This represents my random thoughts of the past six days. I can honestly say all hell has broken and it’s a surreal experience that has happened. I began writing this on Friday when I realized I was completely alone and cut off from the world other than what I was seeing on my cable. I have revisited a few days before and captured from memory what I knew of what was coming by Rana’s warning to me to stay inside. I want to underscore that the young people who are the ones who organized the initial protest did everything in their power to make it peaceful and protect people, private property and the world’s antiquities. They prepared a guide book with procedures like—do not harm the police; they are not your enemy they are suffering too. Give aid to ANYONE even the police who might get hurt. Form a human shield around the museum. I will try and get an English copy of this and share it with you.
Monday: There has been increasing tension since the Christmas eve bombing. You can feel a difference. I worry about the tension—everyone feels it. For the FIRST time since living in Egypt I decide to take an afternoon off and I ask Rana if she wants to join me on an outing to Giza. She’s very excited and decides to go. I know she is considering taking another job and I want to do something special with her if she decides to leave—probably in a few weeks. On the drive there she shares with me their plans to host a demonstration on Tuesday. She warns me to stay home. But then she tells me that the REALLY big demonstration will probably be on Wednesday since the government is expecting one on Tuesday—Police Day. She says, “Diane DO NOT take a taxi with a driver you don’t know. Check before going out to make sure it’s ok. I don’t want you to get hurt. I will let you know.”
Tuesday: The first protest is held. It is relatively calm. Late in the day they announce they will rally again the next day.
Wednesday: Salema my taxi cab driver sends me an SMS he can not come. Something is wrong with his car. I wonder if it has anything to do with the demonstration the day before. Rana calls to tell me the demonstration won’t start until late afternoon do I want her to come get me. I had planned to meet a consultant at my apartment to go with her to the office since she doesn’t know how to get there and it’s complicated to find. I can not reach her nor can a mutual friend. The time when we are supposed to me is long past and I hear nothing from her. I call the office to tell them I will probably have to work from home since I can’t reach her and can’t leave with her on the way to meet me. I learn later the roads near her apartment are blocked off and there are no taxis in the area. Later in the day news reports say the demonstrations are beginning again and the crowds are bigger than before. The police are also getting very aggressive. There is no response from the government to their demands of a promise from Mubarak that he will allow a fair election in September and refuse to run again or promote his son to run. They are also frustrated that Clinton said Egypt is “stable”—how can the US say that I am repeatedly asked? Do they know ANYTHING about how bad it is for most people in Egypt? I tell them—stable is relative. If you compare Egypt to Afghan it IS stable; if you compare it to Sweden it isn’t—I suspected Hiliary’s point of reference was Afghanistan and not Sweden.
Thursday: Salema is waiting to take me to the office. He shows me his car that is all banged up. On Tuesday night he was driving home and got caught up in a group of protestors. The police attacked his car and told him he was going to have to pay a fine. He was arrested for a few hours. That is why he wasn’t able to get me on Wednesday. He tells me things are very bad in Egypt. Mubarak MUST go—he is a very bad man. At the office there is lots of debate about the protest and whether it will leverage any difference. One lady whose husband is part of the security force is particularly upset. She is eight months pregnant with her fourth child and shows the strain of all that is going on—we have talked on many occasions about her husband and his work—he’s a high ranking undercover policemen as is her brother—and I know all the talk about how horrible the police are must be very troubling for her. She tells me many people don’t realize how hard it is for the police who want to do a good and honest job. I can see she is worried about the escalating violence between the demonstrators and the police. She is very worried about how this is going to end. “What will they put in the void if the president is not there? We are not prepared for anything else. I am so afraid.”
January 28: I have no idea when I will be able to share this with my family and friends since contact is blocked with the outside world. It’s been a week of growing unrest and tension leading up to today’s boiling fury and hate against Mubarak. I watch helplessly as my Egyptian friends–who have grown so dear to me–face a rapidly changing world. Some have growing anticipation that the repressive government might topple; others with a growing sense of fear what an end to the Mubarak regime might mean for them personally. I note the Christians tend to view what is happening as something leaving them in an even more vulnerable position than they are now. Clearly, the status quo–no matter how bad it is–is better than an unknown that could be worse.
