Guest Blogger: Hannah was living in Cairo. Her perspective on the protests.
Hannah is my yoga student. Here’s her take on the happenings in Egypt. She emphasizes that the chief characteristics of this experience was lack of information and lots of rumors. It’s her personal perspective.
I should begin by describing where I was living and what I was doing before the protests started. I was staying in a neighborhood called Dokki on the west side of the Nile. This neighborhood is fairly well-off, with expats and some of the smaller embassies (Kuwait, the Netherlands, South Korea, etc), but not predominantly an expat community. I was staying with two roommates, Elisa (a Canadian grad student) and Abdu (an Egyptian working for the central bank). Our apartment was on the the third floor of an ordinary apartment building on a small side street. It has two balconies, which made it possible to see what was going on outside without going down into the street. Normally we use the balconies to dry our laundry. It’s about a block away from Midan Gala’a, Gala’a Square, which is at one end of a bridge crossing the Nile and is overlooked by the Sheraton Hotel. The bridge from Midan Gala’a leads to Zamalek, one of the islands in the Nile, and a second bridge connects the other side of Zamalek to Midan Tahrir, the center of downtown Cairo and also the center of the protests. The US embassy and the American Research Center in Egypt (which was sponsoring my studies) are very close to Midan Tahrir, about a block away.
At the time the protests started I had been in Egypt for about a month finding an apartment, settling in, making contacts, and exploring the various libraries and archives. I was within a day or two of starting to go regularly to the archives every day and work with manuscripts.
The first day of protests was scheduled for a holiday, Police Day, which commemorates the deaths of policemen who opposed British control of Egypt. A rather clever choice, since one of the main grievances of the protesters is police corruption and brutality. Everyone knew that there was going to be a protest, but no one knew how big it would be. I stayed home that day, since it was a holiday and everything was closed, and didn’t expect much. As we all know, the protests turned out to be huge. I saw a large group of protesters pass the head of my street on their way across the bridges to Tahrir, and this is about when I began obsessively checking the news and not doing any more work. At first things seemed to be going well and the atmosphere was more excited and festive than anything else. Abdu, my Egyptian roommate, went out to join them. He returned about 1am, very upset and with blood on his jeans: the police had started to use tear gas, batons, and rubber bullets on the protesters in Tahrir around midnight, when it was too dark to take good pictures. He said he saw women fainting from the tear gas, men under arrest being beaten violently on the way to the police vans (hence the blood on his pants), and everyone was fleeing.
Wednesday and Thursday were work days and so the protests were necessarily not as big, but everyone knew that there would be another round on Friday after noon prayers. A routine quickly began to emerge: the mornings were completely quiet and this was a safe time to run errands, walk around and view the results of the previous day’s protests, etc. Protests would resume in the middle of the afternoon and continue late into the night, with Tahrir Square as the center. On Wednesday I stayed home glued to the news on my computer. On Thursday I went downtown to the research center for a meeting. I was unable to take the subway like I usually prefer because the trains were no longer allowed to stop at Tahrir (to prevent protesters from bypassing police on the streets), but I had no trouble taking a taxi. On Thursday night Abdu went to see his parents in Mansoura, and to protest in his home town with his friends there.
