Almost dawn

Have you ever been alone in a house at night and thought you heard someone breaking in, and laid, awake and immobilised by fear watching moving shadows until day breaks and the ordinary objects of your home are no longer monsters? That is how I felt walking around the streets of downtown Cairo yesterday.

We arrived in Tahrir Square around 3 p.m. to find an army checkpoint at the entrance to the square from Qasr El-Aini Bridge formed by two tanks. Someone had scrawled Fuck Mubarak on the back of one. Soldiers checked bags and patted people down for weapons.

Beyond this a man stood holding a piece of paper above his head reading, “have some respect for yourself Mubarak and leave”.

To the side of him men sweeped the ground and picked up litter, a sight I have witnessed numerous times in Tahrir Square and which never fails to move me; Cairo is a notoriously filthy city and littering is a huge problem; now here was one man picking up tiny bits of paper off the ground – he has reclaimed ownership and now he and the thousands of others sleeping, eating, singing and resisting in the square feel a duty to look after it and surrounding streets in a way the government never did.

Shortly after I arrived two jet fighters started circling overhead, flying so low that it hurt my ears. Some people cheered, others began chanting mesh meshyeen, mesh meshyeen [“we’re not moving”]. The message these jets were sending is unclear. Mubarak is an air forces man; were they expressing loyalty to him? Were they air forces jets or did they belong to the Presidential Guard? (a force composed of around 22,000 men which is reportedly fiercely loyal to Mubarak).

If the intention was to frighten people it didn’t work, nobody moved – and in fact most people ignored them – because they were too busy being amazing. Small groups have formed all over the square, some people have erected tents, some are standing on top of street signs waving flags, at night there are small fires around which people sit and discuss events. Waves of chants come from all directions and a sense of freedom and possibility pervades everything.

As soon as I arrived I realised why state media has ramped up the looting and pillaging rumours which on Saturday prompted protestors to leave Tahrir Square; it is a desperate effort to break spirits and get them out. People are not frightened of tear gas or bullets any more; the old tactics no longer work because they have discovered the strength of numbers, and of camaraderie. If this is in any doubt watch protestors force riot police to retreat in this incredible video. I hope Western leaders have seen it. This is how the supposedly politically moribund Arab street frees itself, Mr Bush.

There are no cars on the streets leading off Tahrir Square and everywhere there is anti-government graffiti. My favourite was “your last flight will be to Saudi, Mubarak” and “I want to see a new president before I die”. Most shops are still closed. Families and groups investigate the area, revelling in the open streets and clean air (another by-product of the uprising, less traffic). People are running the city with oversight from tanks and army jeeps stand guard on some street corners. The soldiers I have interacted with have all been incredibly polite and efficient, but alas some of them are a bit funny about people photographing their tanks.

The streets leading to the Interior Ministry are a scorched mess of twisted metal and broken glass. Protestors destroyed anything police they could get their hands on. Meanwhile police snipers and riot police shot protestors using live ammunition. People were still scared to approach the Interior Ministry a day after the battle because of the sniper issue.

Seeing these burnt out shells has been extremely gratifying. For three years I reported on cases of torture, disappearances and brutality at the hands of this institution. My heart sank every time I was with a male friend and we had to deal with a police officer on any level because I knew the outcome of that encounter would be decided by a million factors other than justice and rule of law.

We ran into a labour lawyer in Downtown who said hello and then left us saying, “I’m going to go and breathe in freedom”. For the first time in my life I walked down an Egyptian street yesterday and didn’t see a single policemen, not a single man in plain clothes with the crackling walkie talkie and the ability to casually change your life forever in a second. I was free.

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9 Responses to Almost dawn

  1. Mary says:

    Please keep writing. I am following this from afar and your perspective is useful.

  2. M. says:

    A shiver ran through my spine. Hope to come back to a free Egypt this year.

  3. TareX says:

    The stories of police thugs looting may have been over-reported by the media, but it certainly wasn’t inflated or exaggerated. My sister and Bffs have enough horrifying stories of near-death and near-rape stories to last a lifetime. They are very, very true. It’s even worse. People who live in middle-class areas have been threatened by swarms and swarms of extremely poor people from neighboring slums. Until the army arrived to these places on Saturday, Friday was a living nightmare.

    It’s the most despicable, most horrific tactic a regime can employ to disperse a crowd. This animal (MUFUCKAK) has unleashed criminals onto his own people, in order to stay in power. He dismantled the police irreversibly (all police efforts are now individual) and the country is now burning, and headed towards inevitable chaos, regardless of the outcome. Even if he leaves today, many of the consequences of his Friday decisions will last for years.

    It’s all nice and good now. And the change was inevitable. But till Friday, we could have moved on to a better Egypt. Thanks to his decisions and the bigs surrounding them, the country has regressed in an unimaginable way. Soon, as people stop getting their paychecks, and food runs out, with foreign businesses closing, and the absence of police, we’ll be facing a jungle, were survival will be for the most armed.

    Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you: Mubarak, the tyrant who doesn’t give a damn about the country, and never did. He’s gotten use to giving his people the absolute minimum, and controlling them with riot police.

    I’m just SURPRISED that he’s surrounded by people (the military) who still don’t want to take matters into their own hands. So I get it that they are indisputably loyal to him, but they must also care about where the country is going. It’s Monday, and he’s STILL trying to fight it, with concrete roadblocks being deployed around Tahrir square, trying to prevent the 1 million man marches.

    He could have left with whatever dignity he had left on Friday.

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  8. Constant reader says:

    Wonderful piece—the juxtaposition of photo and text—the personal and the historical—the sign of the protester with a Coke at his feet is even hospitable in tone, his message related to respect….gratifying to this reader (from afar) to see the equipment, vans, and bldgs of the torture crews torched. What damage will the police and their goons continue to do after Mubarak falls? You’ll tell me in a future post. I know you will.

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