Posted by: Caity | January 31, 2011

Chronicle of Protest: A View from Cairo during the Demonstrations

Friday January 28, 2011

On the Qasr An-Nil bridge near Tahrir Square

The Friday call to prayer has never struck fear into my heart. But today I listen, and feel the anticipation and fear of thousands upon thousands of souls who are listening with me. Although the garbled words of the loud-speaker’s sermon are unintelligible from here, today simply its presence is a call to action, and a call to the unknown.

Following the protests in Tunisia, which forced the long time dictator from power earlier this month, the air has been electric. Each day has brought new stories of yet another individual who set himself on fire in front of parliament – imitating the unemployed and fed-up young man in Tunisia whose self-immolation sparked the wave of riots. They were hoping that with their kerosene and matches they could spark something in Egypt, that they could turn up the heat on the already near-boiling society angered from mass unemployment, police brutality and official torture, rising prices of food and rent for an already underpaid and overworked society.

The average monthly salary for a government worker here is about $85, which if you are lucky might just cover rent in an impoverished neighborhood. So you work another job, driving a taxi and breathing only your most exhausted sighs at home. Schools are so over-crowded and poor that the entire education system is built on extra-curricular tutors, such that those who can afford to pay have tutor upon tutor after school. We recently heard of a (clearly wealthy) student who attends school only for the tests, and otherwise simply stays at home with a private tutor for each subject. And what for those who can’t afford it? It is draining as an Arabic-speaking foreigner to ride in the taxis here, as we have the same conversations over and over again. He wants to tell us of his life here, of the governmental corruption, of the poverty he is forced into, of the inability to get married because of unemployment and lack of funds, of his duties to provide for his wife and children on the pittance he is paid. He asks us again and again, how am I supposed to live like this?

Khaled Said facebook page calls for Jan 25 protests

Perhaps our ears are privy to story upon story like this because there is no sanctioned outlet to voice complaint. Complaint is criticism, which attracts the attention of an erratic and prideful “security” force that loves to “teach lessons” to those who dare scratch the official sovereign apparatus. Two cases insinuate themselves above the rest. One, of a young man whose well-connected neighbors called the police on him because of a fight over a girl, and when he talked back to the police he was brought into custody and kept for an extra day to teach him to be submissive to authority, despite that all charges were dropped. That extra day was his last. Another, the famous Khaled Sa’id, who posted a video on his blog of police officers divvying up the booty from a drug bust, and who was dragged from an internet café by the “security” and publicly beaten to death. Anger over this second case planted the seeds for this week’s riots, as the protest page on facebook about his death was the one to call for demonstrations on January 25, national Police Day in Egypt.

What a curious holiday – Police Day – as it seems that every day here is police day considering their heavy-handed power afforded by the 29-year emergency law in Egypt. The call to the streets on this holiday was launched on the internet, chiefly on the Khaled Sa’id facebook group and further on a google document passed virally from email to email. “This is the beginning of the end – the end of silence,” the document says, as “Egypt is passing through one of the worst states in its history on all accounts, despite the reports that the Egyptian government mentions in order to beautify its image.” It catalogs a bleak scene: widespread depression and poverty, systematic corruption, more than 30% unemployment among youth, high infant mortality and number of those suffering with Hepatitis C and anemia, and lastly, the number of deaths from torture and imprisonment due to the emergency laws and the blatant fraud in the recent parliamentary elections.

The police were ready at the four areas specifically mentioned in the documents, yet as the protests were to start the actual locations were blasted via social media, leaving the police to scramble. All of the demonstrations moved towards and eventually converged on Tahrir Square – Liberation Square – in downtown Cairo.

Prayer during protests

The call-and-response chanting so well practiced during Cairo’s soccer matches now waxed political: “Down, down with Hosni Mubarak! Down, down with Hosni Mubarak!” Riot police tried to prevent rioters from entering the square, clasping hands and standing in a line as if they were playing Red Rover, as a friend described. The chanting only paused as the adhan sounded prayer time, and later in the day with the resort to tear gas and rubber bullets. In addition to reports of the familiar police brutality, some protesters were rounded up and carted off for hours into the desert and left there deserted.