When talking to my dear sweet Rana so anxious to help the downtrodden–I ask her what she expects will fill the void if the government should fall. She has no answer for me. When I ask her if she’s thought about the possibility that other groups with a less benign agenda might hijack the youth’s “blogger revolution” she shakes her head “no”. She hadn’t considered that possibility. But she quickly responds she doubts these current protests will leverage any change citing the April 6 protest that was ignored and forgotten by most. When asked if they got the attention of the international media that time she tells me “no. ” I tell her “this time is different you have the eyes of the world watching what is unfolding—it will not be ignored this time.”
My heart is also heavy knowing America has buttressed Mubarak with thousands of billions of dollars of aid despite all the human rights abuses, corruption, and inequities that have characterized the three decades he ruled with a very heavy hand of fear, repression and intolerance. It’s a sad testimony of our silent witness rationalized by arguments for the need to maintain a balance of power in the Middle East. There are no doubts US assistance is perceived as mostly support to Israel rather than any real effort to bring about a fair resolution of the tumultuous politics in the region including equal consideration to the plight and rights of Arabs.
Off and on over the course of the afternoon I hear sirens and wonder if more security police are rushing to another spot to suppress protestors who have assembled. I have an increasing sense of isolation as I try unsuccessfully to reach someone— anyone—on my cell phone. As I look out my window overlooking the Nile for the first time since I have lived in Cairo I see almost no traffic on the Corniche. Instead, hundreds of protestors calmly move along the boulevard calling for freedom. The police who are always at the intersection in front of my apartment building are conspicuously absent. Despite their history of brutality against the masses it was reassuring to me knowing they were there; now I feel vulnerable.
The air is heavy with uncertainly and I feel a mounting sense of wariness. Protestors are ignoring the state imposed curfew. As everything begins to unravel I come to the conclusion it’s highly doubtful today’s demonstration will defuse Egyptians’ pent up anger and decades of resentment. I contemplate what today has triggered; what the next weeks hold. This I know–the geni is out of the bottle.
Egypt—a land so rich in the history of the world—is once again at the heart of our future!
January 29: I didn’t sleep well last night. Comments on CNN that the protestor’s anger against the US is growing haunted my sleep. One commentator drew comparisons to the popular revolution in Tehran decades ago that ended in Americans being taken hostage in the embassy there to the situation currently unfolding in Egypt. That reference was terribly unsettling. I wonder what I’ll do if things deteriorate more—should I accept one of the many offers I’ve had to go to the home of an Egyptian or another American? I think I should stay here in case the decision is made to evacuate Americans. They know I’m here—at least I think they do. For the first time since I’ve lived in Cairo I double locked the door to my apartment when I went to bed.
I lie on the couch watching CNN International my only conduit to the outside world—to anything. I’m shocked out of my reverie by knocking on the door to my apartment. I am tremendously relieved when I hear Rana tell me she’s come to check on me. We hug and both of us cry. I am so relieved to see her and know she is safe. Throughout the long hours I’ve watched in growing alarm the images on CNN capturing the situation as it becomes increasingly more unstable my thoughts have gone to her. I knew she’d be out there and I feared for her safety.
“It was bad out there yesterday Diane. The tear gas is horrible. Everyone is getting more angry.” When I ask her if it’s true they are blaming the US whether there is growing anger against America, she nods her head yes and somberly tells me, “People thrust the empty tear gas canisters and gun casings in your face and point to the words ‘made in America’. They say…”see this is our enemy.”
She explains the streets are empty of police and although things are calm right now she underscores it’s not safe despite the military and armored personnel carriers roving around the city. When I refuse to accept her offer to go with her to her home she promises to return again tomorrow. She urges me to remain locked in my apartment and insists on hearing me double lock my door before she calls for the elevator.
Her family is in contact through their land line with her father who lives and works in Saudi Arabia. I beg her to get a message through him to my family to let them know I am safe. I know my sister, in particular, must be paralyzed with fear as she watches the scenes played over and over of the unrest spreading across the country. I caution Rana to be careful of what she says on the phone when she talks to her father. Her reply “we don’t care anymore” is just another indicator of the escalating sentiment they have nothing to lose.
Mubarak’s speech fell tremendously short of the people’s demands for an immediate change. Rana warns more protests are planned for today and of the resolve to continue until he resigns. Obama’s speech also fails to reassure them. Will the United States again watch silently as an intolerant regime makes empty promises they have no intention of keeping? From their perspective the US threat to cut off aid of primarily military support might not be a bad thing if those arms and training is used against them to silence their cries for justice. What began five days ago as a request for a gradual move to a democratic government and fair elections in November has now evolved into a demand for immediate change. They will no longer be placated by a slow evolution.
