Friday, 28 January 2011, 3:00PM
My German roommate let me know this morning that there’s no Internet or mobile phone service in Egypt today. I guess the authorities got fed up with blocking Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other individual Websites, and just went for the whole shebang. I had to laugh a little, because just yesterday my mother and I were marveling at how revolution has changed. How did Martin Luther King, Jr., manage to organize the demonstrations he did without Facebook? How did Ghandi pull it off without telephones? The Minute Men didn’t even have the telegraph! We’re slowly losing the ability to even imagine such a thing. Meanwhile, of course, I promised my parents I’d keep my blog updated so they’d know I was okay. I was in touch with my brother on Facebook last night to let him know I’d arrived safely in Cairo, but there’s no telling when I’ll be online again. I’m keeping this little journal so I’ll be ready to post as soon as the Internet comes back.
For a little background, today is Friday, the Muslim holy day. If things are going to go down in a Muslim country, you can bet it’ll be most urgent on a Friday afternoon, as the men emerge en masse from sermons in their neighborhood mosques. In Jordan during the Gaza War, the biggest demonstrations happened on Fridays, but I was fortunate enough to always be out of town with the cycling or hiking clubs (by design on their part, I think). As of last night, according to my much better informed roommate, the city’s major mosques had already announced their intentions to march today. Among them he cited al-Azhar Mosque, which surprises me a bit, since the sheikhs of al-Azhar usually side with the government. [Later I found out that the mosques all preached in support of the government, but as soon as the sermon was over, the congregants began their anti-government slogans.] And, he said, all the Egyptians he’d spoken to had said, “Tomorrow we’ll be on Tahrir Square!” The broad traffic circle in between the Nile and the old campus of the American University where my classes are held is called Tahrir [Freedom] Square, and is where the biggest protests have been centered for the last 3 days. It’s also where you’ll find the Mogamma, a government building infamous for its Kafkaesque bureaucracy, and often cited as a symbol of what’s wrong with the Egyptian government. It’s about 3 or 4 blocks from my apartment.
This morning, as my roommate was heading out to observe the demonstrations firsthand, I was on the balcony looking down Tahrir Street towards Tahrir Square and the Nile. It was like a ghost town. The only time I’ve seen fewer people or cars in the streets was at sunset on the first night of Ramadan. But this time was different. The cross-street below us, the one that leads to the Interior Ministry two blocks away, was blocked off by police. Two blocks up the road, in front of Abdeen Palace, was a whole phalanx of riot police. There were a few men on the street, but you can bet that most of them were plainclothes police and secret police. I feel sorry for the police, really. They’re just doing what they’re ordered to do. It’s not like they have much choice. I wouldn’t want to be imprisoned for insubordination to the state (or anything else) in this country!
Sure enough, around the time sermons were ending, Falaki Square began to fill up, the plaza about 200 meters down the street. Ordinarily it’s a very full parking lot, but today there are less than a dozen cars and dozens of people, mostly men. They’re chanting, waving Egyptian flags. I see a few figures that I think are women, but might be men with kafiyya wrapped around their heads. Sometimes they just seem to be milling about. From time to time they surge in one direction or another. After awhile, we begin to hear a loud pop, pop, pop, and then we see the tear gas drifting across the street. There are hundreds of people close to Talat Harb Street, as well as police wagons and a dense, growing fog of teargas trapped between the tall buildings.
A car drives past with a big hole in its rear window. A few minutes later, a crowd comes up the street carrying a middle-aged man with what looks like a broken foot from this distance. They bring him to the roadblock, and the police take him behind the barricade and call an ambulance. I wonder about his ultimate fate. There were reports yesterday that anyone taken to the hospital for injuries was immediately arrested, and that at least one death had come of it.
