Things Heat Up In Cairo

Cairo, Egypt

Wednesday, 2 February 2011, 9:30AM
Alex and Lev are leaving on the American-organized evacuation flights for Europe today, and my parents have bought me a ticket to Jordan for tomorrow. I’m feeling quite conflicted, as I know Alex has been as well. We want to be here to see Egypt get the democratic, popularly-driven government it wants and deserves. This is the first time I’ve really wanted to be here in Egypt, felt real, deep affection for the people of Egypt. But if Mubarak doesn’t get his head out of his ass and step down by Friday, we’re afraid of what might happen after the afternoon sermon. The military still hasn’t said whose side they’re on, and the pro-Mubarak rally we saw this afternoon was unsettling at best. Discretion being the better part of valor, we’re running for the hills.

It’s not just our safety that’s driving us abroad. For three days, Egyptians have been begging us to get our pictures and experiences out to the rest of the world, to let them know what’s really happening here, and to urge our governments to support the protesters. All along, we’ve been promising to do just that, but we’ve only been able to get things out in bits and pieces over our periodic phone calls from home. Without Internet, the bulk of what we have to show and say to the world is trapped in Egypt. Not to mention that our family and friends are worried at best, frantic at worst, watching on CNN and Fox the repeated reports of looting, vandalism, anti-Americanism and violence in Egypt. If we leave the country, we can get the truth out and better support our Egyptian brothers and sisters in their struggle. We can do our part to put pressure on our government representatives to intervene. And with Skype, we can easily stay in touch with our friends here to keep the lines of communication open.

As I left Zamalek, it became more and more apparent that my taxi driver was an outspoken pro-Mubarak supporter. He had national radio on in the cab, and spoke at great length on how it’s time to end the violence and destruction, to reunite as one Egyptian people behind their president, and to restart an economy that was already failing. I’m reminded of a placard I saw yesterday at the Million Man March that read, “Egypt’s heart has stopped. We’re giving CPR.” As we came across the 6 October Bridge, there were few pro-Mubarak supporters in sight below. As we reached street-level, traffic was backed up as usual in the interchange near Ramsis street. “Did you ever think,” I joked with my driver, “that you’d be happy to see a traffic jam in Cairo? Things feel so normal again!” He agreed, assuring me that the worst was over and today would be the last day of protests. The government had already announced that Internet service would resume today, and by tomorrow the country would be back to normal, he said. I hope he’s right, but I’m skeptical.

Here in my apartment near Tahrir Square, things look quiet. My French roommate is moving the last of her things to her new apartment around the corner, a move she’s been planning on for a couple weeks now. My German roommate, meanwhile, filled up all the beds and couches in the apartment with protesters and foreign observers who hadn’t been able to go home last night. They are very apologetic about sleeping in my bed, but I’m glad to have been able to extend that service, even unknowingly, in support of the revolution. The Eritrean-German girl across the hall is back in her apartment, looking much more confident and optimistic than the last time I saw her.

My taxi to Dokki had to take the long way around, through Mounira down to the Botanical Garden, and then back up along the Nile to Tahrir Street in Dokki. These are mostly lower middle class neighborhoods, very different from Zamalek where I’ve been staying until today. As we drove through, things looked pretty normal. About two thirds of shops, restaurants and businesses seemed to be open. Despite widespread rumors of food shortages, especially bread, shelves seem to be pretty well stocked here and the usual street vendors are out selling government-subsidized bread. Traffic was still nothing like its usual snarl, but seemed to be up to almost half its usual volume. There were police deployed in their usual numbers. We passed several knots of protesters, but it was unclear which side they were on. Those holding signs on the square in front of the Sheraton seemed to be pro-Mubarak supporters, calling for national unity.

The best news is that Internet is now back up, and I can start putting up pictures and updating my blog again, not to mention reassuring the dozens of people who’ve sent emails, Facebook messages and posts and tweets to express their concern and lend their support. It makes me feel a little more guilty about leaving Egypt at this critical juncture, knowing that I could still get this information out if I stayed, but there’s no telling how long Internet will remain available, and discretion is still the better part of valor!

Before we got sucked into all the things we have to do on the Internet (and while it’s still night in America and no one in America is sitting by their email and Facebook in suspense), we decided to walk to Tahrir Square and see for ourselves what demonstrations look like today. On our way down the main street of Dokki, we were stopped by several groups of men who told us that “the real protest” (the pro-Mubarak protest) was in the other direction. As we crossed over onto Gezira Island, we noticed that almost all the taxis had “Yes to Mubarak” signs in their windshields. Not only that, but they were all relatively late-model taxis, which prompted Rachel to mention that there’s a government program that helps taxi drivers buy new vehicles. We suspect the government may have been using that as leverage to get these drivers out with a pro-government message.

