Television channels showed scenes from January 28 2011 alongside yesterday’s events and – were it not for how iconic images from the first Day of Anger are – the two would have been almost indistinguishable.
Downtown Cairo is filled with the revolution’s phantoms and with every new battle a memory builds on a memory, layered, like the posters and graffiti that have accumulated on these streets’ walls, each new layer obscuring the old.
Yesterday evening it was the familiar trinity of rocks, teargas and birdshot played out at the end of the Qasr El-Nil Bridge where, on January 28 2011, protesters prayed under water canon. Yesterday Central Security Forces attempted to run protesters over with the armed personnel carriers – another January 28 flashback.Protesters responded by commandeering two APCs and setting them on fire.
On the outskirts of Port Said on Sunday, Indian free zone workers strolled through the empty streets. Further in on one of Port Said’s main streets, small groups of men gathered near the site of the clashes watched by the blank expressions of shop shutters, firmly pulled down.
A Port Said resident who had agreed to take us around, let’s call him Amir, and his friend, who we shall call Abdallah, met us. Reasons for the name change will become clear later. Both were young men in the 20s, Amir a cocky, well-intentioned know it all and Abdallah an overgrown child in a tight tracksuit.
Amir immediately made it clear that it would be very hard to go anywhere in Port Said because we were too foreign, and by which he meant not only my kind of foreign but foreign as in coming from Cairo. Abdallah advised my colleague Lina and me to cover our heads while underlining that this wouldn’t really camouflage the foreignness but it was a start. In fact I think it increased the foreignness by making both of us look preposterous.
After 10 minutes of negotiations during which Amir said that it would be absolutely impossible to meet the relatives of men sentenced to death for crimes committed during the Port Said stadium massacre and pontificated on Port Said affairs, it was agreed that we would meet a local journalist in a shisha café. He was a jolly man, able to maintain the jolliness even as he fielded phone calls updating him about the latest fatalities.
We went to a ministry of health administrative building. As we waited for the doctor we wanted to interview, Amir informed us that all the doctors of Port Said know him because of his work with people injured in the revolution. The doctor walked in and Amir introduced himself, disproving the veracity of this statement.
The doctor, a small round man, dispassionately reeled out figures concerning the dead and injured in a rushed, nasal monotone like an ATM belching out a mini bank statement. He nervously fingered his mobile phone as he told us that most protesters had been shot in the head, neck and torso, that 5 had died that day, and that one man was on his way in an ambulance and was unlikely to make it. We asked him whether we could visit the injured in hospital. For our own benefit it would be better not to, the doctor said, because tensions are high.
Amir couldn’t help himself. “I told them that, doctor.”
We left, and walked back through the deserted streets to the car (Amir and Abdallah had made us park 10 minutes away from the health building “because it was safer”.
It had become apparent very early on that Amir was of a nervous disposition when we went round one corner and encountered an army checkpoint and Amir blurted out, “Oh, shit!” in English and made the driver change his route).
Back at the café we spoke to a member of the Green Eagles (supporters of the Port Saidi Al-Masry Football Club) as well as a former Al-Masry player.
It became clear from them and from other residents we spoke to that they feel alienated from the rest of Egypt. This is a city with something of a frontier mentality both for reasons historical (it fought a war of resistance against tripartite aggression in the 1950s) and geographical (it is a port city, vulnerable to incursion from the Canal), and its demonization in the media and by the Al-Ahly Club following the stadium massacre has made the city turn in on itself.
Lina reached the mother of one of the men sentenced to death; she and others were at a nearby protest. Again we bundled into the car, Abdallah and Amir sharing the front seat, and again Amir made the driver park nowhere near our destination. As soon as we parked a group of young men advised our harried driver to remove his number plates before doing it themselves. There was some mysterious way the car could be identified as being from Cairo, they insisted.
The protest was a straggly group of men, some of who immediately surrounded us when we approached the convicted men’s mothers, angry and suspicious. It was at this point that Abdallah proved useful by standing in their way and talking them down. Amir later informed us that “he had unfolded his knife in his pocket, ready, just in case”.
We spoke to the relatives of the convicted men and uselessly bleated out platitudes as they described one of the very worst things you can imagine happening to your child. It was again clear that they felt betrayed and targeted by all of Egypt and that their sons were the victims of some collective punishment being imposed on Port Said.
Amir and Abdallah insisted on accompanying us out of the city, Abdallah trailing us on his moped, Amir on his own in the now spacious front seat. There was a strange moment in this already strange day when Abdallah got out of the car to get his moped and even before his form had disappeared into the darkness, Amir began complaining about Abdallah’s father who he said, is a senior Interior Ministry police officer and who blames Amir’s “braveness” for Abdallah’s being sucked into revolutionary acts.
“His father is a DISGUSTING man,” Amir blurted out suddenly.
On the way out of the city there was another moment of Amir tension when he and Abdallah disagreed about which way to go at an army checkpoint. Abdallah on his moped shouted through the window that the army checkpoint was open and that we could pass through it. Amir, panicked, told Abdallah to shut up and that we would be going his route. Abdallah cheerfully insisted that, no, we could go through the army checkpoint.
“I HAVE A WEAPON ON ME! I HAVE A BLOODY WEAPON ON ME, ABDALLAH!” Amir bellowed into the driver’s ear at Abdallah, ensuring that not only soldiers manning the army checkpoint heard, but all of Port Said.
On the way back to Cairo, our driver, from Ismailia confirmed the general rule in Egypt that the closer two governorates are, the more intensely its residents hate each other. I had had a similar experience in Qena with a driver who spent 30 kilometres expanding on the many reasons why Qena’s residents were glad to see the back of Luxor when it seceded. Citizens of Assiut have similarly minus zero feelings about the good people of Minya.
Morsi announced a curfew on Monday in the Suez Canal cities. On Sunday Port Said was virtually empty. On Monday, when a 30-day curfew was announced, its streets were full, as were those of Suez and Ismailia. There were jokes on Twitter about Egyptians observing the curfew by going out to have a look at the curfew. It broke the tension, to some extent, after weeks of awful news.