Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Revolution, Egypt

I have had some people ask me to tell them about my time in Egypt when the revolution started.  I know it’s really long, but here it is!
Here I am, a Canadian girl in Cairo, Egypt, thinking it’s one of the safer Middle East countries, people are happy, Mubarak holds his power over the people with fear and the police clean things up. I am aware that people are done with Mubarak, but that there is a fear of what will happen to them if they try to get rid of him.  The police keep everyone in line and are quick to get rid of those who are not in line- or who have different politics and ideas. Many conversations that I have had with Egyptian friends in public regarding politics or Mubarak are whispered…who knows where the secret police are…and if you are caught bashing the dictator, you will disappear forever. 
Quietly, and confidently, on Facebook and Twitter, young people began to find their voices, and demand their voices be heard.  Jan 25 was declared the day that they would take to the streets and protest.  This is normal in Cairo as there are very quiet demonstrations that occur after Friday Prayers.  Jan 25 is Police Day, in which the country celebrates the beloved police force…also a day in which people protest the police brutality that is prevalent in this country.
By drink, by gun, by Facebook…a friend’s analysis of all of the previous leaders of the country since the last revolution to get rid of the king.  Nasser was maybe assassinated by poison (or he was just sick and old), Sadat was shot…Mubarak was Facebooked.  Here are my experiences during the revolution as an outsider looking in.
Jan 25 Police Day (first day of the Revolution…the day Egypt changed forever)
I received an email from the Embassy warning that there are large protests planned, stay away from large groups of people.  We stayed around Maadi, lunch out (it was a public holiday), Ace for the evening.  All is calm.  Extra police at the Saoudi supermarket corner but nothing out of the ordinary. I have had warnings from the Embassy after the Coptic church bombing in Alexandria. 
Jan 26 Wednesday
Off we go to school, none the wiser as to what is happening downtown. The protests continue and get larger.  We hear there is violence between the police and protesters in Tahrir Square.  1 hour before school ends we are notified that the school is closed for Thursday due to planned demonstrations in Heliopolis. We go home and head to the Ace Club, the local expat club.  Nothing happening in Maadi.  Mubarak bans public gatherings and protests. No school tomorrow, yay!!!  Little did we know that this would be the last day for a month.
Jan 27 Thursday
We hear from the news there are protests across the city.  We again have lunch at 55, dinner at Ace- this is how unaffected my area of the city is. Ace does close down early because of the security risk. We get home and find that Facebook/Skype/Twitter all are shut down.  Later the internet is blocked, and doesn’t come back for an entire week.  Vodafone publicly states that the government forced them to shut down.  We hear shots fired at night. It is the first of several nights that I hear gunshots.  Reports that it is people looting and burning cars.
Jan 28 Friday
10 am our cell phones are all blocked.  This loss of communication is, to this point, the scariest part of the whole thing.  I have no way of communicating with my loved ones that I am ok.  It was a loss of some of my rights, and for someone used to all the rights and freedoms being a Canadian citizen gives me, it was scary and eye opening.  PK and Jen and I walk to Ace.  Midan Victoria outside of Ace has planned demonstrations but they don’t happen- Ace does shut early.  Do a bit of shopping.  WE head home around 1:30 and turn on Al Jazeera and see the chaos.  Jen and I watch TV until 1 am in complete awe and disbelief at what is happening 8 km away from us.  The protests start after noon prayers- Christians and Muslims  are all in the mosques.  The protest was planned using Twitter and Facebook, now they can’t communicate.   But it happens in all areas of the city, hundreds of thousands of people out in the streets at Tahrir Square and on the bridges over the Nile. Tear gas is being fired at the protesters, Molotov cocktails being thrown.  Only al Jazeera has any information coming out.  We see the police firing water and tear gas at the protesters, running them down with their trucks and hitting people with sticks.  But still the people pushed back and forced the police to move back.  This is happening across the country.   Nile TV reporting the police have the situation under control.  The police are backing off, police trucks are overturned and burning, cars are burning, and tires are burning.  BBC and CNN are getting nothing out due to no phone or internet. A curfew has been introduced and starts at 6 pm, but none of the protesters leave.  Violence and death is happening but protests are not stopping.  Police retreat sometime this evening. Mubarak speaks at 1245 am-  6 hours after he was scheduled to.  He states he is the one who gave the people these freedoms to protest, but in the same breath issues an order that the people of Egypt are not allowed to protest or stage public demonstrations. Mubarak states that he gave these people their rights and freedoms of speech- but he has taken it away.  They can’t use their cell phones or the internet! He states he is listening to his people, that is why he is firing his government…but he has not left, which is what the people want. I watch the military arrive and they  are greeted with excitement.  Egyptians revere the military. Throughout the night there are more shots fired loud and very close to us. They seem to be coming from around the prison. Raids and looting are happening of shops all over the city.  Rumors that Carrefour, the huge supermarket, has been burned down and the mall looted.  We watch the city burn- I can smell smoke when I open the window.
Jan 29 Saturday
We all decide to head out after the curfew finishes. This is after the phones begin working, and I make the mistake of telling my mother that I heard shots last night.  During another phone call I can hear gun shots in the distance…in the middle of the day. I didn’t say anything.  Then the phones get blocked up, with overuse or they are cut off again.  Head to Ace, and they are closing at 2 pm- reports of looting at grand mall and heading in their direction.  It didn’t happen- and it is very quiet in Maadi.  We go home to watch TV and nothing else to do! Not reporting anything going on in Maadi, thankfully because my family will be freaking.  Curfew today starts at 4 pm. Reports of gangs of looters all over the city.  No police in sight. They have completely disappeared.  5 pm prayers call the men to arm themselves and protect their streets.  Our men all have big sticks and have barricaded our street. They stay out there all night long.  At about 11 pm, a tank drives by, firing shots in the air and these loud sounds- possibly noise grenades to scare away the looters. The tank was huge from what I could see thru the trees.  Absolutely freaky.  I am terrified this night.  But totally bored during the day with being cooped up in the house. 

