As I wrote this last night men from my neighbourhood stood in the darkness of the street outside carrying truncheons, planks of wood, kitchen knives, swords and guns. There was even a rumour that someone has an AK47.
They erected makeshift blockades using boulders, cars, a garden bench, abandoned police barricades… Someone pointed out that the stars are unusually visible – reduced traffic, reduced pollution. My area is also eerily quiet; the distant hum of car engines, horns, roaming sellers, barking dogs, televisions – the soundtrack of Egyptian everyday life – has been silenced. In its place is gunfire, and intermittent shouts as the men outside identify or imagine a threat.
At one point shouts started and there were reports that two looters had been detained and taken to a nearby military academy. I went out and had a look at these “popular defence committees”, ordinary men suddenly thrust into the role of heroes, protecting the women and children upstairs. One middle-aged man was wearing a tracksuit and carrying a large stick and every so often sort of ran on the spot to exercise his calves.
Everything has happened so fast since Tuesday. On Thursday evening I watched as Egyptian friends on my Twitter feed and Facebook slowly slipped away, as Internet service providers sold their souls to the devil and implemented government orders and silenced us. The net is still not back for most Egyptians. We slept on Thursday night knowing that the mobile network would be cut off on Friday, and that we would be attending a mass protest (with which the Interior Ministry had promised to deal harshly) without being able to communicate with each other.
I went to Abbaseyya on Friday, shortly after the prayer finished. Residents had already blocked the street leading to the Nour mosque. Outside the mosque itself a large group of men chanted. The local M.P, a member of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) at one point instructed a man to step back to let cars through in something of an imperious manner. The man objected, tensions rised and the NDP MP was encircled. The tone was set from that moment.
The march started, to the familiar refrain of el sha3b yoreed esqaat el nezaam [the people want the regime to fall]. The crowd grew as it marched until there were perhaps 7 or 8,000 walking. Behind us men with huge sticks stood on a police pick up truck and followed us. Some of them mingled in the crowd; I saw a man with a huge black truncheon with silver stars on it that looked so much like a fancy dildo that I stared at him and laughed.
The crowd marched through Abbaseya. Some of the most moving moments were when the crowd beckoned to people watching from their flats to come down, chanting enzel…ya masry [come down Egyptian man]. Men in unshaven faces and Friday vests smoking cigarettes leaned on their balcony railings and watched. Women raised flags, clapped, raised the palms of their hands in entreaty.
The march went past people in bread queues who didn’t look twice, men waiting for buses who didn’t respond to protestors’ encouragement to join and others who did.
In Port Saeed Street the demonstration was tear gassed. A much-reduced demonstration regrouped, and made for Fagala. More tear gas near Ramsis Square, but something happened: people stopped running and for the second time in four days it was like the ground shifted and nothing would be the same anymore.
The effect a crowd not retreating creates is inspirational and terrifying, its sense of power in freefall like allowing yourself to fall backwards into somebody’s arms. There were moments – as a woman – when I was truly terrified amongst this raging sea of men – but mostly it was exhilarating.
If you have any doubt about what this uprising was about draw up a list of the places targeted: the NDP, police stations, malls and above all the Interior Ministry, where on Saturday protestors waged war for hours. Men miseducated by Mubarak, kept poor by Mubarak, tortured by Mubarak and abused by Mubarak converged on symbols of his rule.
About the looting and lawlessness: I feel safer at the moment than I ever did living under Mubarak’s Interior Ministry. We are all wondering whether the claims of looting and the are not an exaggeration, an attempt to focus people’s minds on things other than doing uprising. The protests I saw were peaceful – to a fault almost. The defence committees were formed in response to rumours that gangs of armed thugs on pick-up trucks are roaming around Cairo breaking into people’s homes. In our neighbourhood we had a couple of reports of looters. Sharshar, the Pig and others reported hearing gunfire in the distance but there were no incidents of them apprehending anyone. There were also reports that apprehended looters were carrying police ID.
ASIDE: Sharshar has a fetish for wearing army clothes as well as a large stock of martial arts weapons. One of the many beautiful things about all this is that he has been able to combine these two interests, and the vision of him standing there being a vigilante in his combat trousers and numbchucks is inspiring to say the least.
Cairo’s streets have been temporarily cleansed of the police and state security officers that transformed the city into a prison for Egyptians, but the rumour is that they are on enforced leave. Army tanks are still in the streets but it is still unclear what role they are playing in this drama. The latest news is that state-controlled Nilesat has taken Al-Jazeera Arabic off air. Whether Al-Jazeera English will be able to film and broadcast is unclear. The question now is whether this is a prelude to some coming horror or just another one of their genius decisions, but delayed.
One thing is certain: people still have their eyes on the prize. I saw Mubarak’s speech – in which he did not announce that he was fucking off – in a hospital with doctors and others who watched him with contempt.
There are currently 3,000 – 5,000 people in Tahrir, congregated for a prayer for the people killed during the uprising. The army is there, but apparently all is quiet. The announcement that the government has been fired and Omar Suleiman appointed vice-president was, of course rejected.
The question now is whether the momentum can be kept going, whether government attempts to distract people from their demands and contain this overwhelming anger will work. When I was in the street yesterday watching citizens direct traffic and later residents come together and organise defence committees I thought to myself that we have come so far it is impossible to go back. But then this regime, with its international backers, has gone beyond the limits of our imaginations so many times, committed egregious act after egregious act and walked away wiping the blood off its hands to live another day. I hope this time is different.