Friday morning was very quiet. Elisa and I went out for a walk across the bridges to Tahrir and back. We saw fewer police than expected, although we did notice police trucks tucked into odd corners and side streets. In Tahrir we saw a number of the plainclothes policemen, who look and behave exactly like a street gang but are official (and a bit older than your stereotypical gang member). It made me nervous to walk past them. Cell phone and internet service were cut while we were out walking around. I’m not sure why they waited so long: the Friday protests were already organized at that point and the subsequent lack of communication was just unsafe. In any case, Elisa decided to go out with a friend and witness the protests. I’ll post some of her photos. I decided to watch from the apartment balcony at home, and this turned out to be a good view. After Friday prayers there was a lull of about an hour, and then I heard chanting of slogans from Midan Gala’a. Within five minutes I started to get whiffs of tear gas and the police just didn’t stop firing, the thumps of the tear gas canisters were almost continuous and the entire neighborhood filled with it. Protesters were falling back from the square into our street to get away from the gas and wash their faces at the mosque’s washing station, or to buy water or carbonated drinks (it works!) from the kiosk to wash their faces, and then headed back to the square. I took some pictures but eventually decided to retreat when the tear gas was getting too strong. Being inside didn’t make much difference though, even with the doors and windows shut. It was pretty unpleasant. I saw some protesters come to the kiosk with bleeding head wounds: they looked pretty bad, but they were still able to walk. However, within half an hour the air was clearing, the protesters were chanting loudly again, and I decided to go out and have a look around. Some protesters were pushing across the bridge towards Zamalek and Tahrir, but I didn’t want to have the police retake the bridge behind me and leave me cut off from home. Our own Midan Gala’a was full of protesters chatting, eating, drinking, chanting, taking photos, and waving signs, so I decided to look around there for a while. Some police were still there, sitting quietly and looking discouraged, and I could see smoke on the other side of the river (I found out later it was the NDP/ruling party building). When Elisa came back we decided to try and get some news at the Pyramisa Hotel. As it turned out, they had internet access too (we have no idea how) and so we were able to send out a few emails. We headed back after dark and the mood was already starting to change: the daytime protesters included all sorts of people, including plenty of women and children, but at night it was mostly young men who, we discovered the next day, torched a number of abandoned police vehicles. Late at night two men knocked on our door collecting food for the protesters in Tahrir, so we gave them what we had on hand.
On Saturday morning we followed a similar routine: errands and exploration during the morning quiet period, then retreat to the house and decide what to do for the afternoon. While we were out doing errands we discovered that we were able to make cell phone calls again. We checked in with our friends, shared our land line number (in case cell phones were cut again), and tried to fix our broken TV, although in the end we were only able to get the government channel. It was infuriating: we were desperate for news, but they showed none of the protests and almost none of the damage, except the looting of the Egyptian museum. The police were gone from the streets and the army were out but only in certain strategic areas. They instituted a curfew but behaved in a friendly way towards the protesters. In the afternoon we began to hear rumors about more widespread looting (by the desperately poor? by police? by malicious opportunists? by escaped or released prisoners?) and this was the first time I felt genuinely unsafe. I visited a friend in the Dokki neighborhood who had a working television in order to get some more reliable information and returned after curfew but before dark. All the shops were closed, barred, and their windows covered with plastic sheets. Elisa tried going to the Pyramisa Hotel to get on the internet but it was no longer possible. As she came back I heard gunshots (which may just have been noisemakers) from just around the corner: it turned out this was our neighborhood watch assembling for the evening and warning off any potential looters in the area. This watch was a group of men from our block: doormen, guards from the parking garage, and volunteers who lived in the buildings on our block. They added up to a group of 20 or 30, armed with knives, sticks, and other improvised weapons. They used tree trunks and repurposed police barricades to close off both ends of our street, and they stayed out all night to keep watch. We offered them water and snacks but they didn’t seem to need anything. As it got dark we shut our windows and their heavy wooden shutters, turned off most of the lights, made a curry, and watched a movie, with many interruptions for phone calls or to investigate strange noises from the street. There were a number of rumors going around about political developments, the looting, possible cuts in water or electricity, etc. and it was hard to know what to believe. We hadn’t believed that they would cut all cell phone service, but it happened; suddenly cutting all water supplies didn’t seem so unlikely. It was a tense night. It was also the first night we discussed the possibility that we might have to leave at some point.
