• Revolution in Egypt - A Live Report

  • By Gabriele Habashi | 10 May 11 | Posted under: Africa , Social Movements and Trade Unions
  • Part One

    Cairo, February 7

    Turbulent days lay behind us and the revolution was still going on. At least, internet was back and phones working. On this day the city returned to a sort of normal life, with the usual restrictions that come with any revolution such as blocked off streets around Tahrir Square, and curfew. No one was sure whether the curfew was still on and during which times.

    After all, there were some policemen on street corners and at junctions again. Nobody was taking them seriously anymore, as they had vanished for days when things got hot. Dressed in plain clothes, they had in part mixed in with normal folks and tried to instigate anger and strife and looting, as they had been among those attacking at Tahrir Square. Now they were back in their uniforms and acting as if everything was alright, though in the previous few days many police stations had gone up in flames and policemen beaten up. By now the people were clear that they wuoldn’t be bullied anymore. The guys in uniform were even less liked now. The people despised them and looked down on them, their anger barely repressed. They barely tolerate them. And the policemen take care not to provoke anyone. They were back to their positions at junctions and street corners directing traffic. They knew they’d better not bother anyone. Admittedly, some people liked to see the police come back. The usual presence of black uniforms in the streets is normal to us, and we all wished for a bit of normal life after these tiring days. Some people even voiced the opinion that the return of the police signifies that “someone finally” is going to bring back peace and quiet. They’d forgotten that just a few days ago these policemen had all suddenly vanished (as they had been ordered to do), and that they had left us alone in the ensuing chaos. The last days really have proved to us that we can do without police. It was unbelievably beautiful to witness the fast developing capacity for self-organisation in the neighbourhoods. People just directed the traffic themselves at junctions; plenty of volunteers took over the job for a few hours.

    The people’s defence squads were better than any police protection. The government had simultaneously ordered the withdrawal of the police and the opening of the prisons, releasing murderers and thieves to provoke looting. Some of the policemen also took part in the ensuing unrest, as was proven later. The first night was dreadful for all of us. Bad news all over the place, screaming and fighting, shooting, fire. We felt terribly exposed. A lot of flats were broken into, stormed and looted. It hit poor and rich alike. The government might have hoped by this chaos to divert the people’s attention from protesting the injustices committed by the regime. Instead, the neighbourhoods got organised.

    Adventurous armed boys and men kept vigil on the streets at night. The people suddenly had become aware of their own power. A system was established quickly, in which each street segment was controlled by watch people from the neighbourhood. The individual patrols were in contact with each other and knew exactly who was moving about in the area. The men took turns to stand guard and created shifts, so that everyone could at least get some sleep. It was quite astonishing.

    Not without weapons

    In the daytime no one would leave the house without a weapon, be it a pocket knife, a hairspray can with a cigarette lighter, a bamboo rod or a club. Everyone was prepared to defend himself/herself. Within two days the situation calmed down. Lots of criminals and looters had been caught by people and had been handed over to the military police. The mood lightened and people radiated a happy confidence in the future, since they had been able to do something, to move something, to bring about change. One would suddenly see normal citizens clean the streets. What an astonishing display of responsibility!

    This development had been preceded by the Tunisians uprising and abdication of Ben Ali some weeks before. The Egyptians had followed these events closely. The revolution in Tunisia started as a young man immolated himself publicly. In Egypt three people had desperately followed his example. Nevertheless, although this caused great concern, Egypt still remained quiet for a while – until the “Police Day”, on January 25th, which was invented two years ago to celebrate the police, or to make the people friendlier toward the repressive police system by giving them an extra day off. One noticed, though, though, how cynically people always pronounced the word “Police Day”.

    Things simmered under the surface after the events in Tunisia. Lots of demonstrations had been announced for this day. It was very clear, that it would not be a day off for the police or a day on which people would celebrate the police. Members of the specially trained “riot police” had been posted downtown in order to disperse the expected demonstrations. These policemen wear helmets, clubs and large acrylic shields. Like an army they stomp on the ground in unison with heavy boots, creating a chilling sound. They accompany each demonstration, ready to follow their superiors’ orders blindly, whether that means just standing by, blocking, or hitting and destroying things. Everyone who has ever attended a demonstration in Egypt knows this scary black mass of empty-eyed policemen. People get goose pimples remembering their own sense of powerlessness in the face of this overpowering force.