The barricade to our road

Jan 30 Sunday
Didn’t sleep much last night.  The tanks rolled past our house around 11, firing guns and loud sounds- I think they are supposed to be noise stunners.  It went around Road 206 3 times, and returned throughout the night.  Gun shots throughout the night as well.  I wake up to the smell of smoke, something is burning near us.  Gunshots still, and popping sounds.  Our barricade is still up.  The curfew is now lifted but nothing has happened. Reports that our Metro has been looted.  I plan to wander around today, but also reports on TV that 6000 prisoners have escaped the prison here in Maadi…great. 
Been out and about.  No raids at our Metro, wide open.  I stock up on canned food and water, just in case. I also managed to find the one bank machine that still had money to get the last of my money out. There are barricades around the roads, people blocking it and only allowing local traffic.  Molotov cocktails sitting on the edge of the street.  The men have sticks and tire irons, butcher knives taped to the end of a long stick just in case.  Men with knives in the streets.  Protecting their people and buildings.  The vigilantes have white cloth tied to their arms to identify each other.  Still hear a bit of gun fire. Today we hear from friends that the gun fire is warning shots- both by vigilantes and military.  Just shooting into the air warnings that they, the army are here protecting the people, and to scare looters. Fires burning in some areas.  Tanks apparently in all areas of Maadi. 
Get a phone call saying Americans getting evacuated so we raced home.  Not happening, just the govt. advising to leave.  No evacuations.  The Canadian govt. suggesting you be ready, have a bag packed  and always have your papers with you.  Nothing happening now on the news.  Totally bored again!
I am scared from the looting, and the police-less society.  In a society when this happens people rebel and bad things happen.  I am scared when I hear the tanks and gunfire.  I am not sleeping. Tonight 2 men in masks were seen on the hill behind us, and came into our building.  30 of our men chased them in and then chased them out, beating them with sticks.  The army arrived and started shooting.  The people in my building say they didn’t shoot them but were just firing in the air.  We barricaded the door with the table as we hear them inside.  The men protecting us are amazing.