On Sunday we spent the morning lull stocking up on food, water, and phone credit. We also acquired a new roommate: an American masters student named Meredith who had been the previous occupant of my room decided to get out of the downtown area and join us. She had been living on Falaky Street, where I lived for the first few days I was in Cairo. Falaky St. is a few blocks behind Tahrir Square and she was in the middle of the maelstrom. Arrested protesters were dragged down Falaky towards the Interior Ministry building. After a while, they started stripping and beating them in the street instead of waiting to reach the ministry. Then the street became a battleground between protesters and police: massive amounts of tear gas, gunshots, and sound bombs all night. Eventually the army arrived to separate the two sides, but she seized the opportunity of the Sunday morning lull to get out. She was, however, able to verify that police were involved in the looting. She saw a group of police officers in uniform stealing food from a kiosk on Falaky. Evidently Mubarak didn’t see fit to make sure that they were getting enough to eat and they were not getting support and donations from bystanders in the same way as the protesters. The curfew was set for 4pm in the afternoon. Just before 4pm, our street was buzzed several times by a pair of fighter jets. It was an odd experience: it was clearly supposed to be frightening, and everyone ran out onto their balconies to look, but at the same time the jets weren’t doing anything, just passing over. Not at all the most threatening thing we’d experienced in the last day. In fact, it reminded me more than anything of an air show, but serious, whatever that might mean. In the evening we cooked dinner again and watched the rest of our movie together, but this was also when rumors began to circulate about a possible evacuation. I was registered with the embassy and in contact with the research center staff, but it was impossible to get in touch with anyone at the embassy to find out what we supposed to do. Meredith’s sister discovered a State Department website saying that we had to register by email for evacuation, kickstarting a wave of phone calls to find someone at home with internet and time to submit the emails for us. I thought I might leave but didn’t expect to for several days. I did decide to start prioritizing my things and packing the most important ones, just in case. This night was quieter than the last, almost eerily quiet, but the neighborhood watch was out again and we were able to sleep better.
On Monday morning the research center and Meredith’s sister had discovered that the State Department, realizing that no one in Egypt had internet access, had changed their system. We should proceed to the airport around 11am if we wanted to be evacuated. Rumors were spreading about conditions at the airport: chaos, no food or water, days-long waits for flights, etc. Meredith was determined to go anyway and I decided to go with her. So I scrambled to finish my packing. We had been told one bag per person, so I brought one bag and a carry-on and left my other two bags in my apartment. We also brought enough food and water and toilet paper for three or four days. Then we headed downtown with Elisa to retrieve Meredith’s suitcase from Falaky. It was the morning lull: the army was keeping an eye on people coming and going from Tahrir but didn’t restrict anyone’s movement. We talked to some of the protesters and had a look around: they were mostly men, but the mood seemed good. They were making signs, reading the newspaper, smoking and chatting. Having picked up Meredith’s suitcase, she and I caught a taxi for the airport. Our taxi driver was very friendly: we talked about the protests, about our families, and he took a round-about route that helped us avoid the traffic jams and get to the airport in good time. The stories of chaos turned out to apply to the commercial terminal. Government evacuation was happening in a different terminal, which was crowded but not chaotic. They were slowly but steadily sending people out to either Athens, Cyprus, or Istanbul. We had no choice of destination and did not know how much it would cost, but we were told that it would be the equivalent of a commercial flight and that there would be people to assist us with connecting flights and/or hotels at the other end. We ended up waiting from about 11:30am until perhaps 8pm before we found out that we were on a flight to Istanbul. The flight didn’t actually depart until maybe 10pm, but we were met as promised on the other side and they were actually very helpful in terms of getting us oriented quickly. I booked a ticket to London to stay with Toby, my boyfriend. Meredith decided to stay in Istanbul for a few days and then perhaps fly somewhere else to stay with friends. We decided to share a hotel room, where we eagerly got online to let everyone know we were safe, and then crashed around 2:30am. I had a dream about myself and my two roommates trying to persuade a Bedouin group (which one of us was studying for her dissertation) to come and protect our neighborhood from looters. So you can tell what was most worrying about the whole experience.
From here the story is less exciting. On Tuesday I flew to London on Turkish Airlines, which was surprisingly cheap and had surprisingly good food. Istanbul seemed very nice and I wish I could have stayed there, but being in London with Toby was definitely the best choice. On Wednesday I found out that Elisa had also left Cairo and come to the UK.