Afternoon prayer begins to sound across the city. It seems so incongruous, hearing the call to prayer against the backdrop of shouting protesters, punctuated by the loud pops of teargas canisters. The crowds are thinning, perhaps headed up Kasr al-Aini where the Parliament is, or perhaps in the other direction down Talat Harb towards the Lawyers Syndicate. The occasional pop of teargas canisters becomes increasingly intermittent.
My French roommate has just called me back to the front of the apartment, in time to see a phalanx of riot police come charging down our street, shouting. They pause at the intersection to regroup, then charge around the corner towards Huda Sha’rawi Street. As they go, the kids watching from the balcony across the street laugh at their zeal. Further in that direction, towards Talat Harb Street and the Egyptian Museum, a cloud hangs over the rooftops. It doesn’t look white like the teargas in the streets. It looks more like smoke. Then again, it could just be teargas mixed with Cairo’s infamous smog….
A crowd is gathering at the intersection below our balcony, arguing with the officer at the roadblock. The wind has changed, and the air is acrid with the remnants of tear gas. One young man comes from the direction of Tahrir Square with a bandanna wrapped around his face, and is promptly detained by plainclothes police and frogmarched up the street, two police with their hands wrapped securely around the waistband of his jeans.
Now the crowd is marching down the street towards Abdeen and back again. It’s about 75 or 100 people, about a dozen of them women, mostly young and middle aged. They’re shouting a variety of slogans, of which I can make out about half:
“The Egyptian people want the end of the regime!”
“Where is the journalism?”
“Gamal Mubarak [unclear] we hate you!” Gamal, the son of Pres. Hosni Mubarak, was widely expected run for president next year, but has already fled with his family to London. There’s a chant about Hosni Mubarak, too, but I can’t make it out. The protesters disappear around the corner towards Huda Sha’rawi Street, but now there’s a squad of police in our street, waving what I guess are tear gas launchers and rubber bullet rifles, telling all the shopkeepers along the street to get back inside. We decide it’s prudent to retreat from our windows.
My German roommate and his friends are back. They said there’d been Molotov cocktails and burning cars in Ramses behind the Egyptian Museum. That would be the smoke I saw beyond Talat Harb Street. Things have been quiet here for awhile, but I’m beginning to hear the crowds again, towards Tahrir Square and Ramsis. As far as I can see from my balcony, though, the streets are clear; maybe a dozen people other than uniformed police in a half-mile stretch of road.
On a side note, one of my roommate’s friends is not only from Maine, but from the same town in Maine where my parents now live. That makes two girls from Bridgton I’ve met in the Middle East….
Things are heating up again down the street. Crowds have gathered again between Falaki Square and Tahrir Square, shouting slogans I can’t make out. The sound of police and ambulance sirens has been almost constant for about a quarter of an hour.
About ten minutes ago, a hundred or so protesters came up the street. They knocked down the roadblock on the corner, with the police nowhere in sight. They milled around outside our apartment for awhile, and eventually settled onto the curb. It seemed they were taking a break from the hard work of revolution. A man showed up selling fatayer. My German roommate says there are women on Falaky Square beside Houreya Bar selling Pepsi at a “revolution discount” (half price) and doing booming business. Capitalism at work! Another protester walked past with a riot shield he’d somehow gotten from the police. After awhile, a pair of women came up the street from Tahrir Square, shouting for everyone to join the next round of protesting. The men crowded around and followed them back down the street. The sounds of sirens and teargas launchers has picked up again down the street.
We’ve put on Egyptian television and discovered that there’s a curfew in place in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez from 6PM this evening until 7AM tomorrow, and every night until further notice, “for the protection of the Egyptian people.” Exceptions will be made for the press, emergency services, and anyone on their way home or to the hospital. The curfew will be enforced by the army, which is on its way into the city in support of the police. It’s unclear to me, but Egypt may have declared martial law. It’s hard to tell how that’s different from the State of Emergency that Egypt’s been under for 30 years. We’re wondering if they’ll cut the electricity altogether later tonight.
