As usual, the trip there was odd. After disembarking from a microbus driven by a man with a predilection for using the front of his microbus to sexually harass the back of lorries at the speed of light (we arrived from Cairo in record time. He truly was a maniac) I got in a taxi.
An old, nearly blind, man got in the back, guided by a young man on a break from army service, and we set off after the old man both finished entreating God for a safe journey and managed to shut his door after several attempts.
The army recruit got out, we continued on our way. The old man held forth on various topics in a thick Delta brogue, before asking, “wel usta menayn?” [and where is the driver from?]
The driver said he was from a certain village. The old man was going to the same village.
“Tab ow2af. Ow2af khamas da2aye2”, [stop. Stop five minutes], the old man said.
We stopped in the middle of a side street.
“Ta3raf enta ___?” [do you know ____?]
“We ____ ebn _____?” [and ______ son of ______?]
“Aywa. Tab ya 7ag ana ma3ya zabou-“ [Yes. Hag I have with me a custom-]
“Mashy. Ta3raf el 2ahwa elly 3and awwel el balad?” [OK. Do you know the coffee shop as you first enter the town?]
And so it went. The driver stared at me, smiling, as he answered. I stared back. We had got through half of the town’s inhabitants before el 7ag was persuaded that we could proceed while he continued his survey of the land.
I arrived fucking early – thanks to that lunatic in the microbus – at the Kidney Centre where ElBaradei would be visiting his friend Dr Mohamed Ghoneim. Luckily I needed the toilet. I went to a KFC. The toilet door had what I assumed was ‘push’ written in Chinese (?). What can it mean?
Outside the streets were clean and empty and burnt white in the sun. I like Mansoura a lot. There are two entrances to the Kidney Institute. At one there was the usual gaggle of patients/relatives waiting to get in. At the other was a journalist fighting with the Institute’s security, also about getting in or something.
The Egyptian political opposition arrived and then they started fighting with security, too. Apparently only five names had been put on a list. Like in a posh nightclub. A big hoo-hah then broke out within the Egyptian political opposition about whether the names on the list should go in, or whether no-one should go in, in protest. In the end George Ishaq went in, but only after cracking a joke about who would be praying in the mosque with ElBaradei during the Friday prayer. “Everyone’s praying except me. I’ll pray next time”.
More standing about in the sun while ElBaradei was inside. I spoke to a pharmaceutical sales manager in a ElBaradei T-shirt who said that ElBaradei makes him feel that there is still hope, that the country still belongs to “us”.
ElBaradei came out and as usual there was pandemonium, mostly the fault of the media, who descended on him like vultures. He retreated into a mosque to pray while outside onlookers and supporters gathered.
By the time prayer had finished there were some 300 people gathered outside the mosque, chanting and milling about and generally excited. ElBaradei fought his way out of the mosque and we turned left. A tight ring of National Coalition for Change young people encircled him. A second ring of journalists surrounded them. Beyond the journalists were a random collection of supporters, men who had been praying at the mosque and curious onlookers. In total I estimate that there were between 500 – 800 people there. The chanting filled the street. It rose up the balconies of the buildings surrounding us and cut through the traffic brought to a standstill by the surge of people.
The crowd was so intense that ElBaradei sought refuge inside a building for around 20 minutes before his jeep came and carried him off. (I later learnt that he held a short press conference. Missing the main event is rapidly becoming my trademark).
There was no uniformed police presence during all this, and very few identifiable state security investigations officers. I remembered a book I just finished reading called the Soccer War by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinksi. He talks about silence:
SILENCE: People who write history devote too much attention to so-called events heard round the world, while neglecting periods of silence. This neglect reveals the absence of that infallible intuition that every mother has when her child falls suddenly silent in its room. A mother knows that this silence signifies something bad. That the silence is hiding something. She runs to intervene because she can feel evil hanging in the air. Silence fulfills the same role in history and politics. Silence is a signal of unhappiness and, often, of crime. It is the same sort of political instrument as the clatter of weapons or a speech at a rally. Silence is necessary to tyrants and occupiers, who take pains to have their actions accompanied by quiet.
I find it extraordinary that today a man unconnected to the regime was allowed to walk through an Egyptian street, and that hundreds of people were allowed to congregate around him unmolested by the police. Tomorrow there’s going to be a protest for a minimum wage in Cairo, and the street will be black with uniformed riot police.
Where were they today? Why did they allow Egyptians to gather together and experience a sense of genuine optimism without knocking seven shades of shit out of them and of hope?
I overheard two middle-aged men speaking while ElBaradei was hiding inside the building. One was saying, “they can’t touch him. He’s protected because howa ragel 3alamey [he’s international]” – as in he’s a former international diplomat.
I contended that that the regime doesn’t fear anyone, if past experience is anything to go by.
“No”, the second man said. “It does fear something”.
What? I asked.
“Us. The people,” he replied.