Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A very bad night in Cairo

I’m writing this in the apartment of a friend where we had to retreat as the pro-Mubarak thugs on the streets of downtown Cairo were becoming increasingly aggressive this afternoon. This is a report of a day that began in indecisive but optimistic mood, but turned into mob violence evidently initiated and organized by the government. Evidence follows.

As I left my friend’s apartment in Giza, I found people all over the city again discussing and debating intensely, some firmly in support of the protests or at least against Mubarak, some against the protests and for Mubarak, and also many who found that Mubarak had shown responsibility and character with his speech last night, where he promised not to run for presidency again, to make constitutional changes, and to take care of a peaceful and orderly transition. But as I got closer to Tahrir Square, I also saw that there was some real hatred in the air, as men from the car workshop area in Champollion street interrupted a family on their way to Tahrir, telling that this is not a place for women to go, and that what they were doing is a shame. One of the local guys got really upset – his shop had been looted, he said – and a heated argument, almost a fight evolved, with the accusations “thieves!” and “police informer!” being shouted. The
people in the workshop area had been hit hard by the looting and even harder by the curfew and had begun to blame the pro-democracy protesters.

As I arrived on Tahrir Square, I found a small but loud pro-Mubarak demonstration trying to enter the square but being prevented from doing so by the police. On the square, there were still (or already) lots of people, more than on Monday but of course much less than yesterday in the big demonstration. There the atmosphere was a good deal more nervous and tense than yesterday that was really like a popular street festival, but demonstrators were streaming in again bit by bit, and the square was slowly filling for a new day of peaceful demonstrations demanding Mubarak to resign.
As I left the square towards downtown Cairo, however, I encountered a different atmosphere – no pro-democracy demonstration here, instead, some shops were opening and many people walking in the streets. As I reached 26th of July Street, one of central Cairo’s major streets, I encountered more pro-Mubarak demonstrations, driving on top of trucks and chanting “mish ha yimshi!”(“He won’t go”, in contrast to the pro-democracy slogan “We won’t go until he goes!”) At first these were small groups, but bit by bit they succeed gathering spontaneous participants as well, and in the course of an hour, they developed into huge mass marches through the streets. Many cars and busses were honking their horns and people are waving Egyptian flags. Quite suddenly, an air of enthusiasm and relief overcame the people in the street. Some were there to show their support to Mubarak, but many others are more differentiated: They were happy and that
Mubarak has promised not to run for presidency and confident that there is going to be democracy and new parliamentary elections. They thought that Mubarak has heard the voice of the people, and that he shouldn’t go immediately but there should a period of well-ordered transition, and people should stop demonstrating and everybody should go back to work.
If this momentum had prevailed, if the pro-Mubarak demonstrations had developed the way the people I talked with were hoping, this might indeed have been a starting point to the ordered democratic transition many of the pro-Mubarak demonstrators were looking forward to. Unfortunately, the Egyptian government had different plans, as some of my friends had already guessed. Already in the morning my Egyptian friend said: “Now our blood will be shed.” And as I stood at the streetcorner, a man came with his young son on his way from Tahrir. I told him what was going on and said that I just fear that it may turn into violence against the pro-democracy protest. He said: “That’s what will happen”, turned around and told me that he is going back to Tahrir Square.

The Pro-Mubarak demonstration was clearly organised by the government, with trucks with loudspeakers and pictures of Mubarak riding through the streets and distributing photocopied paper sheets in handwriting saying “Yes to Mubarak, no to destruction.” But it gained genuine popular support and there were really a lot of people spontaneously joining the march for Mubarak. But the people I talked to were also positively peaceful, they were out for the return of peace, and it was clear that they had no intention to go to attack the anti-Government demonstrators. However, as I walk down Talaat Harb street down to Tahrir, the demonstrators there are much more aggressive and much more organised than the crowd who spontaneously joined the big marches towards Muhandisin and the TV centre in Maspiro where the main pro-Mubarak demonstrations. Also unlike the people on 26 July streets who willingly and happily got engaged into lively and at times heated
discussions and were also very welcoming towards me, the people who gather in the streets leading to Tahrir square are hostile towards me, especially when my friend, foreigner like me, and I tried to make photographs, to which immediately men among the crowd tell us not to make photographs unless we don’t want our camera broken.

At the corner of Bustan and Talaat Harb street we find a tense standoff between pro-democracy demonstrators who stand in a human chain, and pro-mubarak folks who moving back and forth, their mood getting more an more heated. One man among them starts to tell me that the people inside are being paid to participate there, how else could they have ID controls and food for so many day. When I say him: Please keep peace, he replies: It’s them who don’t keep peace ! A man arrives on motorcycle to bring bottles of water and juice to the pro-demonstrators inside. As he tries to enter through the human chain, pro-Mubarak demonstrators grab the boxes, and in a rush that I otherwise know from beggars at main mosques everybody runs for the water and juice, someone shouts: “This is our water!”, the people are almost fighting to get some of the loot. This stands in a dramatic tension to the determined sense of discipline shown by the pro-democracy
demonstrators. A very aggressive atmosphere is building here, and we decide to move away. We pick up a friend in Bab el-Louq and walk to the apartment of a friend amidst of loud groups walking through the streets and chanting pro-Mubarak slogans. Crazily enough, amidst all this, we find the cafes in the Bursa area full with customers in the middle of all this commotion.

Soon after we reach our friend’s apartment, things start to get worse, the shouts louder, we hear shots, and from the balcony we see a part of the mob bringing somebody they have caught and throwing him in a rude fashion to what looks like an army special unit protecting one of the foreign diplomatic sites in the city. There is a long confrontation as the pro-Mubarak people are trying to push through the army line but are not left through. We are getting rather afraid as it gets louder and more chaotic in the streets, and the caretaker of the house tells everybody to turn their lights off. Since then we sit in the dark, lights on only in the kitchen. It is out of the question to go to the street. At times, we hear loud noise of shops being broken along with pro-Mubarak slogans and gunfire. Then things get calm again, later we hear gunfire from the direction of Tahrir Square. Our friends there tell us on the phone that the situation inside the square
is much better than it looks on television – we are watching Al-Jazeera livestream on the internet. But where we are staying, the situation is very volatile, and we hear that several foreign journalists have been attacked by the pro-Mubarak thugs in the course of the day and the night. Although the people in the square would badly need medicine and food, which we have here, it seems way too dangerous for two foreigners to go out now.

There is no way to predict from here what will come today. There is no question that the government will put the blame on the pro-democracy movement. The question is whether the Egyptians will believe it. A friend from Kitkat on the other side of the Nile where the situation is calm with whom I spoke on the phone said that people in his neighbourhood who until now had been very much supportive of Mubarak, were disgusted by what was going on today. But Egyptians appear very split today, and there is no way to tell what will come. In the last two weeks, every single prediction I have made about the situation has turned out false. Just as I did not expect the protests to become so huge, I did not expect the events today to turn the way they did. The only thing that is sure about the situation now is that Mubarak and is ruling elite are not serious about the orderly transition to democracy, but are again resorting to the tactics of intimidation and chaos.
What a horrible and criminal way to rule a country.

You can follow the events in Tahrir Square on Al-Jazeera English.

Please call your government and MP and tell that to show any support to this government is the same as showing support to crimes against humanity.

All the best,

Samuli

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