Al-Ahram speaks of chocolate and flowers

What is striking is the official fiction spouted out by the state apparatus. Khaled Sa’id died not from the beating,but from the marijuana that he swallowed of which he was supposedly in possession. Those men lit themselves on fire in front of parliament not because of discontent with the current state of affairs but because a woman hit him in the street, or he was mentally disturbed. And Police Day, according to government-run headlines the following day, was spent by the exchange of flowers and chocolates between civilians and the police to show their gratitude and appreciation.

While Wednesday and Thursday brought smaller protests, the call was raised for Anger Friday, with protests to begin after Friday prayers when people are already gathered in the mosques. The facebook page got tens of thousands of members within 24 hours, despite the official blocking of facebook and twitter, as information on proxies was disseminated widely. We woke up this morning to find that the internet has been shut off, and when I tried to make a call from my cell phone it went blank, saying: “Emergency calls only!” If there were not already enough announcements toward today’s protests, the disabling of all cell phone carriers is the final and most comprehensive: When? Today. Where? Everywhere.

I’ve been quick to tell my friends and family at home that we are far from the action, as quiet Maadi is at least a 20 minute metro ride to downtown. But as I am writing this I am drawn to my window by chanting. We run to the balcony to see thousands of people marching. They are chanting: “Ash-sha’ab yureed isqat an-nitham!” (The people want the fall of the regime!), “Yasqut yasqut Hosni Mubarak!” (Fall, fall Hosni Mubarak), and “Allahu akbar!” (God is most Great!). There must have been many of us watching from our balconies, as they turned to look up at us, chanting “Inzil, inzil, inzil!” (Come down, come down).

View from our Window

Even quiet Maadi. There were easily a couple thousand people, heading in the direction of downtown, and will beyond doubt pick up thousands more in the overpopulated poverty-stricken neighborhood of Dar Es-Salaam just next door. And an old woman, trickling by at the end of the masses and followed by what is probably her family, leads the chanting and stops to yell to those who are just standing on the corner, perhaps waiting for the bus: What are you doing! Come and walk with us!!

If this commotion is here, I can only imagine what is downtown.

***

Saturday January 29, 2011

NDP ablaze

I felt with my own hand the heat blazing from the burning headquarters of the National Democratic Party,the party of Hosni Mubarak.

Last night we drove out with Nima and Tash to meet some friends for dinner just outside of Cairo proper. As we drove we saw a barricade up on the other side of the road, preventing people from entering the city – and us from going back. As we got to dinner though, and gave our birthday present to our friend, the curfew was announced on the state television that was playing in the restaurant. We decided to spend the night with our friends who lived very close-by, especially as they were the only people we knew who had internet (they are subscribed to the only tiny service provider who did not shut it off) and satellite TV to watch the international news as the local news showed only a small portion of what was going on.

The pantry was unprepared, but Luke and I brainstormed and pulled together a good dinner for all, and then we watched the TV – all night: Hilary Clinton’s speech, the looting and burning of the NDP building, the rotation of four Al-Jazeera international correspondents, that Fox news was blaming this on al-Qaeda (??), the toppling and burning of police vehicles, the retreat of the police and the welcomed entrance of the army, and Mubarak’s laughable speech. Then we pulled out the mattresses and camped out for the night.

This morning we drove back home through downtown, the roads there scattered with burned police vehicles and crowds gathered at points such as next to Carrefour, the biggest supermarket. We saw the smoke coming from the buildings ablaze, the army tanks and APC’s

"Down with Mubarak" on the side of the burning NDP

perched on the main roads, and the graffiti (down with Mubarak!) scrawled on statues and bridges. One of the most striking moments was when we realized that we were sitting in traffic, and it was completely quiet. No honking, no yelling – just quiet.

