Friday of Rage
Note: I am safe, I am out of Egypt. The latter seems for the most part redundant. I am posting this, which I wrote last Friday. As such, the tone of this may seem sort of strange. More to follow when I can tear my eyes off AJE.
I honestly have no idea where to begin.
The past few days have been… crazy. Not because I’ve been in the middle of the action witnessing a revolution. As countless people have entreated me to do, I’ve kept safely away from the center of the action. In a way, though, the distances makes it less surreal and more insanely real.
On the first day of the protests, I was glued to Twitter. I was continually shocked by the numbers reported on the protests–though 90,000 had responded that they would show on Facebook, anyone who has ever managed a Facebook event knows that you’d be extremely lucky if half of the people who say they’ll show actually do. When I saw the picture of Tahrir Square filled with masses of people, I almost cried. The next two days were fairly normal (from my perspective), though I kept to the dorm more than usual, especially at night–I read a ridiculous amount of blog coverage of the events, but wasn’t quite as inseparable from the news. I walked through Mahtat Raml (major activity hub in Alex) and saw significantly fewer propaganda posters than had been there previously–in addition to dozens of security vehicles packed with officers who looked ready to pounce on the first sign of a protest they saw. While walking back along the Corniche, I saw at least a hundred riot police making some kind of formation near the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (i.e. the most popular tourist destination in Alex and right next to the University) while foreigners were being ushered back to the safety of their tour buses.
Friday was the most surreal. All cell phone service and Internet was blocked, along with some land lines. I spent Friday morning eating pancakes with the whole group, then spent the rest of the day alternately watching Al Jazeera and BBC Arabic and running to the window when I heard sounds. Though our dorm is close to the Corniche, it’s hard to see it directly, but we heard sounds of protesters on and off all day, and at points got a glimpse from a balcony. One of the American girls found that her Blackberry would still allow her to send texts, but only to America–we all used her phone to text our parents that we were okay. Throughout the day her mom texted her news, most of which sounded pretty grim–journalists arrested in Cairo, embassy warnings, &c.
The sky was filled with smoke all day–partly from smoke bombs set off by the police to confuse the protesters, and partly (I heard later) because there were cars burning in the streets. One of the Egyptian girls on our hall told us about getting caught in tear gas on her way back to the dorm from the University, where she had had an exam. While I was watching protestors rip the door off a police vehicle in Cairo, a girl came and told us that she had seen tanks rolling along the Corniche. There was wild speculation among the girls in the dorm–would the army be with Mubarak (who, at the time, still had not shown his face) or with the people? And among the American girls–what the hell would we do if the embassy ordered us to leave the country? Before falling into a fitful sleep, I watched a building burn and heard explosions in the distance and what sounded like fireworks to me, which one of the Egyptian girls told me she was certain it was live fire. I realized that I’ve never heard live fire before and would have no way of distinguishing it from anything else.
When I heard that there were at least half a million protesters in Alex, I almost fell over. There was barely any news on Alex all day, so I had assumed that things were relatively quiet here. Not so. At least one person died in Alex. We don’t have class today (Saturday), and we have no idea whether or not there will be more protests today–and we still don’t have Internet or phone service, so the only way for the program to communicate with us is to have one of the leaders physically come to the dorm and give us news. Basically, at time of writing, I have no idea what’s going to happen, except that Mubarak says that he will install a new government (still led by him, of course), and I am skeptical that anyone who was on the streets yesterday will be satisfied with that.
To clear up a few misconceptions I reckon are going around:
- This is not normal. I know some people think that the Middle East as a whole is a place where violence and shit happens all the time, and thus that I should have expected this or something. That is not. True. Mubarak’s regime has been around for thirty years and he usually rules with an iron fist, not allowing ANY dissent. This is unprecedented. I was talking with a history professor and he said that nothing even vaguely like this has happened for the last hundred years. NO ONE expected this. Every respectable journalist/scholar was saying that there was no way Egypt would follow Tunisia, which leads me to…
- This is not Tunisia. Egypt and Tunisia are vastly, vastly different countries, even though they are both Arabic-speaking and located in North Africa. Tunisia has about an eighth of the population of Egypt and a large, educated middle class. Egypt has 80 million people and virtually no middle class: one way I heard it described was “either you’re filthy rich or filthy and poor.” There is also FAR less Internet usage in Egypt than in Tunisia. The strategies for subduing the people have differed widely between the two countries. The only effect Tunisia had on Egypt was morale; they are otherwise very, very different.
- This is not about Wikileaks or social networking. Yes, the protests on Tuesday were originally organized online, but this uprising is not about transparency or even about censorship; it’s about a brutal dictatorship. Also, it has grown significantly even after the Internet was shut down entirely. I think it’s sort of funny how America is all, “it’s totally not cool to turn off the interwebs! People deserve freedom of speech!” as if THAT is all that the Mubarak regime can be accused of curtailing… Also, I don’t understand why a few people on the Internet thought that this was inspired by Wikileaks, but… trust me, that’s not it.
Things I have heard from reliable sources, but not seen for myself:
All of the police stations in Alex (and across the country) are burning.
“There is no police, there is no army, there is no government.”
Massive looting in the streets.
Protesters stole guns from the police stations–that was the live fire we heard last night.
(EDIT: this was what I was told at time of writing. The reality seems more like it was pro-Mubarak people, not protestors.)
Summary: If there is one word in Arabic I will never, ever forget, it is مظاهرات (demonstrations).