    This time, though, the riot police could no longer hold back the masses. The people wanted get their voice heard. The riot police’s brutal reaction caused a wave of protests and street fights in Egypt. The people’s anger and frustration exploded into wilder demonstrations and fighting. They people had suddenly lost up their fear and had started an uprising. The 5th of January was renamed the “day of rage”. This marked the start of the revolution in Egypt. During the next days one could feel a strange tension in the air. Would the Egyptians have enough with having protested once, and just return to daily life? Or would they continue?

    The police had used the utmost brutality on the demonstrators; tear gas and rubber bullets wounded many and killed some. The mobile phone network had been disabled in some areas. The state had shown its brutal power. Battles continued in the rural areas, but in Cairo things remained relatively quiet. Everyone was anticipating Friday. On other occasions, spontaneous protests had developed after Friday morning prayers.

    On this Friday protests got out of hand. The government had switched off mobile phone services to make coordination and co-operation impossible among the protesters. This had so increased people’s anger about the open oppression that there was a common consensus that it had to be ended.

    My friend who lives on the other side of the city, near the airport, reported how things went in her area: After prayers, someone in the street called out to go to Tahrir Square, and all – men, women, and children – joined him spontaneously. Soon they were thousands, hundreds of thousands of people, protesting and marching towards Tahrir.

    After kilometres of walking, some hundreds of metres away from Tahrir Square, they were met with tear gas and had to flee from police attack. My friend made it home by herself. For hours she was without any news about her daughter, son and brother who had joined the hundreds of thousands fighting for their right of free speech.

    There was furious fighting in the streets. Government institutions were set on fire, the National Democratic Party Building was totally destroyed. Police stations were stormed. The much hated “boxes”, angular cars for transporting the armed “riot police”, were burned. Nothing could hold the people back anymore. At great personal risk, courageous youngsters picked up the disgusting tear gas bombs thrown at them and just hurled them back. The protesters stood their ground against the government’s brutal force and angrily demanded the president’s abdication. In the end, there were many wounded and some dead.

    The about-turn of the western media

    While the western media changed from solidarity with Mubarak to solidarity with the protestors and suddenly supported democratic structures, we were busy trying to manage life under changed circumstances. Mobile phone service was still off as well as the internet. Many policemen had vanished from the streets. Volunteers directed traffic at big crossings and in main streets, where smouldering police “box” cars still blocked the path. The army had come into the city. There were tanks driving about or parked in some places in downtown, each one manned by only one young soldier. The fighting continued between the people and the police. Once I had to back up my car quickly and retreat because of a sudden shootout at a police station.

    Although courage and a sense of change were prevailing, no one knew where the journey would lead. Cairo was cut off from the world. The television channel Al Jazeera had been switched off; there was no internet and no mobile phone service. At the same time, worries about subsistence were increasing. Money was not available anymore at cash machines, food prices had increased immediately, and some foods had become scarce. There was a strong sense of insecurity. The demonstrators slept in Tahrir Square and there were also demonstrations in other parts of the city. The fighting continued in the provinces. One had to walk for kilometres to move about or to get into downtown, there were no public busses or taxis, and petrol for private cars was limited. Nevertheless, the stream of demonstrators didn’t cease and the protest movement grew stronger every day.

    We went to Tahrir Square where we met lots of friends and acquaintances. We all enjoyed the mood. It gave us courage to believe that the revolution would be victorious in the end. The demonstrators had by now agreed on a few common goals:

    • Abdication of the president;
    • End of the emergency law and of all laws restricting freedom;
    • Dissolving of the parliament based on electoral fraud;
    • Transitional government with representatives of democratic parties until new elections;
    • Drafting of a new constitution.

    Hosni Mubarak though had no thoughts of abdication. He only nominated Omar Suleiman as Vice-President and promised “reforms”. He exchanged five cabinet ministers. That was it. The emergency law that had made the oppressive domestic policies possible for 30 years was never mentioned and most sanctions against the population were maintained. The government had issued a curfew order. Its times changed every day and no one was sure about when or for how long it was on. It wasn’t taken too seriously. The government threatened to enforce the curfew with extreme measures, but the threat was debatable – so far there were no police to enforce anything. At night private people still guarded the roads, and mobility was restricted by the private road blocks. Nevertheless, I was out and about every day and night, as were many others. Cafés and restaurants closed at the latest at 5 or 6 due to curfew, and therefore the streets in downtown seemed pretty dead at night.