Meanwhile, the commentators on the news seem to be from another planet. One Member of Parliament went on at length on how it’s always better to talk civilly about our problems than to resort to violence. Another commentator talked about how violent protests of this sort are “inappropriate conduct for the 21st Century.”
My German roommate and his friends have headed back out into the streets. I hope he makes it home. He’s given me some phone numbers in Germany to call if he doesn’t come home, but I don’t know quite what I’d say, or how I’d call with my mobile phone service blocked! As they’re leaving, the barrage of teargas canisters (and probably rubber bullets) down by Tahrir Square has picked up again. It’s an almost constant tattoo now, more constant than it’s been all day. You can hear an inchoate roar of the crowd, and whistling, but we can’t see anything from our place. The police on the corner are gone, as well as the phalanx up the street at Abdeen Palace. Oddly enough, the traffic lights are still flashing green, yellow, red, but there are virtually no cars, just a few clusters of men walking up the street away from the demonstrations. About a hundred riot police and several more trucks full of riot police drove down the cross-street towards the Interior Ministry, but without the shouting and stomping of earlier.
The sound of a helicopter circling over downtown brought me back out onto the balcony. The wind has picked up and the air is colder and smells heavily of something burning. The police are completely gone from our street still, and there are only a few small knots of men, mostly middle-aged. The sound of the crowd and the teargas canisters down at Tahrir Square has quieted. I catch sight of a helicopter silhouetted against the clouds, and it looks military to me.
Our street remains clear, but intermittent teargas fire still sounds from a distance. Sometimes, like now, it’s a veritable barrage. Most of the time it’s just occasional. It’s nearing my bedtime, but I’m sure if there’s any real excitement it will wake me up. I’m also keeping an ear out for the return of my German roommate, though if he’s smart, he’ll take the girl from Maine home and stay at her place!
Saturday, 29 January 2011, 2:10AM
My German roommate’s home. He’s been watching things unfold from a rooftop over Mohammad Mahmoud Street, close enough to Tahrir Square to have a clear view of the Cilantro coffee shop and McDonalds towards the end of the street. He has interesting tales to tell. He tells me that the police, who seem not to have been fed all day, started looting and destroying kiosks, the lowest of the low on the totem pole of legal businesses in Egypt. Meanwhile, the protesters liberated their dinner from Cilantro and McDonalds, which is a 4-star restaurant in Egypt. Clashes continued, with battle lines shifting up and down the street, until a handful of army men appeared in the street. Just a handful, but they commanded more respect from the protesters than dozens of police. The soldiers sent the police home, and my roommate says the whole mood in the street changed, with people applauding the soldiers, bringing them water and biscuits.
For context, it’s important to understand that all Egyptian men have to do military service or police service in their late teens or twenties. Those who have skill, education, social status or other advantages are assigned to the army. Anyone with a degree in engineering, for example, the most prestigious and therefore usually most expensive degree in Egypt, are drafted into the military. These are young men who are used to having some control over their circumstances, a little say in their own destinies, and some responsibility. In addition, there’s a long history of the military helping the Egyptian people, starting with the 1952 Revolution when the military deposed the monarchy, and including the retaking of the Sinai Peninsula in 1973.
On the other hand, the police is sort of a catch-all for anyone not good enough to get into the army. Police recruits tend to be the worst educated, most impoverished of conscripts, young men who, for the first time in their lives, have just a scrap of power and authority over someone else. They have a reputation for abusing that power, and are known to wield it in defense of the government, not in protection of the people. This was the reason that Egyptians chose Police Day to go on strike, protesting police brutality, torture and mistreatment under police custody, and other abuses of power by the police. Handling the protesters with rubber bullets, teargas and further brutality did nothing to improve the mood of protesters. But now the army is in power, and the tenor of demonstrations is likely to change.
