After security forces prevented five people from standing on a bridge in a demonstration of mourning for a man, Sayed Bilal, who died in police custody (assumed tortured to death) I wandered around downtown for a bit today.
Lost in thoughts I was suddenly confronted by a short, animated middle aged man who placed his two bags of shopping on the floor and beckoned me over.
“Are you alright? Do you need anything?” he said, extracting money from his pockets. “Ana 2akhooky”, [I’m like your brother].
I laughed and assured him that everything was absolutely fine and he carried on his way. Perhaps my street face had led him to believe that I was in some kind of crisis, maybe he took me for some kind of streetwalker. He could have just been deranged.
Less than 10 minutes later I made eye contact with a tiny man wearing all his clothes at once. He moved like a bug and when I went to pass him he jumped in my path, looking at my camera. Then he tried to bite it with his toothless gums. I asked whether he would like me to take his photograph, he produced a sound and posed.
When I showed it to him he opened his mouth and tried to bite again. We did more of the strange waltzing, he tried more biting, and then as suddenly as he had appeared he vanished into the crowd.
A telephone call later and I was watching around 20 activists marching through downtown Cairo. These were the people who had abandoned the attempt at protest on the bridge. I recognised most of them as regulars at demonstrations. They held up banners denouncing state security and chanted against Mubarak. They were shepherded by a handful of policemen; they had taken the police by surprise.
Rounding the corner onto Ramsis Street off duty riot police soldiers jumped out of their truck and tried to block the protestors’ path unsuccessfully. They were reprimanded by a superior and returned to their truck, clearly confused about what exactly was going on.
The protestors were stopped outside the Lawyers’ Syndicate and encircled by what eventually became around 100 riot police soldiers. I escaped the cordon fearing that if I didn’t, I would spend the next six hours kettled in and expire from the cold.
Chants died out and there was a strange sort of calm. Darkness fell. Security officers were busy on their mobiles and then suddenly everything changed. I heard an officer say “yalla, fod” [right, break it up]. Two minutes later group of young men in plain clothes arrived, chewing gum and shuffling around the perimeter of the protest. They were instantly recognisable as baltageyya, thugs hired to deal with protestors, shall we say quickly and efficiently. A microbus pulled up, as well as a strange, white, windowless van that reminded me of trucks used to transport frozen goods. It was instructed to park nearer to the protest.
An order was given, the baltageyya spread out on two sides of the protest (the other two sides were formed by a railing and the shrubbery covered fence of the Lawyers’ Syndicate) and the screams started. Demonstrators were removed savagely by groups of baltageyya and police officers before being thrown into the microbus and the white van. The violence of it all was strangely represented in the shrubbery, which trembled under the shoving, hitting and pulling. I stood frozen, an attempt to film covertly failed and then a huge policeman instructed me in no uncertain terms to leave before closely walking behind me down the street to ensure that I did indeed fuck off. Five minutes later it was over, as if the protest never was.
Every time I read about events in Tunisia I have the sinking feeling that the uprising will not force Ben Ali out and people will have died for nothing. But more than that I experience intense envy that the Tunisian people have finally called time, and we here have yet to do so. And then I allow myself the luxury of thinking that the protests will inspire something similar in Egypt.
Today’s protest of 20 will be ignored – despite the brutality with which it was met, despite the illegal arrests – because it was tiny. But if I have learnt anything after two years of watching small groups of people surrounded by hundreds of riot police it is that these demonstrations are marking the events which – once Egypt does explode – analysts will refer to as the foundations of the uprising. They matter.
Yesterday night I attempted to reach riots in Moqattam by Christian protestors angry at the fact that teargas had been used against a hospital (yes, a hospital) in Samallout, Minya (amongst numerous other grievances). We were prevented from reaching the demonstrators by security officers who pushed us away violently. On the way there however Faltas and I got chatting with the taxi driver and conversation turned to Tunisia. The driver acknowledged that people are at their wits’ end in Egypt but said that if he went out and demonstrated and was killed or arrested, who would feed his children?
The recent riots by Copts demonstrated how angry people are, and that they are prepared to face off against Egypt’s impressive security apparatus.
Have you ever used one of those courtesy strips of matches from hotels or a restaurant? Usually you have to strike multiple times before the bloody thing lights. There is an analogy here. Almost every day there is a new disaster in Egypt, a new outrage, a new violation, some new casual assault on people’s dignity. Sometimes they lead to a demonstration, sometimes they result in the riots we saw in Shubra last week, and sometimes they go unmarked but not forgotten. These are the unsuccessful strikes on the sulphur, which, at some point will fuel a huge conflagration. There will come a time (I hope during my lifetime) when feeding one’s child (which already, many are unable to do) will become less important than doing whatever is necessary to ensure he is treated with respect.