    Then the attack on Tahrir Square happened. The regime took brutal revenge with a massacre. On Wednesday, the February 2, so-called pro-Mubarak demonstrators stormed the square and tried to clear it of demonstrators. There was a tremendous clash. Before that, parliament members and representatives of the government had been sighted in poorer quarters, offering high sums of money to people to participate in the “pro-Mubarak” demonstration, and even higher sums to vacate the square. And plainclothes policemen and paid mercenaries were mobilised, whom the corrupt profiteers of the regime had always retained. This is not just an idle statement; there is official proof for it. Among those hired were even some horseback riders and men on camels.

    The demonstrators had only allowed unarmed people onto the square, whereas the “pro-Mubarak” demonstrators were highly armed with knives, stones and clubs.

    Police that had controlled the streets around the square had let the armed vandal troops pass, so one cannot speak of neutrality on the army’s part or their eagerness to protect the people.

    Nearly no life at all

    The city was dead on the following day, most people didn’t dare to venture outside. The mood had changed. There was high tension. Many people were discouraged and depressed and stayed home in spite of the ongoing protests throughout the country and on Tahrir Square. Many were disheartened and wondered whether the protests could ever topple the regime, and they feared that the old situation would be reinstalled in the end. The friendly, helpful Egyptian people had vanished. Whoever went out into the streets was confronted with groups of aggressive young men passing by, and it was not discernible whether they were simple civilians or policeman.

    The state TV claimed the protests were instigated by foreign secret services. There were attacks on foreign journalists and foreign TV stations. I went the next day to substitute Sarah at the TV station and witnessed myself the danger foreign reporters were in. We had to lock ourselves in and barricade the doors, and we had to switch the lights off and work in the dark by the light of the computer screens to avoid becoming targets. It was astounding how fast manners had changed on the streets. In the night, on the way home from work, I was not treated with the usual courtesy. I felt threatened for the first time. At a road block, a group of young men rushed towards my car and abruptly yanked the door open, overexcited by catching a foreigner. The wild mob accompanied me to the military post, which had no clue what to do with me and sent me away. This scene was repeated at further road blocks. The drive home through a deserted main road in a poor area turned into a nerve-wracking experience.

    The military clearly did not want to support the demonstrators; and it wanted to exclude foreigners from the scene and tried to hinder reporting. It has been said that the military would not shoot the people, but it certainly did not help with access to the Tahrir area either. Foreigners and worried Egyptians were leaving the country by now. Members of the elite in power were leaving in their private jets. There were no regular flights anymore, but the embassies had organised evacuation flights. I decided to stay. I still felt safe at home. I had a feeling that the ailing government was playing a trick on the Egyptians to isolate them with specific actions against foreigners. I was ready to bear the disadvantages of a restricted lifestyle under difficult circumstances and felt a lot of solidarity with the Egyptians, whose country has also been my home for many years. To put my daughter at risk by this decision was not easy though. Nevertheless, the impressive capacity of the Egyptians to get organised made me sure that they would be able reasonably to manage their country once they had achieved their objective. There are enough intelligent people in Egypt to govern this country much better than it has been.

    The focus was now on Tahrir Square. There, lots of demonstrators kept up their stance. There were bitter fights all over the country, but the place had become an international symbol for the Egyptian people’s search for freedom. The demonstrators kept demanding the abdication of the President, cancellation of parliament, the ending of the 30-year emergency law and the re-writing of the constitution. Because of the emergency law, the existing constitution had been partly invalid for many years and had served as a tool to justify the regime’s injustices and the repression of the people’s striving for democracy. In spite of all the demonstrations, there was no quick decision. Nothing happened, other than Mubarak naming a vice-president, Omar Suleiman. There was no hope for the President’s abdication. I saw a lot of people lose their nerves in those days, and no words could soothe them. After the euphoric first days, the old regime’s brutality had thoroughly disheartened the people.

    The city stirred the day after the massacre and slowly awoke; people reluctantly began to live their everyday life. Internet was on again and many tried to get back to their work. Even the banks were said to open soon to pay out money. The people kept supporting the demonstrators who so far had held out for two weeks on Tahrir Square. With the uncomfortably cold and windy nights at this time of the year, their determination was all the more admirable. In the daytime, everyone who had a bit of spare time went there as well, though the odyssey through all the blocked passages and checkpoints wasn’t easy.

