugs, the Mukhabarat, even horses and camels in the Square.  What happened yesterday was a reminder to Mubarak that there are still many who are prepared to fight for change. Perhaps the brutality of the last couple of days has also backfired against him – one Tweeter said she had been on his side after his speech but watching the violence on Wednesday had made her shift back.

But painting this ‘revolution’ in broad brush strokes – the people v brutal dictator – as tempting as it may be internationally, is wrong. Although the pro-democracy movement has re-gained some ground after yesterday, this long stalemate is not helping either side. Both sides are now fighting for their lives since both fear serious – perhaps fatal – recriminations if they lose. I have secular friends who fear the Muslim Brotherhood  will take over the protest and are caught between them and Mubarak.  And there is a vast middle ground that simply wants it all to end, with Mubarak serving out his term if necessary.  As one friend said to me yesterday: “We have waited thirty years for him to go; surely we can wait another five months.”

The most popular solution currently is that Mubarak retain his position as president but in an honorary capacity, while his real powers are shifted to Suleiman for an interim period, until elections can take place.  That may be unpalatable to some but it seems the best chance for unity and stability for this fractured country, surely the priority at this time. (As another friend said: There will be time for revenge later.) There are rumours that Suleiman will be speaking to the ‘council of wise men’ that are now representing the opposition soon and that things are shifiting, albeit too slowly for many. The curfew has been lifted today, until 7pm, allowing a degree of normality to return to the streets. But where we go from here is still anybody’s guess. This protest has defied all attempts thus far to predict an outcome. The one constant remains the uncertainty.

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 – part 2

The eyes of the world are on Egypt, but few of us can communicate with the outside world.  Today is day four of the internet blackout so I have asked a friend in England to post this for me.  Our mobile phone service was resumed on Saturday but we can’t send or receive text messages.  Normal life in many ways ceased on Friday, after the battle of Kasr-El-Nil Bridge.  Since then, those who can have been raiding their supermarket shelves, stocking up on supplies. Public bakeries have already introduced rationing – no more than 10 slices of bread (Balady bread  – a little like pitta bread – part of the staple diet here) per person.  The banks are closed and few ATMs are working.  There are road blocks all over Cairo at night, manned by the men of each neighbourhood, to deter looters, after the police all but disappeared after Friday.  Few shops and no businesses are open. There is a curfew every day, roughly from 4pm to 8am (today, it began at 3pm).

And yet somehow, we have simply resumed a new kind of reality. My neighbourhood, Zamalek, home to many of the foreign embassies here, is a privileged one – because we are an island, we have not been hit with the looting and chaos that has engulfed much of Cairo for the last two nights. Instead it is eerily quiet, especially during the curfew hours, although yesterday that was punctuated by the sound of two military fighter jets flying low over the city. We go out during the day to re-stock, get some fresh air, meet friends and neighbours and get a feel for what’s happening. Otherwise, we are glued to our TV sets – for me Al Jazeera English and the BBC mainly. The government has shut down Al Jazeera’s Egypt office, so many Egyptians are restricted to the state news service which is broadcasting a completely different version of events. But somehow, despite the attempted blackout, we are all absorbing information, almost through osmosis.

This morning, I went to Tahrir again with some friends (Downtown is just across the bridge from us – about a ten minute cab ride). The demonstrations over the last two days have been peaceful, mainly because the riot police have disappeared – unlike on Friday, when this heart of Cairo became a war zone.  I went on Friday with a group of friends to witness the demonstration and we ended up taking shelter in one of the big hotels, overlooking the Nile and Kasr-El-Nil Bridge on one side and Tahrir on the other. Riot police swarmed the streets and thousands of demonstrators battled them on the bridge for nearly three hours, despite the water cannons and rubber bullets and what seemed like an endless supply of tear gas. Plumes of smoke and gas almost obliterated the Cairo skyline from where we stood. When the demonstrators finally pushed through just before sunset, the police seemed to scatter.  That night, there were fires all over Downtown, from the ruling party headquarters, just down the road from us, to over-turned cars and police vans, and even the Mugamma – the ugly but iconic monolithic government building that looms over Tahrir.

Today, a few police have reappeared but it is the presence of the army and its tanks that dominate Tahrir. By the time we arrived, at around 11am, there were already thousands of demonstrators encamped in the Square. We made our way through an army checkpoint with no problems – from what I could see, they were doing nominal checks only. The atmosphere in Tahrir was electric, almost festive. The army is not feared here, unlike in many other countries, and they have already said that they will not fire on the people. There were people from all walks of life, young, old, well-dressed, poor, many carrying hand-written signs – one in English simply said “game over”. Tahrir was bathed in sunlight once again – it has been beautiful weather for a revolution. Every now and then, spontaneous chants would break out in Arabic – “The people want the president to fall”, “Go away, Mubarak aren’t you ashamed?”

At one point, we spotted a young doctor and asked him about the makeshift hospital in a former mosque we had heard about behind the Square, and whether he would take us there. The soldiers manning the checkpoint near it were reluctant to allow us through at first but relented. The ‘hospital’ is tiny, manned by volunteer doctors and stocked with a limited supply of mostly donated medicines. They told us they had performed emergency procedures for those overcome with tear gas or hit by rubber bullets or tiny lead pellets, before sending them to the local hospitals.  One doctor told us that they had seen at least 13 dead in there since Friday. Today, the room was mainly quiet, apart from the sound of the Azan nearby, marking the midday prayers, that floated through the air.

Outside, we spoke to a number of the demonstrators who gathered around us. Many are worried that their message is not getting through to the outside world and they are eager to speak to foreigners. Some had been there since January 25, last Tuesday, when the protests began, which seems like a lifetime ago now. They are all, to a man, upbeat and determined to keep going until Mubarak stands down. They sense that the momentum is with them now. But they disagree as to what should happen next – if they think about it at all. Perhaps that is a reality that can’t quite be comprehended yet. There was no particular love of ElBaradei, the closest thing to a leader the opposition can claim. Nor is there any love for Omar Suleiman, the new vice-president Mubarak hastily announced a couple of days ago. One man mentioned Ahmed Zewail, Egypt’s Noble Prize winner for Chemistry, to me as his choice of leader.

There is much more to write but I’m running out of time. These are uncertain times for Egypt but there is also tremendous excitement in the air – a sense that history is being made and that an awakening has taken place. More than anything, there is a sense of pride amongst my Egyptian friends and all those I speak to – perhaps the one thing they feel was lost most under the current regime – and I am happy to be here to share that. I don’t know what the future holds – tomorrow marks the one week anniversary of this revolt and a million people have been called to join the march from Tahrir towards the Presidential Palace. At the moment, they are united with one common aim – to remove Mubarak. If, or when, that happens – it is difficult to believe that he can last much longer – the real struggle will begin. In the meantime, we watch, we wait and we hope.