Sunday, 6 February 2011

Letter from Cairo 6th February 2011

Tahrir Square

There is again today an air of normality, apart from the ever-continuing demonstrations in Tahrir Square, with tents been continuously put by those who are just not going to move until their wish is granted.  I can’t help admiring the spirit of the nation and in my 35 years in Egypt, I have never seen anything like it.  The uprising was, to use a particularly popular word at the moment, unprecedented. 

However, this air of normality is somewhat deceiving and by no means an indication that life has returned to its customary state. The banks opened for three hours today and I was somewhat smugly, if cruelly, pleased that we had taken some cash from the bank at the beginning of the uprising as I witnessed horrendous queues and I imagine that even after queuing for three hours, many people walked away empty handed. Many of the small businesses are still closed as are a number of shops. Sadly, it is always the poor and needy who suffer in situations such as this.

The crowds have gathered again in the square although they are not as numerous as yesterday.  Some of our citizens have obviously gone back to work today as the traffic is flowing in Zamalek once more, which is a pity in a way; I miss the peace and calm of the street below and the lack of pollution.  For ten days now the air has been blissfully clear and the layer of smog that hangs over the basin in which Cairo sits was an almost forgotten sight.  One sound, however, refuses to let up and has become particularly irritating and it is that of the helicopter which incessantly flies low overhead, on its round of duty over the area.

It is almost unforgivable to admit this but in some ways I was glad to find myself in the middle of a revolution of this nature, and although at times it has been alarming, to say the least, it has also been a very exciting time. What can be more satisfying than watching an oppressed nation suddenly find the courage to stand up for its rights?   I have had plenty of time for reflection during these days of waiting, and the uprising of the Egyptians has made me think long and hard of the time that I have spent here and how one inevitably comes to accept and live with the limitations imposed by a dictatorial regime without always being fully aware of it. 

It is only when I travel and put my feet on Western soil that I become fully aware of what democracy really is and how lacking it is in Egypt and most of the Arab world.  Democracy, although by no means a perfect system, consists in principal of the following: (a) A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections. There were recent ‘elections’ in Egypt but it is commonly recognized that these were rigged.  (b) The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life.  There has been no sign of this in all the years that I have lived in Egypt.  (c)  Protection of the human rights of all citizens.  I could make so many comments about this but it is suffice to look at the attempts to repress the demonstrators last Wednesday and Thursday.  (d)  A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.  The divide between the rich and the poor speaks for itself and if you have the money here, you can get round the law. 

I would like to add a piece of first-hand information to the above.  One of my students, who belongs to the upper middle classes, recently shared with me an experience that her grandmother encountered during the 2010 so-called elections here.  She presented herself at a polling booth and when it came to the notice of certain officials that she was voting for the opposition, she was taken into a room and beaten up and then thrown out into the streets and had to be taken to hospital.  I naturally asked my student if her family had put in a complaint to someone – anyone.  Her reply was ‘No, we were too scared of what might happen to us.’ 

I rest my case, Milud!

Having said all of the above, we must remember that democracy in the West is not always pure democracy.  Let us not forget Israel and here I do not need to be explicit.  Let us also remember the massive demonstrations in the U.S. and in Europe against the invasion of Iraq – the ruling parties did not listen to the people!  I could cite other examples but I think we are all aware of them.

A Nile TV correspondent was, earlier today, reported as having resigned from her job last Thursday and we have heard her voice on Aljazeera International.  She has shown the most amazing courage.  She reported that she has for some time been forced to reveal censored news but that during the uprising there was a total blackout on state TV and out of sheer frustration she simply walked out on her job saying ‘I want nothing more to do with the propaganda that the regime wants me to put out to the public.’  There are so, so many voices now speaking out and an alarming number of recognised figures have publicly denounced the regime.  But I fear for their safety, now.

Out of curiosity, I switched to Nile TV and could not believe what they were broadcasting or should I say not broadcasting.  They were showing pictures of the interior of what I presume to have been a house, with the usual hideous guilt furniture and vulgar ornaments and this was accompanied by the dulcet tones of Egyptian orchestral music.  No news, no discussion, no voices! 

Not everyone can afford satellite TV and have the privilege of watching a variety of worldwide news channels.  As one would expect, most TV channels are biased in one way or another but at least one can absorb and compare and contrast the diverse news programmes and form ones own opinions.  There are opposition newspapers who by some miracle are allowed to air their views but a third of the population is illiterate so they are left in ignorance.

Meanwhile, life goes on in Tahreer Square!  A stage has been built and a sound system with loudspeakers has been set up as has a very large screen which is showing satellite TV – hoorah! People are standing up and expressing their views, others are singing to the public.  My son and his wife, who are both musicians are, as I speak, writing a song which I hope they will be able to complete soon and perform in the square.

4.40 p.m. Breaking news!  A marriage has just taken place in Tahreer Squareand I have asked friends on the ground to describe it.  Apparently the couple met in the Square during the demonstrations and here they are, with the Sheikh, taking their marriage vows; the crowd is overjoyed and the sense of jubilation continues.


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