It’s been a quiet day. Mobile phones have been working again, though the Internet is still out, and my calls on Vodafone have been mostly free today, perhaps because protesters stormed the Vodafone headquarters yesterday. Smoke hangs over Tahrir Square and Ramsis, where the headquarters of the Democratic National Party has been burning since yesterday. There’s some concern that the neighboring Egyptian Museum may also be in danger. Certainly it was in danger of looting last night, which the police were apparently helpless to stop, but protesters formed a cordon around the museum, conducted citizen’s arrests of many of the would-be looters, and held them until the army showed up around 10pm.
The Egyptian state television is praising the noble citizens who defended the nation’s greatest treasure, and playing down the impotence of the police. They’re also reporting on the Arab leaders – Gaddafi of Libya, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and Mahmoud Abbas of the PLO – who have called Pres. Mubarak to express their trust in his government and support of the people of Egypt (the ones who aren’t protesting, of course!). There have been reports that dozens of Egyptair flights to and from both Cairo and Sharm al-Sheikh have been canceled. They’re also warning Egyptians forcefully and repeatedly to respect the curfew, which will begin at 4pm and continue until 8am.
I’ve managed to talk to a number of people from CASA. Many of them are gathering at our usual potluck haunt in Dokki, including everyone else who lives here in downtown. I’ve decided to stay, though, to keep my French roommate and German neighbors company. The German girls in particular are quite worried. You can see it on their faces every moment.
I went to the grocery store with my French roommate and her friends a little bit ago. It was rather like York County before a snowstorm; the stores were packed with people buying a week’s worth of supplies, just in case. While we were out, we were approached by several Egyptians who warned us of the 4:00 curfew, and which streets to stay away from already at 2:30. It’s a strange atmosphere, tense but at the same time convivial, with a strong sense of community. People who would ordinarily pass anonymously in the streets are passing information about where to go and not to go. In the store, they were showing al-Jazeera, which was reporting over a hundred dead in yesterday’s protests.
We’re beginning to hear the sound of teargas canisters firing down towards the Nile. People are gathered in Falaky Square, and the streets leading towards Tahrir Square and Ramsis. Across the street, some guys spot a shop with its protective metal curtain up and its big glass windows exposed, and spend several minutes trying to pull down the curtain. It’s not even their shop. After awhile, a tank comes rolling down Tahrir Street towards Tahrir Square, to the cheers of the crowd in Falaky Square.
One of the French girls called to say al-Jazeera is showing protesters attacking the Ministry of the Interior. A minute later, we see tanks come thundering up Tahrir Street and around the corner towards the ministry. A few minutes after that, we see a man walking the same way with a pair of Molotov cocktails. We aren’t the only ones. He’s mobbed by about a dozen men who pour out his cocktails and start arguing with him about the best response to events. Not long after, we spot a pair of men on a scooter with an unconscious woman sandwiched between them. On television they’re begging people to “help the army keep order, respect private property, your message has been heard.”
Just now there was a big gathering at the corner, running down the cross-street from the Ministry of the Interior. It broke up when a delivery truck came down the road, rear doors hanging open, two men in the back shouting “There is no God but God!” Between them were the feet of a body wrapped in its burial shroud. The men on the corner followed the deceased down the road. Something [a tax office] is burning in the direction of AUC. A big black cloud of smoke is rising above Mohammad Mahmoud Street.
President Mubarak has just sworn in his Intelligence Chief Omar Sulaiman as the new Vice President. Teargas cannons and shouting have risen to a crescendo all over downtown. I can’t say that the two are related, but the timing is conspicuous. Meanwhile, the Maghreb call to prayer is sounding. Egyptian TV is praising citizens who beat back looters and confiscated looted goods to store them in mosques until they could be returned to their rightful owners. They’re reporting “a small number of casualties” yesterday, as well as the burning of police stations and government buildings, and attacks on banks, ATMs and hotels. Across the street, a kiosk owner is busy emptying out his own stock before vandals can do it for him.