We hurried home as fresh protests were starting again, to find that our area had had major protests that evening while we were gone. A rock had been thrown through the glass door to our building, as apparently shots were being fired and people tried to take refuge. We live one block from the Dar Es-Salaam police department, which was known for the torture so characteristic of the police regime here. It was burned down, along with the other main police and NDP buildings throughout the city. On the way back from the Metro supermarket, which probably did a month’s worth of business that morning alone, a friend stopped us saying, “The government is not anywhere in Maadi. Stay home, don’t go outside!” We walked to the outdoor vegetable and fruit market on the other side of the police department, and saw the dark soot blackening the walls, the air-conditioning units falling from windows, and the graffiti: “The department of the government.” Six armored personnel carriers along with arms-carrying soldiers were guarding the station, and hundreds of people were standing and watching at them. We bought some potatoes and strawberries from our usual sellers, and walking back I overheard a woman scornfully say, “Look at these foreigners come to gawk on our…” At home, we packed up some food and clothing and made it over to Nima and Tash’s high rise down the street in time for the 4:00 PM curfew. What will this evening bring?

Our Apt building is the one above the gun in the background!

Gathered in front of burned Police Station

***

Sunday January 30, 2011

I am sitting in a brightly sun-lit room on the 24th floor of Nima and Tash’s building. The morning is so quiet, and the day is clear: I can see the Giza pyramids from out their window. The quietness and calm is stark considering the confusion and fear of last night, remnanced by the couch and chair jammed up against the front door.

With the vegetables that we brought over, we made musaqa’a for dinner, and without television we relied on the constant phone calls from friends to know what was going on: Mubarak appointing a vice president (the head of intelligence!! There could be no better symbol of his police state), the prisoners 2 km away escaping from prison, someone shot in Garden City, the Carrefour that we saw earlier completely looted and burned down, some of the antiquities in the museum destroyed as protesters and the army try to protect it, and armed robbery and rape in Maadi and 6th of October City. We are in Maadi. Fearful of intruders, we shoved the couch and chair up against the door.

Doorman's makeshift weapons

The story was the same for each of those we spoke to: the men and youth of the building have made weapons and camped out in front of the entrance to try to deter any with bad intention. Watching from their window, we saw neighbors dragging huge rocks into the driveway to block any cars and pulling fallen trees and anything else they could find to block the main road. With nothing else to do, we prayed.

From 11 pm until 1 am, we said 500 Remover of Difficulties prayers from the Bahá’í Writings: Is there any Remover of Difficulties save God? Say: Praised be God! He is God! All are His servants and all abide by His bidding. We prayed for the safety of our loved ones and Egypt in general and for a positive change for Egyptians. Afterward I felt that the fear had been taken from my heart, that in letting go of the need to be in control of things I cannot control, I found that I felt more powerful.

We went to sleep with the sound of barking dogs, gunshots, and shouts and screams below – but I slept, and awoke to a quiet morning.

***

Later that day

We’ve been starved for internet and televised news.

We made a run for Alfa Market this morning to buy a few hundred dollars worth of food to hold us over for the next few days. We were thankful that it had not been overrun during the night, and so were the hundreds of others standing in line with cartfuls of food. The frozen food section was already bare.

We also bought a $20 satellite as ambitious Nima was going to try and set it up out of their window to bring us televised news. Luke and Nima sat for an hour toying with the satellite, which came without installation directions. A call came from our friends (who have internet and TV) inviting us for the evening, and after a quick consultation we were in the car with ten bags of food supplies and two small suitcases (much more prepared than last time). On the way we passed the presidential palace, surrounded by the only police that we have seen since the army entered town. So that’s where they are all hiding.

I’m now sitting in front of Al Jazeera International watching opposition leader and Nobel laureate Mohamed Al-Baradei speak via loudspeaker at the protests in Tahir square, and drinking ginger lemon tea. It is heartening to know what is going on, and to be able to communicate with my family. With the internet, we’ve been emailing friends and enjoying the parody tweets from #HosniMobarak.

While this is all bringing out the dregs of human inhumanity, including the looting and violence, it is also bringing out the heroism of the local population. Our host has just left again with his scarf and policeman’s long flashlight to join the neighborhood watch below. And a friend called from Alexandria last night who had just caught some looters with some friends, and who had to hang up the phone as they were about to catch another! In the absence of a viable justice system, people are doing what they can: in the impoverished neighborhood of Shubra, they hung up two looters by their clothes in trees! Some say that the complete withdraw of the police is a move to try and make the people call for them back after protesting their brutality and torture.

