Friday, 4 February 2011

Letter from Cairo 28th January to 2nd February 2011

Friday 28th January, Gezira Steet, Zamalek
Marchers who could not get into Tahrir Square, returning to Zamalek

I am sitting in my apartment on the fifth floor of a building on Gezira Street , just two doors away from the Marriott Hotel and in front of the famous Gezira Sporting Club, which is in the residential district of Zamalek on an Island in Cairo.  It is 8 p.m on Monday 31st January 2011; there is an eerie silence broken now and then by the roar of a police motor bike and the odd raised voice.  In the street below are a few bawabs and some of the younger residents of the street who are forming barriers and carrying batons and knives ready to protect the possessions and lives of the residents. We are in a state of near anarchy as there are very few members of the police force on the streets. 

The air is unusually pure and free of pollution; very few cars are circulating as a curfew has been in place since 3 p.m. this afternoon.  However, the curfew has been ignored by some 100,000 people who are gathered in Tahrir Square (Liberation Square) to protest against the 30-year reign of Hosny Mobarak. 

This is the seventh day of mass demonstrations against the government and there is no sign of either side relenting.  Egyptians have lived in fear of their dictatorial government for 30 years but following the recent overthrow of the Tunisian government something spurred on the usually placid Egyptian people to take a stand. 

However, word went round through internet that on Friday 28th January a much more decisive demonstration would take place – and it did.  Tens of thousands of people gathered together in Tahrir Square and peacefully chanted ‘Down with Mobarak’, ‘It’s time for change’, ‘We want to live in freedom’ and so on.  All seemed peaceful until the much despised violent police force, obviously under instructions from the Ministry of the Interior, started using water hoses and tear gas on the demonstrators.  Normally, this would have terrified the crowd but the obviously very determined Egyptian people stood their ground and it was very apparent that nothing would disturb them.  The police therefore were practically ineffective.  A curfew was enforced that day for 6 p.m. but was totally ignored by the general public.  The spirit of the people was amazing and the crowd consisted of people from all walks of life which was incredible.  Demonstrations of this type in Egypt are usually held by the poor and the working classes but there were families with children, middle and upper middle classes, the intelligentsia, the literate and the illiterate.

By 5 a.m. on Saturday morning there was absolutely no sign of the Egyptian police force.  However, by Friday afternoon we had begun to see signs of the presence of Egyptian army tanks whose officers and soldiers appeared to be shaking hands with the people.  Questions were asked – were they there to attack or protect the public?  Mobarak was and is head of the military; was he going to order them to attack and if so would they listen to him?  It was impossible to comprehend what was going on.  There was much speculation and many rumours; these included that the police had been totally defeated by the protestors, that they had removed their uniforms in order to join in with the general public, that they had taken flight due to the sheer force of the public and, worst of all, that the Minister of the Interior had ordered them off the streets in order to create chaos and remove all semblance of law and order.

The breakdown in law and order then became obvious.  Prisoners and thugs were marauding the streets, shops fronts were smashed, some supermarkets were being burnt down and a great deal of looting and pillaging was taking place.  Then many of the shops which had not been looted were closed and emptied by their owners.   But now, at night, citizen’s houses were being broken in to.  Ordinary civilians began to go down from their buildings armed with sticks, kitchen knives and anything else they could get hold of to defend their apartments and their families.  There was a deathly hush here in Zamalek as we waited for the worst.  Some of the young men actually blocked Gezira Street with bars and demanded to see the identity cards of anyone trying to get through our street into the rest of Zamalek.  There was an incredible sense of community here and, apparently, many other areas of Cairo. 

I had first hand accounts from my maid and my driver who live in one of the poorer quarters.  They were building mud brick ovens on the roofs of their buildings in order to make bread, which was by now impossible to buy.  The men have not sleep for nights but built fires in the streets to keep themselves warm while they protected their families.

In the meantime, by Thursday 27th January at 3 p.m. all communications were cut; mobile phones stopped functioning and it was impossible to access internet.  It was obvious that not only was the government panicking but it was doing everything in its power to stop any means of contact between Egyptian citizens themselves and with the outside world.  I have lived in Egypt, as the British wife of an intellectual Egyptian, since 1976 and saw the sad end of the Sadat era.  I was of course aware of the ever increasing dictatorship of Mobarak but could never have imagined the total intimidation of the Egyptian people which has built up over the years and ended in the chaos of this last week.  To find one-self cut off from friends and the world for 48 hours was unthinkable. 

Demonstrations continued throughout Saturday 29th January and the curfew continued to be enforced as the days went by and was moved from 6 p.m. to 4 p.m. and finally to 3 p.m.  Meanwhile, our mobile phones are working again though we cannot only make calls; they seem to have managed to block our capability of sending or receiving messages, which is pointless as the mass demonstrations took place in spite of their being no means of communication.