There’s a fascinating report on Nile International, introduced as coming “in response to protesters’ calls for more freedom of expression.” In a collection of interviews with protesters, they asserted their commitment to peaceful resistance unless forced to defend themselves. They called for greater press freedom, freedom of expression, more equal distribution of the benefits of development in the economy, and an end to corruption. The reporter emphasized that there were children and teens in the crowd, not the sort of protesters bent on violence and vandalism.
My German roommate and his Egyptian friend are back. They tried to get to the girl from Maine, but she’s too close to the Interior Ministry. They say it’s a battle over there, with the military using real ammunition in addition to teargas. While they were out, they asked some Egyptians why they were there. “We’re fighting for the fun of it,” they all said. As sociologists and political scientists say, the greatest threat to global stability is frustrated, unemployed young men. Now they feel they’ve been given license to work out some of that frustration on government and police targets, and they’re taking advantage.
Things are very quiet for now. The fire at the NDP seems to be out, and possibly the fire in Mohammad Mahmoud Street as well. The sounds of gunshots and teargas cannons are minimal. A military helicopter is circling over downtown, but there’s no other police or military presence. There are a few people wandering around Falaky Square, and up and down Tahrir Street, but they’re quiet and orderly. On our block, it seems that most of the men stalking the sidewalks are residents and local shopkeepers, patrolling the street to keep the random mischief-makers from making their mischief here.
I called my parents to ask my brother to put a message up on my Facebook profile that I’m okay (if housebound), since I know people must be worried. As I got off the phone, my German roommate made an astute observation. By cutting off Internet in Egypt, the government may indeed have hampered the efforts of the civic-minded, politically motivated students and activists who started this whole uprising on Tuesday. By allowing mobile phone service to continue today, though, they’ve allowed the organization of the very vandals and looters they’ve been complaining about on TV all day today!
The German girl across the hall is home alone in her apartment. She spent the afternoon here and went back there for the night, but couldn’t sleep. We’ve just installed her on our couch for the night, and she’s thinking of going over to Zamalek tomorrow. I realized two things about myself as we were waiting for her to come over. First, that while she would rather put on noise-canceling headphones and try to distract herself with a movie, I am comforted by information. I want to know what’s going on, even if it’s scary; processing that information for its socio-political implications calms my mind. Second, I lived in Jordan for a long time. Non sequitor? Not really. Jordanians set off fireworks and sometimes even weapons fire in celebration of almost anything. Once I was settled into bed for tonight, it seems I began interpreting and dismissing teargas cannon fire as celebratory fireworks, as if it were Tawjihi night (it’s about that time, actually) and nothing out of the ordinary. It’s only when the crowds start shouting and whistling as they are now that I remember there’s a revolution going on out there.
Sunday, 30 January 2011, 8:08AM
Curfew has officially ended, and it went out with a bang … the bang of teargas canisters being fired just a few blocks away. There’s shouting in the streets, and the sound of barriers being moved. Periodically we hear the whir of a military helicopter circling overhead. I was thinking about going to Dokki to join some other CASA students this morning, but I’m not sure I want to leave the apartment. I feel pretty safe in my block still, with the neighborhood guys in the street doing their best to disarm and calm anyone coming down the street with particularly violent tendencies, and calling on the military for anything they can’t handle. Still, I wouldn’t want to walk to Dokki, since I’d have to walk through Tahrir Square or Ramsis where the protests and the violence have centered, and I don’t know if the Metro is running. Even if it is, a friend said when she was in the Metro yesterday morning, they went through a station that had been hit with teargas and it was no picnic! So I’ll make a cup of coffee and wait an hour.
