Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Goodbye Barney Fife; Hello Tanks

So, Saturday was an amazing day, and the most personally trying. Friday night, we had the comfort of a group of close friends in our home, which enabled us to drown out the news and the sounds, which seemed relatively far off in the distance. On Saturday, we spent the day inside, talking with friends on the telephone about what was going on around us in anticipation of the coming 5pm curfew. Shortly before 5pm, I looked outside the window and saw about 40 men in the street with sticks and pipes and baseball bats and at least one rifle. Both ends of the block were barricaded with debris and cars and eventually drums which were set on fire. It took me a moment to process, but I soon recognized many of my neighbors. This was a neighborhood group that had organized itself to protect the block from the possibility of looting by the police or people in the employ of the NDP. And this was the approach—lock down the block. While the men were on the street, the women were on the roofs and balconies with molotov cocktails ready to rain down on any intruders. Even kids got into it—there were some children on the balcony across the street from us armed with tennis rackets. Our doorman/building super (there is no precise English translation) was active and involved throughout it all. We sent down dinner for him on Saturday night, and food throughout the week.

It was remarkable for its organization, and definitely affirms my confidence in the ability of civil society to organize itself to provide necessary services absent the state. Crisis brought out a sense of community—longtime neighbors met each other for the first time. (ASIDE: There are lots of similar stories from Tahrir Square, including many of garbage cleanup by citizens and soldiers. Here is one photo I took on Wednesday. It is a remarkable image for a city with no effective sanitation system and famous for its dirty streets.


Back to Saturday, which was a wild scene: Businesses on our block which had opened in the morning quickly closed, removed all displays from the windows, or hung newspaper in their displays. The building next to us houses the Egyptian offices of Michelin and their sign was covered so that it would not be targeted. The police were gone as was the Macedonian Embassy, and its flag, which was housed in the building next to ours. Prior to last week, there had been a permanent encampment of police there—typically five to ten at any given time. These Barney Fife muhfuhs (as J hilariously called them) were gone and were not seen again for the next six days (as long as we were there).

There were a number of rumors circulating, and I still don’t know what was true. One was that the police had raided the local police station (in one account, three people were killed) and were armed and looting (not sure). A friend and neighbor had a car stolen the night before (true). Another was that big box store (Carrefour) and upscale shopping mall—a few miles away—had been looted and set on fire. It was definitely looted, and there appears to be fire damage in this youtube video:

Saturday night, our neighborhood watch did its job. If a vehicle drove by, everyone rushed it and sent it away. At around 10pm, I heard someone hollering a signal and out rushed people from all the buildings. There was one suspicious looking white pickup truck that did, from my view on our balcony, look like a police car (which are not as standard in appearance as those in the US). People rushed it. One of the neighbors had a gun, and shot it in the air a few times. It was one of those moments where I was proud of and grateful for my neighbors, but still uncomfortable to see and hear the guns.

We spent the night talking to friends nearby—asking what, if anything, they could see. It was all frightening. We heard occasional gunfights, some of which seemed to be no more than a block away. And then the tanks came in. We could hear them, but not see them. Our street is right off of one of the main entrance points to Maadi (coming from new Maadi). We heard reports from friends abroad that Maadi was now on the international news. It got very loud again around 2am and somehow through it all we eventually fell asleep, though not before making the decision that in the morning we would go stay with friends, which we did on Sunday morning.

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