As we crossed Kasr al-Aini Bridge, we started to get an uneasy feeling. All along the bridge there were knots of people arguing. Most were having pretty civil conversations. The anti-government protesters understand that real democracy means dialogue with the opposition, and they’re seeking opportunities to do that. They’re also whole-heartedly dedicated to non-violence, which includes verbal non-violence, and they were demonstrating that all along the bridge. The pro-Mubarak supporters, though, were very different. They were shouting, even screaming, with a very angry edge to their tones. And they were arriving by the minibus-full, as they were at yesterday’s pro-Mubarak rally down the Corniche. We’re pretty sure that they’re being bussed in by the government.

The closer we got to the military roadblock on the far side of the bridge, the more uneasy we became. Arguments became more and more heated, and there was a definite threat of violence in the air. We decided we didn’t want to take the risk of getting stuck on Tahrir Square if violence does break out, and retreated back to Dokki.

On our way back towards Dokki, Rachel was stopped by a father moving towards Kasr al-Aini Bridge with his five grown daughters. They had heard reports of violence breaking out on Tahrir Square, and were stopping people coming from that direction to see if they could get more information. As we talked to them, several knots of men tried to start an angry political discussion with the father, but he was very quietly refusing to engage in political debate, and asking only for the facts. Eventually, several anti-government protesters came by, pointing out that the anti-government faction was so much bigger than the pro-Mubarak faction that they would be crazy to start violence.

Andrew and Cosette are on Tahrir Square, where things are getting scary. Pro-Mubarak supporters have gotten onto Tahrir Square and are picking fights with anti-government protesters. Hoping to maintain a peaceful protest, the anti-government protesters are surrounding pro-government instigators, moving them off the square, and throwing over the fence in front of the Mugamma to be arrested by the military. We’ve urged Andrew and Cosette to get out of there quickly, before it gets worse.

Yesterday on Tahrir Square felt very much like I imagine it would have felt to be on the National Mall in Washington, DC, listening to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Today, though, it feels more like Birmingham, Alabama. Even under threat of very real violence against them, protesters continue to stand by their vow of nonviolence, the vast majority of them refusing to engage in violence even when they’ve been attacked and their lives are at very real risk. I can only hope that they can maintain the peace.

In the interim, someone’s mother has passed on the gist of an interview she saw with one of the “pro-Mubarak supporters.” Apparently he told journalists that he didn’t particularly want to be there, but that he works for the national petroleum company, and his superiors ordered him to Tahrir Square to support his president. None of us are the least bit surprised by this.

We’re watching on al-Jazeera English the action on Tahrir Square. There is definite violence happening on the street, with pro-government supporters attacking the thus-far peaceful protesters in running street battles, with the battle lines flowing back and forth. Anti-government protesters are holding their ground as best as they can without weapons. Pro-government “protesters” have hijacked several military trucks, are hurling rocks and bricks and other debris from rooftops onto the protesters below, and are attacking anti-government protesters from horse- and camel-back. The army is just standing by and watching. Rumor is that many of these instigators are plain-clothes or secret police sent by the Mubarak government to foment violence. Others are claiming that pro-Mubarak supporters have been delivered to points near the square in police transports. Foreign journalists are reporting that pro-Mubarak supporters have attacked them. Meanwhile, there are no ambulances around to take away the injured, whose numbers are growing.

The Government is claiming that there are no plain-clothes or secret police among the pro-Mubarak supporters, and that these are simply ordinary Egyptians coming out to protest the violence and instability that has filled their streets for the last nine days. Of course, this jives with Mubarak’s attempt last night to paint himself as a force for stability and order. Moreover, the army is not making any effort to stop the pro-Mubarak supporters from their frightening acts of violence. That seems a pretty fair indication that the military has taken the side of the regime. The government is also denying that shots have been fired, though of course reporters have them on tape by this time.

Buildings are burning and tear gas is billowing on Ramsis Street beside the Egyptian Museum. El-Baradei is calling for the army to intervene, but it’s clear they have no intention to do any such thing. One emergency vehicle is coming up the Corniche towards Tahrir as night falls, but it’s unlikely it will come close enough to the square to be of any assistance. Only one emergency vehicle is not going to help a conflict of this scale. Now a second is on its way, but it’s still a mere palliative.

After hours of relative quiet on Tahrir Square, now there’s gunfire sounding over the plaza. My German roommate is making frequent reports over Facebook on the state of things in the downtown. He’s been onto Tahrir Square several times with medical supplies, water and moral support. I’m concerned for his safety, but impressed by his dedication to Egypt’s cause. He says that it’s a war zone down there, and with very little help in sight. Among other things, he reports that they’ve given shelter in our apartment to a foreign journalist who was attacked by pro-Mubarak supporters near Tahrir Square. I know a couple of German journalists who previously lived in our building have also been using our apartment as one their refuges.

