As many of you have seen in the news, today and yesterday there have been big anti-government protests throughout Egypt, and especially here in Cairo. My bus from Siwa arrived in Cairo this morning before dawn, just hours after police used rubber bullets, water cannons and lots of tear gas to clear demonstrators participating in a largely peaceful sit-in from Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo.
I’m staying in a hotel on Tahrir Square, and from the window in the ninth-floor lobby I have a good view of the square. This morning the square was calm, but I felt a palpable tension. All day the Sadat metro stop, directly under the square, has been shut down. This evening many of the shops and newsstands around the square closed early, and there was none of the usual socializing in cafes and people chatting on street corners. Everywhere in downtown the police presence is ominous– hundreds, probably thousands of police in riot gear are stationed at nearly every street corner, and armored trucks with more reinforcements are idling in the eerily traffic-free streets. The enormous police presence today was deployed in order to prevent demonstrators from congregating, and I witnessed several small clashes between police and civilians (though I was away from Tahrir when tear gas and beatings were again used to prevent demonstrators from resuming their sit-in this afternoon).
I’m not too concerned for my safety, but I do plan on avoiding demonstration areas if I can. I don’t think it’s really my place to participate. Throughout the day I was touched by random Cairenes offering their help to me and expressing concern for my safety… Like the young man who helped me find my way out of the Nasser metro stop when police blocked most of the exits, forming confused and agitated crowds inside. Outside, I saw shouting and tear gas smoke down the street, but the guy who had helped me pointed me to another road I could take. “Be careful,” he said, with genuine concern, as we went our separate ways.
I can’t pretend to be an expert on the political situation in Egypt– but during my time here I’ve had conversations with many Egyptian friends about their opinions of their government and the state of their country, especially recently since the revolution in Tunisia. From these conversations and my own observations, I’ve gathered that many, many Egyptians, representing a diverse cross-section of Egyptian society, are tired of this broken government, and proud of the demonstrators even if they’re not taking part in the protests themselves. They’re proud that people are gaining the courage to stand up to a repressive government that has shown its willingness to use violent means to shore up its control. They’re tired of the rampant corruption that saps the government of integrity and effectiveness, tired of police brutality, fed up with lack of freedom of expression and assembly. They’re very, very frustrated by the absence of response to the poverty, joblessness, and lack of education that keep Egypt from realizing its potential.
Among the news pieces I read today was President Obama’s State of the Union address. After reading his words about progress for my country, I realized (with some surprise) how personally and emotionally invested I feel in the developments here, how inspired I am by witnessing some of this struggle, in this country that is not my own. I’m reminded of a quote I’ve always liked, from Lilla Watson: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time… But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” I can’t help but think that it’s not enough for the US to “win the future” if we do so by and while ignoring the oppression of our brothers and sisters in nations around the world. We Americans are tricking ourselves and undermining our own democracy by thinking we can prop up our global position by willfully ignoring the injustices perpetrated by supposedly “democratic” allies.
So, tonight my heart is with all Egyptians who are hoping and praying and acting for peaceful change in their country. As someone who wants fiercely to believe in the power of people organizing peacefully and democratically, I hope to see their demands for a more just society answered. If they succeed, I think it will be a step toward the liberation of everyone in this world who desires democratic freedom and a chance at a better life and a better world.