Thursday, February 3, 2011

A day of anxious anticipation in Cairo

A tense day in Cairo

As the day turns to evening, we are again sitting in the apartment. Today morning began peaceful but tense, and many people were out in Downtown Cairo, and we could move freely and pay a visit to Tahrir Square. But in the course of afternoon, government thugs have been spreading on the streets of Downtown Cairo in small but aggressive groups, and friends of ours had to turn back as their tried to get to Tahrir in the afternoon. Many others have been able to reach Tahrir Square through other routes, and a number of people are moving through the streets here right now trying to get to Tahrir – from shouts few blocks away we guess that there are still standoffs going on. We hear occasional gunfire, probably by the army. Through phone calls I know that there are already now more people on Tahrir Square than there were yesterday.

Sitting unable to do anything and trying to guess what the situation is like out in the streets is the worst thing there is, and I feel that I should have rather stayed on Tahrir Square if there is nothing I can do here. But while I write this, BBC tells that the protesters have been able to push pro-Mubarak folks back from the streets leading to Tahrir. Friends from different parts of the city are determined to get to Tahrir Square, and many seem to be successful. Our spirits, which were down just an hour earlier, rise again. One friend says: Tahrir Square is the only place where I feel safe.

Last night was a terrible and dramatic night, and thinking back to it is amazing now that the demonstrators successfully held it out against the thugs throughout the night.

In the morning some of our friends returned from Tahrir Square, quite exhausted and in urgent need for sleep. One of them had spent all nights helping wounded people from the frontline to the hospital. His hands were covered in dried blood. While they got to sleep my European friend and I went out to see how the situation was in Tahrir Square and to buy some food. At early noon the market area of Bab el-Louq near Tahrir square was quite lively and calm, and we could buy some medicine in a pharmacy on our way to the Square, where several human chains and multiple checkpoints of volunteers, many of them carrying bandages on their heads as memories from last night’s fight. We found the people inside tense and tired, but still well organised, most of them determined to stay, some uncertain, and everybody expecting a new attack to begin this evening. A stream of new demonstrators was arriving from all directions – except from Abdel Mun’im Riyad Square
where the standoff with the pro-Mubarak thugs continued.

As we were making a quick walk around the square, suddenly I was enthusiastically greeted by an old friend of mine whom I wouldn’t have expected to see here. Sheikh N. is an Islamic mystic (Sufi) who spends most of the year setting up his tent and offering free food and lodging to the pilgrims at Muslim festivals around Egypt. But I never thought that he would have anything to do with politics. But here he was in Tahrir Square, having changed his plain white robe and turban for jeans and jacket and demonstrating against oppression since a week by now. He has built his tent in one of the green isles in the square, with some of his supporters along with him. I am delighted to see him. It gives me so much hope.

Determination mixed with anxiety was the mood of the morning and the early afternoon. But there were good signs. As we left Tahrir we saw a police officer (from the criminal or traffic police, not the central security forces who beat up the demonstrators) in uniform joining the protestors – although it did take a while before the protestors were convinced. And as we walked through the streets, most shops had satellite, not Egyptian television turned on. Intense debates continued at every corner, and the short pro-Mubarak euphoria had again given way to a more critical albeit by no means unified mood. At a cafĂ© where state television was on we saw the new prime minister very apologetic and nervous on television, offering his excuses for last night’s violence.

The thug attack at Tahrir has made a lot of people very angry. First thing this morning newspaper delivery cars were all over the city, and independent newspapers showed very dramatic images of thugs on horseback riding into the pro-democracy crowd. These were images that will not be easily forgotten, and they have changed the situation again. One friend who was on Tahrir last night told that in the early morning hours he encountered a man who just arrived to protect the demonstration, telling that after Mubarak’s speech on Tuesday he had believed him and was ready to be content and go home, but after what he had seen on Wednesday, he was back on the street. This gives the people hope, and many say that Mubarak has de facto already fallen, the attack last night was no more by Mubarak, but by the system of oppression trying once more its old tactics of chaos and intimidation. Mubarak has made all concessions he can make. There is nothing left for him to
do than to resign. The question is when and how.

This is so far an interim day of anxious expectation between the rapid dramatic events of yesterday and in anticipation of tomorrow when a new big demonstration is announced countrywide. It could be decisive. But first, we will see what the night is going to bring. Maybe some food can be delivered to Tahrir again.

You are very welcome to pass these news on. You can find my notes also on a blog: http://samuliegypt.blogspot.com/

With the best greetings from the Egyptian revolution

Samuli

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