On the Ground in Egypt: Part One of a Special Report
As I watched events unfold after January 25 I was incredibly inspired by the strength of the Egyptian protesters and their civil behavior and the reports of people forming committees to protect their neighborhoods and picking up garbage after the protests. As I sat in Istanbul, I desperately wanted to be in Cairo with my friends and colleagues as they took part in a major turning point in the history of the Middle East. It took me a while to decide whether or not to go, but then I made my mind. About an hour after I had booked my ticket, things in Egypt seemed to take a turn for the ugly.
My experiences in the last few hours since I arrived are unremarkable. They simply confirm what the news reports have said about Cairo for a few days. But I saw them today firsthand.
When I arrived in the airport I was, frankly, a bit terrified. Last night I was reading many reports of violence against journalists and foreigners and protesters and I’d heard a lot about the civilian and military checkpoints throughout the city. As I exited customs the guards searched me thoroughly for any signs of a camera. I didn’t bring one with me, but two Turkish men with video equipment behind me in line were taken out for separate questioning.
I found a taxi (who, obviously, charged me more than I’ve ever paid for an airport taxi) to take me to my friend’s apartment in a middle-neighborhood across the Nile from downtown and the heart of the action in Midan el-Tahrir.
Cairo does not look now the way it did when I left in July. Armored personnel carriers were stationed along the road from the airport into the city. We quickly passed through the first and only checkpoint on our trip. One of the strangest things, for me, was the lack of traffic, which is normally unfailing in Cairo. On a big flyover we passed the scene of the most intense battle of the last 48 hours. A large crowd gathered at the side and looked down at the rock throwing mobs beneath them. A man walked through the crowd selling Egyptian flags.
When I arrived at my friends’ apartment and talked with them I noted a few things: First of all, they had all lost their sense of time. No one can remember what happened yesterday or three days ago or four days ago. The dizzying speed at which the revolt and looting and crackdown have progressed seems to have left people a bit dizzy. More importantly, morale is low. Everyone I have talked to feels discouraged that people are leaving the protests and that the counter-revolution is showing such a strong force.
I ventured out for a bit and saw anti-Mubarak graffiti spray painted on walls near my friend’s apartment. In some ways the scene on the street looked normal. Men sold fruit from carts. Pharmacies, butchers and small shops were open. But there was something eerie and unfamiliar about the sidewalks in Giza.
Midan el-Tahrir, or Liberation Square, remains the heart of the protest movement. My friend and I wanted to go so I could see it first had. As we approached the bridge that would take us across the Nile we were confronted by a mob of angry people. “Who are you? What is your nationality? What is your occupation?” they shouted at us in Arabic and English as we approached. An armored personnel carrier full of soldiers looked on from nearby. We said we were students but that didn’t satisfy them. They surrounded us and started yelling until a young man in a green sweatshirt pulled us out of the crowd, assuring them that he would deal with us. He told us to get out of here because these “shit people” wanted to hurt us. We did.
I went out again shortly after sundown to see what the streets look like. The neighborhood patrols dominate the roads, with crowds of men, some as young as 12 and others as old as 65, gathering around holding swords or pipes or pieces of wood. They were friendly, but armed gangs are never a reassuring sight. Now I am looking out of the window from this ninth floor apartment as a group of kids play soccer while older men with clubs look on. Occasionally they break their game to stop and search a car coming down the street.
It’s a different city from the Cairo I used to know.
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