My roommate also works with refugees in his usual job, and considers many of them his friends. As he gets them, he’s posting updates on Facebook about the refugee experience in the revolution. On a good day, it’s tough to be a refugee in Egypt, where unemployment is so high and wages so low for Egyptian citizens that they begrudge every pound spent on refugees they didn’t ask for. Now, with most ATMs out of cash and all the banks closed, UNHCR has been unable to pay out the usual food stipends that refugees depend on. At the same time, with rampant rumors of food shortages, shops are refusing to sell to refugees. This evening, as violence broke out on Tahrir Square, it’s also breaking out in refugee neighborhoods across the city, and many of the city’s Sudanese, Somali, Iraqi and other refugees now fear for their lives.

I’ve just spoken to an old Peace Corps friend, Ashley Bates, who works as a journalist with Mother Jones. I’ve linked in the past to her excellent reporting on the Gaza Strip, where she lived for a year as a freelance reporter, so she can relate more than almost anyone else I know to what it’s been like here. I’m not sure if it was an interview exactly, or just checking in and getting some background, but either way it was great to talk to her. She’s been tracking the experiences of Sudanese refugees in this crisis, the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, and other stories periphery to the street fighting. She’s putting me in touch with some of her other contacts, as well.

Thursday, 3 February 2011, 8:11AM
I’m at the airport. We decided it was best to leave Dokki as early as possible, to be sure that we could find a cab and get through the streets before too many pro- or anti-government protesters were awake and, in the case of the former, spoiling for a fight. As we walked out towards the main thoroughfare, there were amateur roadblocks set up every hundred meters or so, and a cluster of tough-looking men standing on the corner between the King Hotel and the Wafd Party offices. The neighborhood was well-protected and showed no signs of any sort of struggle last night. Out on Tahrir Street, it was easy to flag down a taxi. We didn’t even bother to ask about price, just deciding among ourselves that we’d pay LE150, a little more than twice the usual fare to the airport, and be glad to get there safe and sound. After all, it’s a number easily divisible by 3!

Our taxi was stopped once on the Dokki side by a neighborhood watch who wanted to see the driver’s license and peek in the trunk, but everyone was very calm and collected about it, and we went on easily enough. The streets were virtually empty, except for the overpasses on the east end of the 6 October Bridge. We’d seen footage on al-Jazeera last night of pro-government supporters throwing stones and Molotov cocktails off those overpasses on the anti-government protesters below. Men were still clustered between burnt-out carcasses of cars along those overpasses, brandishing machetes, kitchen knives, and big sticks. I’m just glad not to have seen any guns. After that it was smooth sailing through virtually deserted streets to the airport.

It’s crowded here, with long lines at the Domestic Departures end of Terminal 3, and every seat filled with people waiting for later flights here at the International Departures end. Emma and Sarah have gone through the first security checkpoint to Check-In. I’ve been told to wait out in the Entrance Hall until 1:30, as my flight will not leave till quarter of five. But I managed to find an electrical outlet to plug in my laptop (the battery only lasts about 20 minutes these days) and am settled in for the long haul on the floor along the wall. Now that I’m here at the airport, I feel safer than I have in more than a day. My flight is as scheduled, as have almost all flights been in the last 48 hours. We’ve heard that they’re loading people on their planes as soon as they’re checked in and through security, instead of the usual loitering in the terminal, so that when the plane is cleared for take-off, they can leave immediately.

I was telling the girls, it’s been a long time since I’ve been this emotional about flying, maybe even since I left for Switzerland at 16. I’ve been doing my best to pull what my mother calls “the stoic Maryah act,” but one thing’s for sure: I’ll never be a war reporter! Yesterday was really scary, and no one knows if today and especially tomorrow (Friday) will be any better. I’m incredibly excited for Egypt right now. For the first time, people have a pride in their country and a sense of agency to improve it that I’ve never seen. At the same time, I worry that things may get far worse before they get better. I’m sorry to go, but also relieved.

As I leave for Jordan, let me also put to rest any concerns you may have about Jordan. As an expression of how different the conditions are in Egypt and Jordan, take demonstrations last Friday. While the Egyptian police met protesters with teargas and rubber bullets, the Jordanian police met protesters with Pepsi and sandwiches. They handed out a light lunch, King Abdullah went on state television and said he’d make some changes, people said, “We just wanted to know you were listening,” and they went home. In the last six years that I’ve been following Jordan’s politics, I can assure you that asking for the resignation of the Jordanian government is a normal thing for King Abdullah. It happens about every 6 months or so. Furthermore, anyone who’s been to both Jordan and Egypt can tell you that the situations there are completely different. Jordan is a relatively poor country, but it does not have the kind of abject poverty you find in Egypt, and certainly not on the scale you see in Egypt. Jordan is a stable country. None of my dozens of friends there are the least bit worried, which includes officials of both the Jordanian and American governments, activist bloggers, expats and ordinary Jordanians. There are always changes being asked for in Jordan, but the people know that King Abdullah has their best interests at heart, and they see things getting better all the time.


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