I’ve been in touch with CASA Fellows across Cairo to get updates. Some of them have been on the Metro and say it’s running normally. You can’t get on or off at Mubarak, the station under Tahrir Square, but you can go through and change trains there without trouble. Another group of CASA Fellows walked across Tahrir Square and down Kasr al-Aini Street to get some supplies from their apartment and didn’t encounter any trouble along the way. The girl from Maine is here and says Mohammad Mahmoud Street was a war zone all night, with the military using live rounds. Vandals burned some cars and a tax office. They also smashed the glass in her building’s doors, but the metal bars remained intact, and the men in her building slept on the ground floor to make sure the building was safe, which it was. This morning the street is empty.
My roommates both decided to go stay with friends, and the Germans across the hall were all told by their program that they were to pack a bag for a few days and move to their school in Zamalek. Things are quiet and orderly in our street, with the neighborhood watch firmly in control, so I still feel safe in my apartment, despite being just a few blocks from the action. I don’t want to stay there alone, though, so I accompanied the Germans to Zamalek and am now camped out at the apartment of another CASA Fellow and her boyfriend, near the AUC dorms. I considered going to Dokki, but they’re already sleeping two to a bed there, so I didn’t want to crowd them too much.
We walked down Tahrir Street and across Tahrir Square, and got a cab on Qasr al-Aini Bridge. It was an interesting procession. The military has tanks on every street leading into Tahrir Square, and they’ve set up checkpoints. They’re patting down anyone who wants to get onto the square to protest, but as long as they don’t find anything dangerous, they’re letting people on the square for peaceful protests. About a third of the crowd are women, and there are children as well. They’re holding signs and chanting, but it is precisely the peaceful protest they were talking about on state television last night. As we walked past, people kept shouting, “Are you reporters? Take pictures!” They want their message to get out any way possible. Others passed us by saying things like “Down with Mubarak!” Someone had spraypainted “Fuck Mubarak” on one of the tanks. Just as they had mentioned on state TV, people were sweeping up garbage all over Tahrir Square. In fact, despite the protests and the vandalism, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the streets so clean! It’s one more sign, like the Egyptian flags waving everywhere through the crowds, that these are people deeply proud of their country, with a deep commitment to bettering their nation.
News is spotty at best. Al-Jazeera has had the best coverage, by all accounts, but today the government ordered them to shut down their office in Egypt, so we’re left with BBC Arabic and state television. My German neighbors were told by a representative of their embassy that today would be the last day of demonstrations, and the army would be cracking down tomorrow when the Egyptians were good and tired of the violence and would welcome the return of the perpetual State of Emergency. Our cab driver seemed to agree with that assessment, but we remain skeptical. BBC Arabic says the US is urging Americans not to go to Egypt, and encouraging voluntary evacuation of those who are here. The embassy has said they will assist any American wishing to leave the country. We’ve been in touch with our program director, though, and she hasn’t heard anything about involuntary evacuation. They’re keeping their eye on things and thinking about how they’re going to get our stipends to us, which we would ordinarily receive tomorrow. The Judges Syndicate has announced that they are supporting the protesters against the government, and hundreds are reportedly marching in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, “not as judges, but as ordinary Egyptians pushing for change.” Iraq, Turkey, Israel and other embassies are evacuating personnel. Other than that, rumors abound.
With curfew approaching, a pair of fighter jets have begun circling downtown, buzzing Tahrir Square where al-Jazeera is now showing perhaps tens of thousands gathered in peaceful protest, and more military vehicles are reportedly moving into downtown. Here in Zamalek, shopkeepers are pulling down their metal curtains or lining up display coolers in front of their storefronts to deter looting, and the doormen are out on the sidewalks with big sticks. It’s a completely different atmosphere here, though, than it was in the downtown yesterday. There are less than a dozen doormen with sticks as far as I can see, whereas there were dozens in my block in Bab al-Luq. The conflict seems so distant from here, which is comforting in terms of my safety, but a little frustrating to not know what’s going on except from repetitive coverage by international media. We are seeing reports that the military was ordered to use live rounds on protesters, and that officers had announced they were refusing those orders and would not fire on anyone who didn’t fire on them first.
