First, thanks to all of you who read my blog over the past couple weeks– it meant a lot to have so many messages of support when I returned from being cut off from telecommunications! It has been a crazy and amazing time, these past few weeks. I felt incredibly lucky to witness a very inspiring time in Egyptian history. My “Cairo Update” post came during the calm before the storm– from then until my departure from Cairo on February 2 were days I will never forget.
Friday, January 28: A very dramatic day. Internet and SMS service were cut off the night before, and when I woke up on the 28th, phones were down as well. I knew that large protests were planned for that afternoon, after Friday prayer. I decided I should probably stay in my hotel during the protests (a few hours, I thought) so I went out for a walk at midday to get snacks, buy a newspaper and get coffee. I was in a cafe downtown and all of a sudden, there was this feeling in the air and everyone started finishing their coffee or tea and paying. Along with the sound of the prayers that had been sounding from the mosques, I began to hear the rhythmic sound of people’s voices chanting together, a slogan that I couldn’t understand. Down one side street I saw people starting to gather with posters. At that point I decided it was probably best to make my way back to the hotel.
In Tahrir, there were hundreds of police and no civilians– security forces had closed off all the streets that open onto the square. Massive police forces gathered, 12:53 pm:
Back in my hotel, I could hear the sounds of protesters’ chants and the answering sound of hundreds of tear gas bombs being fired to try to hold back their progress toward the square. Most of the people staying in the hotel were gathered in the lobby– an interesting mix of mostly Egyptians, plus a pilot from Sudan, a Scottish guy, a few Koreans, three Pakistani students, one other American woman. We alternated between watching the Al Jazeera television broadcast and watching events unfold from the window. For a while the window was open so we could hear better, until the tear gas fumes became too strong. Even with the window closed, my eyes and throat burned for hours.
Tear gas bombs falling near the bridge– you can see the protesters massed on the bridge and the other side of the Nile. 2:51 pm:
5:28 pm: Tear gas haze as protesters finally begin to break through the police line and advance toward the square.
The view from that window was incredible. I could see over to the Nile, where a line of police kept back a huge crowd of people trying to cross from Gezira. On the news, we saw crowds gathering in other areas, all pushing toward Tahrir, but I understood very little of the Arabic reporting and it was maddeningly impossible to get a sense of the bigger picture. All I knew was that the scenes unfolding outside felt like an epic battle in a movie, and that I was overcome by a feeling of solidarity with the “good guys,” the protesters. I was desperately hoping that they would succeed without suffering harm. Stuck in my ninth-floor viewing area, I wished I could show my support somehow.
At about 5:30 pm, we all watched, riveted, as the demonstrators on the bridge broke through and began pushing the police back. The police retreated and kept firing gas bombs from the edge of the square. As the sky grew dark, new points of light flared up– police trucks and a building near the mosque set on fire.
6:02 pm: Video of chaos as police attempt to hold back the protesters, who have broken through the lines into the square
6:05 pm: Police truck firing tear gas canisters at advancing protesters:
Just after I filmed that video, I watched as a protester lay down in front of another armored truck, which had been advancing toward a group of demonstrators and firing tear gas. He succeeded in forcing it to stop, and eventually turn around as his friends came to his aid throwing stones. Amazing.
By 7:30 pm, I wrote in my journal: “The people have taken the square! The police have pulled back to somewhere and are still firing tear gas. It’s still absolute pandemonium outside and there are ongoing clashes.” Later, I found out that Mubarak called for the help of the military to restore order. I was worried by the military presence, but I also didn’t fully understand the politics behind it. I finally went to sleep at 3:00 am, thinking, “I have no idea what the balance of power is now, or what the morning is going to look like.”
Saturday, January 29: Many protesters were still in Tahrir when I woke up, sleeping in makeshift tents– this was the beginning of the semi-permanent encampments that sprang up over the next few days, as people chose to maintain their vigil in the square instead of going home for curfew.
Views of Tahrir from my hotel:
Tanks and protesters:
Trying to put out the fire in the huge building that was headquarters of Mubarak’s party
Prayers in the square:
After feeling a maddening sense of tension/boredom/curiosity for 26 hours while stuck in my hotel, I finally got to leave at 2:15 pm and take a walk in the square and the nearby streets.
Egyptian Museum, with the burning party building in the background.
In the square:
Kid with a poster: “Game Over”
Raising the flag over Tahrir
Burned police truck near Tahrir: “The End”
I didn’t stay out very long, because I was alone and the curfew started at 4:00 pm, but I didn’t feel the least bit threatened walking around among the protesters. On the contrary, many people were courteous and friendly to me, and eager for me to photograph their posters and banners.
Sunday, January 30: I woke up with a mission: two days earlier, without knowing that Cairo would soon turn into something like a war zone, I had dropped my passport off at the Ugandan embassy in the suburb of Maadi, about half an hour south of downtown on the Metro, for visa processing. On the 30th, I was supposed to pick it up. I had no idea if the embassy was open or whether my visa had been granted (they were supposed to call if there were any issues, but phones were down). Just to submit my visa application, I had already negotiated and sweet-talked my way through some harrowing bureaucratic hurdles, but at this point I just wanted my passport back– visa or no visa.