    I had been there myself on two days. I found, that this was not only a revolution of the Facebook generation, as propagated by the media. Yes, the Facebook generation might have contributed to make the revolution known throughout the world with their photos and reports, but it was noticeable that, from the beginning, Egyptians of all generations, classes and levels of society had participated in this revolution: I was especially touched by a woman and her daughter. The woman smiled at me and asked me in a very friendly way whether I was here for the first time. Her clothing showed that her background was simple; she was veiled with a long-sleeved blouse and long skirt. She had some mastery of English but preferred to speak Arabic. She radiated a quiet dignity. She told me that she and her family had slept on the square since January 25. They all had left their work to help win the revolution. This was the most important thing at the moment, she declared; later there would be time to go back to work, now all that mattered was creating a life worth living. I asked her how long she planned to stay. She looked at me and said firmly: “Until he abdicates!”

    Well organized

    The square was extremely well organized and there was a peaceful and positive atmosphere. Outside, the government executives controlling admission had tried to make believe that the protests had ended and that only a few crazy troublemakers were keeping the square. Inside, one was all the more impressed at how many different people coexisted here and managed to voice their opinions, and how they all had one common goal.

    It was clean, people continually cleared trash away. Everywhere, people held up posters they had made. A wall with photos of the people killed during the revolution reminded us all that this was not just another big party. Conservatives and progressives discussed animatedly. There were people who prayed regularly, and there were art corners where people painted, artists organised special actions, and one could hear drums everywhere that supported the rhythm of the ongoing protest slogans. There was a stage on which more or less well known supporters of the revolution held speeches, and there were various discussion forums for the intellectual exchange among the different groups. At the exits, doctors had built makeshift clinics to treat the sick and the wounded. Army tanks flanked the square. Men and youths sat around them, and on the wheels and chains, to prevent them from moving further into the square, so that they would not restrict room for the demonstrators.

    I had an experience that showed me the consciousness of their own rights that had been awakened among the simple people. One morning I went to Tahrir Square with two bags of croissants, in order to bring food in support for the protesters. An army officer held me back at the checkpoint claiming it was forbidden to take food inside. It angered me to see all those food bags being thrown onto a huge pile and I couldn’t accept it easily. So I went back later and asked them to give me back my bags. They were just loading everything into a tank. Then I really started a fuss until they were willing to return them.

    In the meantime more and more people came with food bags and bags of clothing or blankets, and they refused to give up all of this. Suddenly, a man dressed like a village chief called out to the others to sit down. The men were mostly poor men coming from the South of Egypt, who had come with their big plastic bags in order to stay on Tahrir Square. By then I had gotten my bags back from the soldiers and I went over to the men and sat among them. It was the spontaneous demonstration I had always longed for. One invented the slogan “Sit-in until the food gets in”. He shouted the slogan loudly and angrily and all the other people repeated it in choir. The crowd grew quickly; soon we were sit-in, a sitting strike occupying space that reached all the way to Kasr El Nil Bridge. All held up some food with their hands. It took a good half hour, and then the army personnel lost their nerve and let us in – with our bags! It was quite uplifting! Before, the people were not aware that they have some power. There never was fearless protest before, or such solidarity amongst the people.


    Part Two

    Cairo, February 10


    On Thursday we were sure the time had come. The whole day there had been rumours that the military would clear the square by force, maybe using nerve gas and live ammunition. The rumour was based on reliable information that had leaked from army circles, and it caused great agitation and tension. Nevertheless, the demonstrators were adamant about staying, even if the price was high. I phoned several friends on the square. They saw no other solution. We worried terribly about them. It had rained at night and the cold and stormy weather reflected the general dark mood. Finally, in the early evening, an army general came to the square to talk to the people and to calm them down. He announced that Mubarak would later hold a speech. Darkness fell soon. No one knew what the night would bring.

    I was asked to help out again in the correspondents’ bureau and quickly left home to drive to the office. Once at the office, things were very hectic. Foreign news services called from abroad to get fresh news directly. People came and went, there were calls coming in from people on the square, and the television hummed nonstop in the background. Then the President’s speech began.

    Mubarak looked as he always had, well groomed, smooth, unmoved, untouchable, amazingly simulated seeing as he is well over 80 years old and very ill. Later it was said that this speech had been pre-recorded and that he had collapsed several times while recording it, but there was no trace of this when he appeared on the screen. With a serious face he generously announced some reforms. He was going to hand over power to Omar Suleiman in some respects, but certain presidential decisions would continue to be his privilege.