As the call to prayer sounds across Cairo, al-Jazeera is showing images of row upon row of protesters prostrating in prayer on Tahrir Square. We’re a solid hour and a half into curfew, and things are quiet here in Zamalek. From here, things look calm.
The BBC is reporting that Mohammad al-Baradei is arriving on Tahrir Square to address protesters there. The Nobel Peace Prize winner was the leader of the International Atomic Energy Agency who stood up to the United States in their claims about WMDs in Iraq, and supervised inspections of nuclear facilities in Iran and North Korea until the IAEA was kicked out of those countries. He has serious cachet with the West, but he’s also been a popular political figure in Egypt since his retirement from the IAEA. The Muslim Brotherhood today has declared their support for Baradei to lead negotiations with Mubarak on behalf of the opposition, and there have been calls for his involvement for days. Of course, the government has cracked down on journalists, and the Internet is still blocked to keep Egyptians from uploading videos to YouTube and other Websites, so we don’t know if we’ll actually see or hear his imminent statement to protesters, but al-Jazeera’s live footage certainly brings us the cheers and enthusiasm of the crowd on Tahrir Square for Baradei’s presence.
I’ve checked in with my roommates, who are both still in downtown. My Moroccan roommate says things are quiet in the street near our apartment where she is staying with the other French girls. My German roommate is on Tahrir Square waiting for Baradei to speak, and he says things are quiet and peaceful there. There’s been no teargas and almost no gunfire tonight. Everyone’s talking about tonight as a tipping point, when protests have gone back to peaceful resistance. Consensus among my friends and acquaintances is that if Mubarak resigns tonight, or at least consents to negotiations with Baradei for a change of government, that things could return to normal tomorrow or the next day. If Mubarak doesn’t bow to his inevitable downfall pretty fast, though, things could get ugly again.
The doormen guarding our street are squatting around a small fire they’ve made to keep warm. (I guess if you hadn’t been in a snowstorm in New York City last week, it would seem cold here….) All’s quiet in Zamalek, and demonstrations on Tahrir are still peaceful. It’s bedtime!
Monday, 31 January 2011, 6:03AM
I just received a public service message from Vodafone, more or less saying: The armed forces salute the faithful men of Egypt who stood up to treachery and criminals and protected our people and the demonstrations and our precious Egypt.
Good morning! Zamalek remained quiet during the night. The doormen are still manning a barrier at the end of the block, but others have begun going about their morning routines of washing cars. The air is thick with dust, smog and perhaps smoke low to the ground.
As curfew lifts over Cairo, BBC Arabic is reporting a doubling of the military presence on Tahrir Square, where some camped out all night but many of the protesters had gone home for the night. They are now beginning to return. They’re saying that relations are still friendly between the army and the protesters, but that the army has reduced the space available to protesters on Tahrir Square. Protesters are calling for a national strike again today. There is also beginning to be a police presence in the city again, but in small numbers, by and large to the relief of citizens who’ve been directing traffic and protecting their own communities since police fled their posts on Friday. There are a few sensitive areas like Tahrir Square where traffic is still severely restricted, but in most neighborhoods they’re reporting the beginning of a resumption of regular traffic patterns, though at perhaps a quarter of the regular volume for Cairo streets. We can hear at least one helicopter circling downtown for the third day.
We’ve also heard that any Americans who show up at Terminal 4 will get assistance from the US embassy to fly to Europe. Once in Europe, though, you’d be responsible for your own travel back to the States.
Al-Jazeera Arabic is showing the first images I’ve seen from Suez, where there seems to still be a lot of chaos, despite a heavy army presence. They’re also saying that curfew will begin at 2pm today. The 6th of April Movement, a relatively new youth movement that has been staging big protests all year, is calling for a million Egyptians to protest tomorrow. A funeral march in Alexandria today for an important Muslim Brotherhood figure killed yesterday is also being used as an anti-government protest.