I feel guilty about leaving so many people behind, and I miss the excitement of the protests themselves. At the same time, leaving was definitely the right decision. It was impossible to get any kind of work done there (which is after all my goal for this year) and the looting worried me. In fact I had no idea how stressed I was until later. In Cairo things were changing so fast, hour by hour, that there was no time to think, only to stay on alert and react to the next twist. The lack of news and the proliferation of rumor were intensely frustrating and made it very difficult to make decisions about what to do. I do want to go back as soon as possible, my research there is barely begun, but I’m waiting for violence in the streets to stop and free movement in the streets to resume. Once that happens, I’ll feel comfortable going back.
The Egyptian people with whom I interacted were kind, friendly, and managed to maintain a sense of humor. Tourists (and foreign residents) in Cairo get used to people calling out “Welcome to Egypt!” as a way to get your attention and try to sell you something. It gets pretty annoying pretty fast. But Elisa said that when she was out photographing the protests on Friday and got caught up in group of protesters being tear-gased on a bridge, one of the men next to her turned to her and said “Welcome to Egypt!” with a big grin. Harassment of women on the street has also been a chronic problem in Egypt, and one which I complain about frequently. But every woman to whom I spoke about this agreed: there was no harassment during the protests. People were more focused on common goals and more inclined to help each other than to bother each other. That more than anything else impressed me. People were happy to talk about what was going on, share news, warn us about where to go or not to go, etc. Speaking Arabic, even just a little, was also a definite advantage. It would have been much scarier if I couldn’t communicate with anyone.
As for the politics: I’m a medievalist and I don’t normally take a stand on these things. But here’s my two cents. I was not frightened by the protesters. Hilary Clinton’s initial statements did not go over well (the primary problem here being that she didn’t say anything else for 24 hours, probably because the State of the Union was the same day as the first wave of protests, and in those 24 hours the situation changed radically). And people quickly discovered the tear gas canisters and bullets used by the police were produced in the US. Nevertheless, the protesters whom I encountered treated me with nothing but kindness. The people I talked to were motivated by anger at political and economic corruption: police brutality, rigged elections, suppression of free speech, massive economic inequality, ubiquitous bribery, lack of jobs for even the best-educated young people, etc. And of the people I talked to the most, people around my own age, none had ever been politically active before. They belonged to no party and didn’t have any particular allegiance except unhappiness with the current state of affairs. The way Mubarak has handled the situation has only reinforced people’s anger, and has made me angry at him when I was previously politically apathetic. The most insulting thing was that he did not respond to the protests in any way for a whole week. No grudging “I hear that you’re not content”, no token concessions, just violence and clouds of tear gas. Only when violence failed did he deign to make any sort of public statement. His cuts to services, especially cell phone service, crippled business and put lives in danger that were not endangered by the protests alone. Entirely removing the police from the streets and allowing the looting to spread was even worse. His token concessions, when they finally came, were ridiculous. Rumor had been circulating since Saturday that the Minister of Internal Affairs had been arrested and imprisoned. Finding out on Monday that he was simply going to be removed from the cabinet was not terribly impressive. Violence and the internet blackout may eventually succeed in persuading people to go home temporarily, but some pretty severe damage has been done and I don’t think Mubarak can stay in power in the long run.
I had some sympathy for the police in the beginning. The plainclothes ones and internal security ones are simply thugs, but the average policeman is a young man from a poor family who has managed to get a decent job and most of these were looking pretty miserable after a full day of confronting protesters with little food or water. I wouldn’t want to get caught between them and the protesters, but I wasn’t afraid of them attacking me personally. The looting rumors have changed my mind somewhat, although it’s hard to know what actually happened.
The army is harder to read. I’m glad that they’re not firing on protesters and for a while it seemed like that would be enough to drive Mubarak out. Now that they’re allowing the “pro-Mubarak supporters” (who seem to be those same thuggish plainclothes policemen) to wreak havoc, who knows what will happen.
And that’s where I’d like to stop. What an honestly elected Egyptian government would look like, I don’t know. But the people of Egypt should have the chance to try it.