Monday, February 7, 2011

the first days...

I am still not sure where to begin to talk about the past two weeks, but things began on Tuesday, January 25, which was an official government holiday in Egypt, Police Day. There were large demonstrations in Tahrir Square downtown, and I stayed at home (the university was closed) preparing my classes for the spring semester. This was also the first day of telecommunications disruptions. Twitter was shut down. FB was hard to access. An Egypt-based Gmail email account was offline. The demonstration was clearly a success as protesters organized at Tahrir Square, and the police responded in their typically brutal way. It was clear though, at this moment, that something special was happening. And it was clear that the government feared it. The sense was that if demonstrators were able to hold part of the Midan, that the mass demonstrations called for Friday following noon prayer would be historic, and indeed they were, beyond almost anyone's expectations.

On Wednesday and Thursday, as I was in the office at the university in New Cairo, I was following events online, in the local and international press. At home, our internet was sketchy before the government shut it down, and we do not have satellite television. Still, there was something surreal about following online from international sources what is happening in your city. Second, third, fourth hand reports and lots of rumors accumulated.

Friday morning, we woke up and went to supermarket to stock up on supplies (kind of how some Americans do in anticipation of a Nor’easter blizzard). By Friday afternoon, things jumped off with folks from throughout Cairo converging at Midan Tahrir. During the afternoon, as demonstrators converged, the government responded. Cell phone and internet service was severed throughout Egypt. (We have a landline at home, but very few people had the telephone number.) Friday was also the first night of a curfew—set for 6pm, enforced by the military. Though the time changes from day-to-day, the curfew is set to continue indefinitely.

We had, several weeks earlier, organized a party for that Friday night and a few friends actually came. Through it, we could hear shots of some sort or another in the distance. A friend with military experience thought they were tear gas canisters. Folks in our neighborhood even said they could smell the tear gas in the air when they woke up on Saturday morning. They sounded like they were relatively far away though there were reports of an attack at a local police station and a fire at a nearby government office. Still lots of conflicting reports. Our friends broke curfew to walk home—our neighborhood was still quiet and foreigners have a certain kind of liberty to move around under the circumstances.

Throughout the night, we got occasional news from friends who have satellite tv, and were watching reports on Al Jazeera. We also had friends who were down at the demonstrations. Without cell phone service, it was hard to get in touch with folks, and there were some scary moments, though by the next day we were able to track down everyone. Friday night also saw the burning down of the ruling party’s headquarters, the NDP building, which you can see in this picture I took on Wednesday. (The ochre building to the right is the Egyptian Museum.)

Friday night ended with a speech by Mubarak, apparently recorded much earlier in the day, but not broadcast on television until well after midnight. Mubarak’s second speech on Tuesday night was also broadcast quite late. Both were unbelievably foul. As for their timing, apparently he did them as late as possible so that they would not further enrage the demonstrators to mobilize, and march on the presidential palace, which had been threatened all week. A friend told me that apparently the previous regime in Tunisia took a similar approach.

Friday was also the day that the police were sent home and that the military moved in. Briefly, the police come under the Interior Ministry and are hated, brutal, and corrupt. The military had much more broad popular support, something which initially surprised me. The sight of demonstrators and civilians welcoming the soldiers and tanks were as shocking as they quickly became commonplace. One of my favorite pictures I took was in Garden City on Wednesday, less than a mile away from Tahrir Square, in an area where there are a lot of embassies, and large military installations blocking the roads. A family that was walking in front of me stopped and took their son’s picture wearing one soldier’s helmet in front of a makeshift barricade.

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