    The anger that this speech provoked was immediately perceirable. From the office window we could overlook the Corniche (the street on the east bank of the Nile) in front of the state television building. We saw thousands of people stream angrily towards the TV-building. The Corniche quickly filled up with demonstrators. Instead of leaving, Mubarak had only further delayed. People no longer wanted to accept that.

    The TV buildings had been surrounded by the army. Barbed wire coils fenced off the area. Only one row of soldiers stood behind the barbed wire, shoulder by shoulder, weapons casually touching the floor. This was a demonstrative show of non-violence; the army was just to protect the TV building, a state institution, in case it proved necessary. The soldiers stood still without moving a limb. Behind them one could see their superiors walking up and down restlessly, walkie-talkies pressed to their ears.

    They wanted to stay

    Soon thousands had congregated in front of the fence. They had come to stay until their demands were met – this was clear. The demonstrators were well organised. No wonder, after all these weeks on Tahrir. Within a very short time they erected a small clinic in the back and spread out blankets and sleeping bags in other areas. War drums repeated calls for Mubarak to abdicate. they conveyed immense energy. The demonstrators showed their decisiveness not to give up by any means. More and more people arrived in the early morning. All who were angry and frustrated about Mubarak’s speech were advancing on Tahrir Square, pushing through the crowds in the Corniche in front of the TV-building. The pulsating crowd reached all the way to the banks of the Nile, pressed in by the mess of barbed wire, whose sharp blades endangered people in the front row.

    The possibility of mass panic couldn’t be excluded. For many the pressure of the crowd was too much. Those who had fainted were carried away on raised arms high above the heads of the crowd. More and more drums joined in and the protest slogans became more intense, just as if by their voices people could change things. The choir of the tens of thousends of voices conveyed immense power. The people remained disciplined and in control. The demonstrators showed they had conquered all fears and wanted to achieve a common goal. They kept on demanding abdication, without tiring. From morning until the fall of darkness the tension grew and so did their impatience, but nothing happened.

    We had a prime view of the happenings and experienced some tense moments during that day. The reverberations of the war drums had accompanied our work all day. We saw the swirl and pulsations of the crowd in front of the barbed wire fence around the TV-building and the few soldiers who hadn’t moved since evening.

    Suddenly there was a common outcry and hundreds of demonstrators pulled back at the, same time. They pulled with them the supports that held up the barbed wire and the fence came down. Before the masses could storm the TV-building, the soldiers blocked the breach. Their officers spoke urgently to the demonstrators. The situation was on the brink. Then the demonstrators at the front turned around and called out to those behind them. The fence was set up again. Now there was a row of demonstrators facing the row of soldiers, and this held the crowd in check. Soon after, things had quieted down considerably, meaning that the demonstrations returned to the previous intensity.

    It worried us greatly to see what was happening behind the building, out of view of the demonstrators. The soldiers primed the machine guns on the tanks. Were they preparing to shoot on the crowd? What would happen? And what about us, would we still be safe up here in the midst of all this? Which room would be the safest to hide in? Again, nothing more happened. Later, the soldiers handed out biscuits to the demonstrators who gave them cigarettes. It was an eerie situation considering the armed weapons in the back. Darkness fell. The demonstrators were getting exhausted. Protests had continued incessantly the whole day but seemed not to have moved anything. Protests were still ongoing and we wondered what would happen if the government refused to react before the evening ended.

    Suddenly there was the news that Vice-President Omar Suleiman would address the people. He read his speech stone faced. A sudden outcry from the masses. Mubarak had abdicated! People embraced, tears flowed. The tension was released in joyous laughter which indicated their inner liberation…

    What a party! People brandishing the Egyptian flag stormed the streets everywhere and streamed towards Tahrir square. The stream became too great to quantify. An indescribable ruckus of joy! Cars honking, shouts of joy, singing and ecstatic drumming. The jubilant crowd danced to this music. The whole population took part – old and young, men, women and children. An unbelievable celebration. No one thought about tomorrow. For now it didn’t matter that the army had taken control of the government and not a democratic alliance of the people’s representatives; for now it didn’t matter that a lot of the old ministers who represented and supported Mubarak are still in position, that emergency law and curfew is still on, and that under these conditions democracy is still way down the road. All this wasn’t important at this moment.

    What mattered now was to celebrate a victory!

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