Saturday, 5 February 2011

Letter from Cairo 5th February 2011

An obvious feeling of unease and disappointment

Saturday 5th February and what we all really hoped and expected would be ‘checkmate’ has become a stalemate.  We are no further ahead and neither side is giving up.  However, what I am hearing from the intelligentsia, who initially thought that a compromise could be found, is that there is a movement away from the possibility of negotiations to a situation where not even dialogue with the regime will be considered by them.

As my son walked through Tahrir Square on Friday 4th February, he reported to me that people from even more walks of life were there and he met and spoke to both locals and foreigners, including Christiane Ananpour of ABC News - ex CNN.  He had, in fact, met her in the street three days before when she was being harassed by thugs, which was actually filmed and aired  He was trying to defend her from the crowd but found that he was fighting a losing battle, so he escorted her to her car and suggested that she move away quickly.  He saw her again in the square on Friday and she recognised him and thanked him for his previous help.  Amongst the activists were many well-known faces, including film directors, actors, singers, lawyers, doctors and writers, whose names I will not mention for the sake of their safety.  But they may not be safe anyway as their faces will have been seen by whomever the regime placed in the square.

My son said that the situation was somewhat tense in Tahrir Square but that people were simply not going to give up; they were apprehensive mostly because of their fear of being attacked but I suspect, as I mentioned before, that the demonstrations remained peaceful because of the sheer volume of the anti Mubarak protestors.  There were a few minor skirmishes in the side streets off the square but many of the demonstrators were chanting ‘Silmaya, silmaya!’ (‘No violence, no violence!’)

He said that he found the whole situation very beautiful but also very sad as, despite the feeling of jubilation and euphoria, he felt that it was obvious that Mubarak would not step down and that people’s hopes would continue to be crushed. 

Among the people my son spoke to was a young man of 25 who was born and raised in Cairo and who, like a sizeable number of youngsters, had attended university either here or abroad.  He did not come from a political background nor did he belong to a political party.  He had never taken part in demonstrations yet now he was spending every day in ‘Liberation Square’ and had spent several recent nights defying the curfew sleeping either on the floor of nearby mosques or in a tent.  He was one of many to whom my son spoke but who represented the thousands in what is a proudly leaderless youth movement, a movement which just today I have heard being referred to as ‘The Egyptian Yuppie Movement’, which somehow sums it all up and amused me a great deal.

Another educated man to whom he spoke also said that he did not belong to any political party but that he had been working very hard for years to save up to buy an apartment but that when he finally reached his financial goal he found that most of the private building projects were for the rich and privileged and that he could now only afford to buy an apartment in the buildings which were offered by the Ministry of Housing which are built for the poor.  He explained that you could put down a deposit of 5,000 to 10,000 Egyptian pounds for a flat worth 70,000 Egyptian pounds and would then wait to see if your name would be picked out of a hat, so to speak.  Having not been allotted an apartment, he decided to investigate the matter and discovered that most of the people who had been selected had connections within the Ministry of Housing and that some of them had managed to buy 3 or 4 apartments by putting them in the names of their wives or children or other relatives.  The young man admitted that he became so depressed that he frittered all his savings away, mostly on drugs.

There were many other depressing stories, but too many to relate here and these are just two simple examples.

My son continued to walk around the square and listen in on groups of demonstrators discussing the situation and heard indications of a change in the voice of some of the demonstrators with such comments as “If Mubarak leaves the country, his absence will create a vacuum and many of the constitutional changes that we want to make will take longer and be harder to bring about”.  However, there were still many other sides of the argument and he could still hear such remarks as “Mubarak must leave and we want to start from zero”.

Other discussions that were taking place were, for example, that many members of the general public had been convinced by the authorities that the protestors were the reason that the economy has come to a halt.  Others argued that the true reason was that the regime had brought everything to a standstill when they removed the security and the police force so that the blame could be thrown on the protesters.  Yet others were discussing how Mubarak could have become so rich when in role as the president.  In fact in the 1990s Forbes listed him as being amongst the 50 most richest people in the world (cite).

At one point in his wanderings, my son and a friend were talking to some of the pro-Mubarak demonstrators outside the square, and as educated and informed young men, trying to reason with them and explain to them the real problems.  While this was going on a small boy approached a military officer and pointed to my son and said ‘Look, he is a foreign spy’.  The officer asked for his papers in an aggressive undertone but as soon as my son showed the officer his ID and told him that he was Egyptian the officer changed his tone and blusteringly started to make excuses about trying to protect him because he thought he was a foreigner.  One asks oneself why the initial aggressive undertone?

He also witnessed that those who did not possess identity cards were not allowed into the square.  However, this was not controlled by the army but by the protestors themselves who were searching people’s bags, inspecting them for weapons and carrying out body checks.

I asked my son how those people who have not moved from the square for several days are managing with regard to food, medical help and sanitation.  He replied that they are being supplied with sandwiches by members of the public that many mobile hospitals have been created by caring doctors and that help is available for all.  The surrounding mosques have opened their doors to allow people to use their bathrooms but those who cannot make it that far are relieving themselves in plastic bags or bottles which are then taken away and disposed of by the many who are simply there to help in any way that they can. There is an immense feeling of solidarity and people are moving around the square with plastic bags, picking up and disposing of the rubbish and generally trying to create a civilized situation. 

Today, Cairo appears to be a lot calmer and traffic has been moving in the street below me, in fact there was some congestion at around 3 p.m. which slightly worried me until I realised that life was taking on some semblance of normality.  In fact, I ventured out into Zamalek and had lunch with friends on the 26th July Street, which is the main thoroughfare of Zamalek, in an Egyptian restaurant called Abou El Sid which is famous for its Egyptian cuisine.  However, it must be said that while walking to and from the restaurant, albeit through the gardens of the Marriott hotel gardens, I felt prickles in my spine and was continually looking over my shoulders.  My husband insisted that I should not wear my blonde hair loose and that I try to look as inconspicuously foreign as possible.

The open-air terrace of the Marriott hotel was buzzing with members of the ‘Yuppie Revolution’ discussing the current situation with animated voices which reflected the conversations that my son had heard in Tahrir Square.  My husband had called the restaurant to ensure that it was open today, which was confirmed, and when we arrived at 3 p.m. we actually had to wait some time for a table.  The lights in the restaurant were dimmed, creating an atmosphere of an evening out, there was a smoky atmosphere produced by cigarettes and the inevitable shisha pipes and much vivacious dialogue once again reflecting the singular subject of conversation.

Meanwhile, internal politicians and activists continue to dialogue.


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