Jan 31 Sunday
Canadians are being evacuated.  We are to wait until we are called by the embassy. Walked around town today.  Road 9 opening up- we had a coffee! The police station had 6 tanks and army in it!  Exciting.  I touched a tank. The police return, actually while we are in the police station midan and things are quite tense!  We get asked what we are doing and where we are going by an army man.  There are about 30 military men lined up in front of the police station as the police officers begin to return. We head home. Then we just watched some movies, hanging out. Kind of waiting to see, each day, what will happen.  Very quiet night.  My family is freaking out.  My dad has called everyone short of the Prime Minister!  I finally decide to leave although I am very torn- I want my Egyptian friends to know that I support them and would be beside them in Tahrir Square if I was Egyptian, but I am also scared and want to feel safe.  
Feb 1 Tuesday The Million Man March
I get my evacuation call today.  No guarantee I will get on the plane, but I was to leave within the hour to the airport for the 5 pm flight.  I said no, since I already have a flight out. Jen and I visit a friend from work, and she is very scared, terrified of anyone with a stick.  We walk around. Nothing new to see.  Water is slowly being turned off around Maadi.  We see one of the boys from Metro supermarket.  He is so happy we haven’t deserted them- he said you have stayed to support us!  He is very disappointed we are leaving.  We say we support Egypt, and we will be back. Today is when the fighter jets begin to fly over Tahrir Square and over Cairo.  They last for several hours.  5 pm and heavy machine gun fire right next to our apartment. Machine guns and what sounds like return fire.  Large tank sounds, continues for over an hour.  People looking out their windows. The men are running up and down the street.  I find out later that people were breaking into the telecommunications centre and trying to steal computers. Later that evening we take pop and chips to them at their guard post. It feels so insignificant to say thank you for risking their lives and staying up all night.  We talk to everyone.  Funny under stress how people who have never spoken to me are now chatting like we are family.  I have even been told more than once that we are their family, they are ours.  Ahmed from my building comes to say goodbye. Again a disappointed Egyptian that we are leaving their country. He says stay to support us.  We say our government says get out.  We support you, would be in Tahrir square if we were Egyptians.  We are not leaving, just going to Europe.  We will be back, but it’s not good here for foreigners.  He said we are his only friends and his family in this building.  We are together in this.  He said Mubarak is a f@#khead and needs to leave.  At least while he had his dignity.  Mubarak appears on TV defiant that he will not leave. Now he has no dignity.
Wednesday Feb 2
Jen, PK and Amita gone.  Airport drive about 1.5 hours.  Our driver Ayman is sad about his business, its killing him. Today is the day of violence.  Today is the day when the Mubarak thugs attacked the protesters in Tahrir Square. People believe it is the police who are in street clothes attacking them. The garbage collector in our building was actually offered money to go to Tahrir Square to attack the protesters. The protesters defend themselves by making barricades and throwing rocks.  I am so proud of Egyptians.  Of what they are doing and the changes they are trying to make, and of the normal people!  The men who have banded together and are staying up all night long, protecting us.  Regular men. I spent 2 hours sitting outside talking to several of the men in our building. It is their duty they say when I thank them.  They say we are safe. I have an amazing conversation about what is happening.  There are young guys just out of university, no job prospects, who are so angry and dejected that Mubarak didn’t step down the night before. These young guys now fear what will happen to them because what is on their Facebook pages, and the way the government can find you.  They do not accept Mubarak’s decision to not run again and to select a Vice President.  My friend is disgusted that people would turn on each other.  He doesn’t want to be an Egyptian any more.  The men who are my age and older, feel that it is acceptable that he will step down in 6 months and they are willing to believe that things will change, this is enough.  Then there are the teenage boys whose father is a police man.  They are Mubarak supporters and feel he is being treated poorly from the people.  They think it is the government who cause all of the problems. They haven’t seen or heard from their dad in 4 days.  I talk about what Egypt will become with these men.  They want more money and more equality for the classes.  They think it will be a long road to recovery but that it will happen.  The people are proving they will not back down from fear, from losing their rights, from threats, from injury, from attacks…from anything.  We also discuss having more than 1 wife and that us people from the west cannot understand it until we understand all sides.  I still don’t agree! 
 It is amazing how quickly you get used to gunfire, even though the sound of it terrifies me. I am so mixed about leaving. I am sad the Egyptians are disappointed in us.  This is where we live, but it’s not our fight.  It’s not our place, as much as I support them and would be in Tahrir square along with all of them! I feel knots in my stomach about this, I want out, I don’t feel safe when the political situation is so messed up.  I don’t feel safe with looters all around.  But I want my Egyptian friends to be reassured that I support them.  I don’t want to disappoint them. I am sad to go.  I am sad that I might not see any of my friends or my Egyptians again.  These passionate, loving people.  They are still happy in light of all of this.  I am ready to go, but I don’t want them to think we are deserting them. I can’t wait to come back.  El Jazeera has a picture of a boy with a sign that said “Tourists don’t go we will protect you”.  I cried.
Thursday Feb 17 BACK TO EGYPT
Wow!  18 days and a new Egypt is born.  Mubarak steps down,  the army takes control and changes are being put into place. I got a phone call from a friend in Tahrir Square the night he stepped down, and the sound from the crowd thru the phone was inspiring. Even getting off the plane, the taxi drivers are all saying welcome back to the New Egypt!  People are so happy about what has happened.  Mubarak leaves with around 70 billion dollars…those who were supporters are not feeling so strongly about him anymore. 
There are still a few tanks. Apparently the police are resigning at huge numbers.  The military remains in control of the country, and are keeping security as it was before.  There are tanks around the prison, as well as out near the police Academy.  But in Maadi the police have returned. Today they tear down the Mubarak sign at the Mubarak Police Academy, including the Arabic sign.  Now it is just Police Academy.
One of the biggest things I have seen are people cleaning up.  I think it has been encouraged that the people begin to take better care of their country.  I have even seen people picking up rubbish in the streets!  There are bins everywhere and I can even see the ground- no more bottles, bags or papers on the floor.  I wonder how long this will last!  Apparently people are lining up- and if you have ever been to Egypt you will know it’s usually a scrum to get anything- as a man said to me the other day, we don’t know how to line up, please go ahead of me!

I can still see fear.  I can see the stress this has taken on people.  They are tired, some people aren’t sleeping, and some are worried that Egyptians will settle for the status quo.  Some are writing books and joining groups to keep this forward movement going.  People are losing their jobs, and the tourism industry is almost non-existent.  There is sadness as well, for people that were lost.  It hits home even more that I was here and people died in this revolution when I hear from a friend that her friend was shot in the head. Dead. Or loved ones are missing- disappeared completely from Tahrir Square. And no way to find them.
So back to normal.  Taxis are honking, men are still making inappropriate comments, and the driving is still crazy!  All the things that are a part of living in Cairo are still there…but there is hope in the air.  There is a very tiny step in closing the social gaps between the classes, as the rich and the poor stood beside each other in Tahrir Square and fought for the same thing.
This is my experience, this is what I saw and heard through my own and my friends’ eyes.  Maybe what I heard and saw is not completely right, but this is it.  This is my experience. As a friend said to me (on Facebook!) I now have a great intro story at parties…so, you know the Revolution in Egypt?  I was there!