Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Letter from Cairo 8th February 2011

The army protecting the people

I feel as if I have come out of a long period of hibernation!  With true hibernation, animals can be moved around or touched and not know it, and appear to be dead.  Obviously that is not my case but I have a sense of having lived in a semi comatose state for two weeks.  Some hibernating animals wake up and move around, have a snack and then go back into hibernation again; perhaps that is a better analogy. My apartment has been my burrow, apart from the regular sorties to the Gezira club, and I have eaten my ‘snacks’ without tasting them, while my stocks have petered out now and then and had to be replenished.

My family and I wanted to join the demonstrations again today but we left it too late and there are incredible queues on 6th October Bridge trying to get into what is now more commonly known as 'Liberation Square’.  It looks as if this could be the biggest demonstration yet.  I can see from my window massive traffic jams on the 6th October Bridge as thousands of protestors make their way on foot.  Blue barricades have been erected around the square to protect them and, according to friends on the ground, all seems peaceful.

Meanwhile, the worms are coming out of the woodwork and there are reports of the fortunes that have been amassed by Mubarak and his regime.  He and other politicians appear to have collected between them riches purportedly calculated in billions of dollars.  This is not something of which we were ignorant, on the contrary it has always been in great evidence but no one ever had the courage to speak out.  It is said that a petition, signed by 40 prominent figures, is being sent to the Attorney General demanding that the culprits be taken to court, punished for sealing money from the state, and that their fortunes be released. 

The government this morning has announced further concessions and has promised constitutional reforms, and given their word that the perpetrators and their followers will not be punished. Yet, while these concessions are appeasing some of the protestors, the majority will accept nothing less than the stepping down of Mubarak and his regime.  And, despite the shutting down of all communications at the beginning of this rebellion, and the almost total blackout on state television, the word is out there and Egyptians are hearing it loud and clear. 

It is a fact that when a regime falls, the constitution usually falls with it; so, in my opinion, constitution reforms cannot be a solution.  This constitution was in fact tailored by the military regime of the past three presidents in order to give full power to the president

Nevertheless, fear of the regime still exists and it is felt that if Mubarak remains in power he will, like the Emperor Octavian, have a hit list, which he will fall back on in the future and take his revenge. 

This is the 15th day of the demonstrations and we see a situation which is absolutely unique in the modern world.  Although the downfall of the Tunisian government caused by massive riots seems to have had a domino effect in the Arab World, nothing, but nothing like this was expected.  I cannot help but think that Tunisia was a dress rehearsal for what is taking place in Egypt.

The crowds gather in greater and greater numbers, sharing food and medical supplies and, again, according to friends on the ground, a whole new breed of demonstrators is present today, some of whom have joined the campaigners for the first time.  Entire companies are gathered in groups, holding up banners showing their company logos and among them, I have been told, there is also a sizeable group of civil servants.  The government continues to remain in denial and is simply not listening to the Egyptian people; it asks where the rest of the population is and pretends that the hundreds and thousands in Liberation Square do not represent the rest of the country.  Well, democracy may take some time to put in place in Egypt but it is already there in The Square.  Meanwhile, the tone of the protestors has changed slightly and they have ceased to demand the removal of Mubarak only and are now insisting on the cessation of the whole regime.

There is, once again a great sense of euphoria which is not, as yet, caused by the achievement of their demands but simply a celebration of their rights to assemble in a public place and to speak out for the first time in 30 years.

We momentarily had a glance at two state television channels and, yet again, there is a media blackout.  One channel was showing the Kasr El Nile Bridge with a few people and cars walking on it but omitted to show the 6th October Bridge, which is the one being used by demonstrators to reach The Square.  The second channel showed a meeting between Muburak and his cronies, but had no sound.

I mentioned in a previous ‘Letter from Cairo’ that we have always been aware of the oppression here but never done much about.  A memory came back to me today – one which I seem to have put at the back of my mind.  In 1981 or thereabouts I took my father and my younger son, who was at that time 5 or 6 years old, to visit a friend’s farm near Benha, which is on the Cairo-Alexandria road maybe 70 or 80 kilometers from Cairo.  We visited the banana plantation and had a pleasant lunch and on our return journey back to Cairo, we stopped to take photographs as both my father and I were keen amateur photographers.  On the third or fourth stop to take pictures of the scenery and feeling very pleased with the quality of the photographs we had taken, I was suddenly grasped painfully on the shoulder and swung around to face some very angry looking policemen.  ‘You are not allowed to take photographs here’ I was told; my obvious question was ‘Why, we are in the middle of the country?’  One of the policemen then pointed across the countryside, through the trees and plantations, into the vague distance and said ‘There is a military post over there’.  I was then asked to produce my passport and I explained that I do not usually carry a passport when moving from one town to another in the same country and added, stupidly, that in my country we only need a passport when travelling abroad and that it was idiotic to ask me for it.  That did it!  The three of us were carried off to the local police station where we spent a good 2 or 3 hours waiting, while several phone calls were made.  We were then removed to another police station which I learnt later belonged to the security police.  After several more hours of waiting while nothing much happened, I insisted that I had the right to make one phone call.  Permission was not given.  Frustration was mounting and my father, at the best of times not the most patient of men, was beginning to lose his temper.  I managed to convince him that this was not England and that it would be much safer to remain calm and try and use gentle persuasion on any other strategies that I might come up with.  I then said to my son ‘Would you please pretend to cry loudly’, which he did but this had no effect, I then asked him to try to become more hysterical and produce real tears.  Being something of a thespian he was able to give a pretty convincing performance and I was finally allowed to make my one phone call.  Naturally, I called my husband and explained my predicament and he told me not to panic and that he would take immediate action and use his connections to get me out of there.  He consequently called a friend who was an aide of a previous Minister of the Interior and we were eventually released.  I wonder how long I would have remained there if my husband had not had the relevant connections!

This is just one story amongst a myriad of similar stories told by Egyptians and foreigners alike and examples of an oppression which, over time, we have become used to and meekly accepted.  We will no longer accept it.

It may be only a rumour but I have just heard that Suez Canal employees are on strike; that will put huge pressure on the government.

It is 8 p.m. here; the curfew is in place and still the crowds gather in Liberation Square.


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