We’ve just returned from a day of walking around town, including several hours on Tahrir Square. Traffic cops are out in Zamalek and Gazira, and many people are happy to see them, thanking them for their service. We did see a group in a heated argument with an officer, but it looked to me more like a venting of grievances than anything. We walked up along the East Bank of the island where Zamalek is, where we could see tanks lined up along the Corniche and limiting traffic across the bridges into the downtown. As we came up onto Kasr an-Nil Bridge, people were streaming steadily across the bridge into Tahrir Square. The army was still sitting on every street leading into Tahrir, but they weren’t patting down as many people as yesterday. Most they were just waving through.
On the square, there were a lot of people still sleeping on the grass from the night before. We saw Heather and her husband and baby, who was a big hit with the protesters; they all wanted to pick him up and have their picture taken with him. We saw one cardboard effigy of Hosni Mubarak hanging from a traffic light pole, and written on it a call for capital punishment for Mubarak. There were also a lot of guys picking up trash, sweeping streets, bringing water to protesters, and otherwise showing their solidarity and patriotism. Many protesters asked us to take pictures of them with their signs, and begged us to get these images and our impressions to Americans. In a way it seems rather disingenuous, knowing that we can’t share anything with anyone until the Internet is working again, but we do intend to get our images out as soon as Internet comes back.
We went down Kasr al-Aini Street past the American embassy, too. All of Garden City is cordoned off by tanks and sandbags, and no one was getting in anywhere. That’s the neighborhood where the US, UK and Canadian embassies are, along with many others. In Kasr al-Aini there were burnt-out police transports in the street, and many of the side streets were barricaded off with more burnt out and vandalized vehicles. Further away, in Nubar Street past the Ministry of Interior and around Sa’ad Zaghloul Metro station, life almost looked normal. The Sa’ad Zaghloul fruit market was booming, so fresh fruit and vegetables are clearly getting into the city.
When we went back to Tahrir Square, the crowds had more than doubled. Lots of people were carrying signs expressing anger at the US government, but they were pleased to see us as Americans there, supporting their aspirations for real agency in their government. A couple of men had taken up positions on top of street lights. There were more and more signs with slogans condemning the US government’s unwillingness to take the side of the Egyptian people, slogans like “USA: We are tired of your hypocrisy.” I heard a few crowds chanting “Mubarak is an agent of Israel.” We saw Emilie, who’s just come back from Erbil in Iraq, where all her colleagues said, “It’s not safe in Egypt, stay here in Iraq!” As curfew was approaching and we were leaving, Egyptians were passing us saying, “Don’t go! It’s perfectly safe! Stay with us!”
As we came back through Zamalek, there was only one sign of vandalism. The Vodafone store by the 26th of July Bridge had been painted with Stars of David and slogans like “Agents of the government.” Clearly people are angry about the cut in mobile phone service on Friday, and free in-network phone calls for the last three days have not made them feel any better!
Now we’re back in Zamalek. We’ve added two more CASA Fellows to our little enclave here, which gives us lots more distraction from the repetitive reporting on al-Jazeera. We’re making another stew (I haven’t eaten so well in months!) and more tea, settling in for the night. It sounds like one of our colleagues is taking advantage of the embassy’s evacuation assistance, but the rest of us are here for the long haul. Things are peaceful, and this is the most interesting week we’ve had all year. We want to see the Egyptian people succeed, and we want to be here to witness it when they do!
Alex and I were interviewed by Larry Abramson of NPR. (First I was on Egyptian national television in October. Now, Mom will get her long-standing wish to hear me on NPR at last.) He was looking for the opinions of American students living in Cairo. He wanted to know if we were intending to stay, if we felt safe, how our parents had reacted, and what our program was recommending. We tried to emphasize that there’s been no violence for days, that what “anti-Americanism” there is consists of anger at the American government, not American citizens, and that Egyptians have repeatedly expressed their thanks for our support and their hope that we’ll bring their message to the Egyptian people.