There is anticipation about tomorrow, some expecting much violence and others hopeful for greater change. But it is not only ordinary Egyptians who are anxious – in the meantime, other regimes try to censor news of Egypt in hopes they don’t meet a similar fate.

***

Monday January 31, 2011 (updated later)

10:55 PM

They just shut down our internet.

I can’t believe it! They were probably trying desperately to find the small leak, as others were using it to get information out. And we just heard that they might soon shut down our mobile phone service again, so I desperately called a friend in the states to give our landline number and spread the word that we are out of contact. This is all in preparation for tomorrow’s planned Million Man March that threatens to storm the presidential palace that we drove past on our way here.

I am watching Al Jazeera International (at least we still have satellite TV to know what is going on!), and I feel a sense of powerlessness. They can speak at me, can tell me what is going on around me, but I can’t respond! I cannot tell you what is happening. I cannot tell you our experience. This post will have to wait again for… not sure when.

Today at our friends’ home we pooled our money together to venture out to buy more food supplies – we are feeding nine, three couples and three kids. The Metro supermarket was bustling, and shelves were becoming more and more bare. The “Freshly Baked Bread” section was full of empty baskets, and there was absolutely no sugar. On our way to the local vegetable market, we saw a conspicuous line outside of an ATM – does it really work?? The banks have all closed, and every ATM we’ve seen has said “Temporarily Out of Order.” We must have waited 30 minutes in the line, for a meager 500 LE ($85) withdraw limit, but luckily we had multiple cards for our account in the US.

We bought fresh vegetables, and then returned home to have a picnic and games outside to try and create a sense of normalcy for the kids. Will the electricity and water be cut soon? Everyone is taking showers now just in case.

The police are back in the streets, amidst mixed responses. Here, they told everyone to stay inside including our local neighborhood watch. “But we’ve been doing this for the past two nights!” they responded. My host tells me that people are going out now simply to provoke them.

Our host is particularly upset about the lack of internet. “What are you all doing on your computers still, there is no internet!” Luke responds that I am writing a blog post, that I cannot post. “A blog no-post,” he responds.

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Responses

  1. Keep them posts coming – hope to read them in the newspapers too
    Hola caity and luke,
    Luke I think you may need to change your middle name from danger to something else. We are appreciating the first hand news and hearing more of an inside story. Take care
    Mum.

  2. How were you able to send these riveting reports when the government has supposedly shut down the Internet?

    • Hey there! We were staying at the home of a friend who is subscribed to the only tiny service provider that slipped through the cracks on the government ban. This was the same internet provider that some journalists and human rights activists were using to upload information/videos/etc. I’m sure the government was desperately trying to find the leak because of this reason, and so the day after I posted this blog they forcefully shut that provider down as well! I haven’t been able to connect to the internet again until now. Thanks for reading.

  3. Hey Caity!
    Goodness, this is quite a post! I was glad that both you and Luke posted so I got a taste of the culture and language as well as the current political struggling. I definitely am saying prayers for you and for all of Egypt (said a good long one last night), AND every time I am asked to chant a prayer, which is very frequent here in Tonga – they love new voices! – I sing one that you’ve taught me and hope the vibes get out there to you.
    I will post soon on my blog about the Tongatapu Cluster Reflection Meeting and the Children’s Class that went on there with like the 30 Tongan children – so sweet! – so hopefully you’ll enjoy that uplifting story.
    Love you both dearly and please stay safe!
    ~Steph

  4. Caity and Luke,
    I have been watching the news constantly…praying and worrying for you both, knowing that you are right in the middle of all of this! Your posts and pics are amazing- what an incredible experience to witness! We are all praying for both of you and wishing you safe travels as you find your way out of this conflict… Be safe!

    All of our love,
    Robin, Dutch, Ryan, and Aunt Dianne

  5. […] out. We frantically posted photos, sent pictures to news organizations, contacted local papers and blogged our experiences, as if we had to make up for those whose right to express themselves was […]

  6. I’ve just found this blog, and wanted to thanks for such a consistent and accurate account of events that included websites and documents that were lacking in other media


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