I interrupted the increasingly tedious home – office, office – home daily routine by attending a demonstration this evening in the ironically named Liberation Square (viva la revolucion.)
Only-in-Egypt hints of a demonstration were on display immediately; packs of stationary vehicles herded together by traffic diversions raged in a cloud of fumes, their horns bleating furiously, as they were watched impassively by twenty men in black uniforms tightly packed and parked in the middle of the pavement. On street corners men in civilian clothes waited and watched as the strange music of their walkie-talkies floated between them. Further on stood more men in black, the uniforms unable to disguise the fragility and poverty of the men inside them. And everywhere the deep blue of giant police vans.
We arrived just after four demonstrators had been taken away, and their arrest effectively punched the demonstration in the stomach, winding it badly, and ensuring that efforts were concentrated on securing their release rather than on the issues which they had congregated to protest against. Those left regrouped as the media – whose numbers almost outnumbered those present – filmed, interviewed and recorded. This small scrum was surrounded by two lines of plain clothed men, rent-a-muscle hired specially for occasions like these. Plain clothed is actually something of a misnomer, since the men are distinctly identifiable by their clothing – many of them favour woolly Marks and Spencer style jumpers twinned with moustaches. They are also distinguishable by a certain trademark surliness, but what particularly struck me about them was their discipline: tightly formed lines of a precision rivalled only by synchronised swimmers, silence, and not a one of them smoking, which is surely a record in the history of Egyptian manhood. Beyond them were more unfortunates in black, the dullness of their stares more frightening than their truncheons.
After attempting to negotiate for the release of those arrested with the powers that be, one of the protest’s organisers announced that the demo would continue until they were set free. His efforts were halted when he himself was dragged away by the punctilious men in plain clothes, prompting two women to stage a sit-in. As I went past them on my way home I saw the women seated on a curb, vaguely visible through the line of six men surrounding and practically standing on top of them.
I left with a heavy heart and head, my gloom intensified by the black sky and bitter cold. Demonstrations encapsulate all that is wrong in Egypt: chaos, the arbitrary abuse of power which this chaos permits; the policemen’s poverty, the desperation…It is hard not to come out of these occasions feeling that Egypt is hurtling down into a vortex of immeasurable anarchy and pain, especially when one considers very recent past wrongs (blogger imprisonment) and future sins (the amendments proposed to the Constitution.) Yet my mother’s generation swore that they would witness Egypt hit the ground and explode during their lifetime, and we repeat the same mantra almost mindlessly. It is only when confronted with scenes like today’s that I feel we unknowingly entered the vortex years ago.