One of the most poignant points of these demonstrations was when, on the afternoon of Saturday 29th January around 2 p.m., army jet planes started to fly low over the centre of Cairo and particularly over Tahrir Square.  In Zamalek, the sound was deafening; windows shook and some panes of glass shattered.  There was a feeling of total panic amongst the residents until it became obvious that these planes had been sent in to put the fear of God into the demonstrators in Tahrir Square and they began to fly lower and lower over the square.  Was Hosny Mobarak going to fire on his own people?  No one seemed to care; by now the Egyptian people were determined in their fight for freedom and democracy and every time a plane flew over the square the public simply cheered and almost willed them to fire at them.  At the same time, the continual presence of the army whilst obvious was passive.

Sunday 30th January and the crowds are still amassing in Tahrir Square, there is still no sign of the police and the army tanks are passively present.  The demonstrations continue and still no word from our president.  We are all asking ourselves why he does not come forward and speak to his people, give them some reassurance, show his face – something, anything! 

Today, Monday 31st January I finally found the courage to descend into the centre of Cairo with my husband and we made our way on foot to Tahrir Square and spent an hour in the apartment of a friend who owns one of the buildings in the square.  The view of the crowds from the balcony and the roof of this building was unbelievable and it is difficult to find the words to describe it.  It looked like a colony of ants and people were standing shoulder to shoulder.  The atmosphere was electrifying.  Every now and then the crowds went down on their knees to pray in absolute unison.  People from all walks of life were present and by now the chants included ‘Muslims, Christians, we are all Egyptians’.  This was even more astounding when I thought of the recent attacks on Christians in Alexandria.  Suddenly the country has come together as one and all with one aim which is to create the downfall of Mubarak.  But still he refuses to step down.  The banks are closed, the stock exchange is closed, there are extensive bread lines, a shortage of food and still he does not move.  He has changed some members of his cabinet but they are still members of his regime and the people refuse to accept his changes.  He is simply shuffling a pack of cards.  He has, for the first time in thirty years, elected a vice president and still the people refuse to accept his changes.  They have one demand and one only and that is that he must step down. 

We have run out of drinking water and other supplies, so it is time to find the courage to go out and forage for food.  After driving around, rather fearfully, for some time, we finally found a supermarket which had remained open and stocked up.  However, it is impossible to find wine or cigarettes to calm the nerves, so I have resorted to Cleopatra – the local cigarettes – which taste of camel dung!

From my back balcony, between two buildings I can just see over a small strip of the Nile, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the local TV centre, crowds of people have gathered beside the Nile and I can hear the same chants as I have heard over the last week but, now, there is a sense of jubilation.  Is this the beginning of the end?

It is Tuesday 1st February – the day that the people have asked for a million people in Egypt to march from Tahrir Square to the president’s residence.  Today, I have not joined the crowds but my son has, which has put the fear of God in me.  He came to our apartment before going to Tahrir Square, dressed in khaki clothes, with a rucksack full of bandages and disinfectant and a bandeau round his forehead with the colours of the Egyptian flag.  He looked incredibly intimidating.  I begged him not to go but his reply was ‘If I don’t join in the demonstrations then I won’t have the right to call myself an Egyptian’.  Meanwhile, I watch the events unfold through Al Jazeera International television, whose coverage is incredible.  At the same time I am in constant touch with my son and other friends on the ground via our mobiles and can see and am told that there is an enormous sense of jubilancy amongst the crowds; they feel that they have won the battle and that Mobarak must now step down. 

The call for a million Egyptians to go into the streets has been met!  There are reports of over a million in Tahrir Square alone, it is absolutely teeming with people and, yet again, people from all walks of life and, yet again, with one voice and one message.  ‘Go, Mubarak’.  My son’s placard reads ‘Reset, Restart’ and there are hundreds of placards in Arabic, French and English – all with the same message. 

There is an astonishing feeling of hope for the future of Egypt and above all the possibility of democracy. 

Night has fallen, again the curfew has been ignored the crowds are still there and still growing.  No longer do they fear the government that has oppressed them for three decades.  This passive nation has finally risen to its feet and shown its true courage.

Mobarak has finally spoken on TV.  He has said that he will not stand for election in September, that he will make reforms and that he will amend articles 76 and 77 of the constitution regarding election conditions.

The jubilation of the demonstrators has turned into utter fury.  They simply do not trust him.  Anything could happen in the next few months if he and his regime stay in power.  Not least the punishment and beatings and possible imprisonment of some of the demonstrators and activists, especially public figures.

Tuesday 2nd February.  All hell broke out at night in Tahrir Square. Until now we are not sure what happened except that groups of pro-Mobarak supporters physically attacked the demonstrators and that many, many have been injured and that a number of deaths have occurred.  There are questions being asked, of course, the main one being who was responsible for this?  An educated guess is that this was planned by the Ministry of the Interior and that these thugs were paid to cause even more chaos and disruption to the country and that the people will accept for Mobarak to stay for the sake of stability.


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