The embassy was closed but, miracle of miracles, the secretary who had accepted my passport appeared magically from the bushes behind the security guards and offered to let me in. I was beyond overjoyed when he handed me my passport, and even more excited when I saw that my visa had been granted the day I submitted it. I really had to try hard not to skip down the street.
Walking through downtown on my way back from the metro station, I was shocked by the looting in some places– though it didn’t seem as widespread as the news depicted. I felt fine walking around the streets– I went out for koshary and sat at a cafe drinking irfa– but later I learned that the US was evacuating its citizens, that the Egyptian Museum had been looted, that prisons had been broken into, their prisoners released, and that Al Jazeera Arabic had been ordered out of the country. I also found out that Egypt had been put on the US State Dept. warning list (according to Watson rules, I’m required to leave a country ASAP as soon as it’s listed). My flight was already booked for very early on February 1, and with my shiny new visa, I was ready to go.
Burned car with the Cairo Tower in the background
Graffiti on one of the tanks outside my hotel:
Later that night, astonishingly loud fighter jets flew in circles over the city. It was a dramatic but confusing gesture. I didn’t know how to interpret it, but the crowds in Tahrir cheered every time they passed. In my journal I wrote: “The rising and falling sounds of people chanting have become a regular part of the soundtrack of my life at Sun Hotel– but I still feel their power, acutely. It’s amazing to witness people gathered in such force.”
Monday, January 31: The day I had planned to leave Egypt for Uganda (technically very early morning on Feb 1). I made it safely to the airport, many hours early, where Ethiopian Airlines told me no flights: “not until the country has stabilized.” Allright then, I’d better make alternative plans. I was out of cell phone credit, without internet, and there were hundreds of people at the airport trying to get on a very limited number of flights. In light of the exceptional circumstances, Watson HQ had broken one of their own “rules” and gave me the phone number of Nadim, a fellow Fellow (a Tintinologist!) who was also in Cairo. I called Nadim from the airport and he invited me to stay at his apartment in Garden City, just south of Tahrir, while we figured out how to get out of Egypt.
I easily got a taxi back into Cairo– I was one of the very few people leaving the airport. My taxi driver, anxious to make it home before curfew, got stuck in a traffic jam in downtown, just two hundred meters north of the square. He told me I should get out and walk south along the Nile, past Tahrir, about half a mile to where I was going. I was a little apprehensive about walking with all my possessions through the chaos of the growing protests, but once again, I encountered only friendly people, and a couple bemused glances.
Nadim and his roommate Mohamed were wonderfully gracious hosts and companions– after days shut up in a hotel with lots of anxious travelers, I was so happy to spend time with people who know Cairo, know the political situation, and could engage in conversation about the events unfolding around us.
We went for a walk in Tahrir, where the mood had changed so much from the battle zone tension of a few days before. Military blockades surrounded the square, checking each person’s ID and making sure we weren’t armed. There was a guy walking around passing dates to everyone to snack on, there were people picking up trash, and everywhere there was an amazing display of Egyptian diversity. In my journal I wrote: “Tahrir today felt like YES. There was just an incredibly powerful, palpable and resounding affirmation of the people’s voice, the people’s power. Egyptian flags everywhere, signs everywhere, chants everywhere. I could tell by the English signs that there was so much clever wordplay, so much sharp witty language being used to sound the message. Egyptians are clearly delighting in this opportunity creative political expression. In different areas were groups representing doctors, nurses, teachers, and other professional groups; there were also marches and representative groups that had come from all the far-flung protectorates of Egypt. There were so many great posters: Game Over Mubarak, Get Out Mubarak, Proud to be an Egyptian, a giant picture of Mubarak’s face with a Hitler mustache painted on. We love Egypt, with a lot of hearts. No to destruction, yes to freedom. Democracy not hypocrisy. Egypt regains dignity. A picture of Mubarak as a pharoah, with Enough! written underneath.”
Also, guess who I bumped into in Tahrir?
That’s right… Anderson Cooper, looking suave with a phalanx of CNN underlings (obviously before he was attacked).
The next day, February1, was the planned million person march. Buying groceries, I watched a steady stream of all kinds of people walking from the to Tahrir. With the help of the fantastic people at Watson HQ, I got a new ticket to London for February 2. Getting on that flight was bittersweet. On one hand, I knew I was fortunate to get out of Cairo just before the situation turned violent and foreigners were attacked. On the other hand, I felt no sense of closure for my time in Egypt, and I had never before felt so inspired by any political event. That sense of wonder and inspiration hasn’t faded. A few days ago when I read about Hosni Mubarak finally submitting his resignation and leaving Cairo, I got chills and so wished I could see the celebrations. Of course Egypt and the Egyptian people face many challenges on the path to a prosperous, democratic and just society, but what an amazing triumph. I’m so lucky to have witnessed part of it. Mabruk, Masr. Congratulations, Egypt.