An another Egyptian colleague and Rana return to my apartment. He tells me he has received an electronic ticket to London. I am to leave if the situation doesn’t improve. Rana tells me they want me to leave my apartment they do not believe it will be safe for me to be alone. I need to pack a suitcase and leave with her. I look around me–what do you take with you when you might never get back. I realize I should have packed a suitcase before this but I think I didn’t want to face the fact things were deteriorating so quickly. I rush about pulling things from drawers and shelves, clothes out of the closet. I am keenly aware that the roads are getting increasingly more dangerous and the longer I am paralyzed with indecision the longer she and her brother who accompanied her are put at greater risk. For the first time I realize Rana too is scared.
She tells me Carrefour was looted. There is nothing left in the store. There has been a rush on the stores and food is getting harder to get. I grab some food that will go bad, give her the key to my apartment and tell her to take anything from my stocks they might need. I wonder if I’ll get back and tell her if I don’t just give most of what I’ve left behind to people who might need things.
I can now get calls on my phone and there is an endless stream of calls from other Americans I know and GILO staff wanting to know if I am safe. Two friends in particular–both women who are here without their families–call to make sure I am ok. Lynel is getting increasingly more nervous–Corinne says she’s going to hunker down for the long haul.
Sunday: My last day and night in Cairo was spent with Rana’s family. Throughout the night men from her block circled the buildings where their homes are located carrying sticks, rubber straps, knives and tree branches and even a few guns to fight off looters roving the mostly empty streets of Cairo. News reports that vigilante groups like this are forming all over the country as people try to protect themselves and reduce the growing sense of panic they are feeling. I am told that the looting was very bad Saturday night in Maadi one of the more wealthy neighborhoods in Cairo–also one with a very large American community. Corinne–who had made the decision to hunker down–called me to share with me she’s no longer feeling safe. She has a flight out that morning along with another American contractor with two small children–who also thought she might try to weather the storm. The looting the night before convinced them it is no longer safe there–no one is there to protect them anymore. All systems are breaking down and food is getting harder to get. We all know the situation is going to worsen before it is better.
Near midnight two armored personnel carriers rumbled into the street in front of Rana’s apartment building. Their presence is met with cheering as the men press around the soldiers. Sleep doesn’t come as sounds like gunfire echo throughout night in the neighborhood and the cries of men confronting drivers of unknown cars are chased away with shouts of “we don’t know you and don’t want you here go away.”
Rumors are rampant many of the looters are plains clothes police officers ordered by Mabarak to increase the people’s fears so they will beg him to come back and protect them. As one person told me, “He has set the dogs out on the people to increase their fear.” Another rumor—they have opened the criminals from the prisons to increase the panic and the breakdown of society.
The world needs to know the organized protest was carried out with honor and forethought for safety. Through social networking they shared their plans to ensure 1) a focus on the issues to avoid political or religious dogma that could drive people apart; 2) public safety of the police, bystanders and protestors; 3) protection of public property and the world’s antiquities. A handbook was shared that described how to protect themselves from things like tear gas and what to do if someone was hurt. Scenes of protestors reaching out to help a hurt policeman or a police officer removing his riot gear to join the protest underscore the universalism of their demands and the dignity that underscores
Nagwa (Rana’s mother): All Americans don’t understand Egypt. They have their own problems they are dealing with and understands they might not be that concerned about what Egyptians are experiencing. We want a democratic government instead of that just supports the Mubarek. No more cheating; no more corruption. I want my children to receive a good education; I want good management for this country from top to bottom. As a teacher==I want to get a good education for all children in Egypt. I want Europeons and Americans to change their bad ideas about who we are; people who are Islamic are good people. There is no difference in my house between those who are Christian and those who are Islamic. My friends and my children’s friends come from all groups. We are just people. My cousin is in the military and he says they are shocked. We had no idea this was going to happen. we are doing the same as the rest of you getting our children and families together so that we can be safe.
Rana (25 years old): I want the world to know that the demonstrations were very safe and that we were asking for changes in the constitution. We want changes for term limits for the president; we want to eliminate corruption—articles in the constitution say if there’s corruption in the elections they should be cancelled. They government knows the last elections were corrupted so they needed to be cancelled; we want the people in parliament to be changed because they don’t truly represent the people. We want the right to choose our president and we want people to know that the muslim brotherhood is NOT driving this protest. This is NOT about Islam or Christianity—it’s for all Egyptians and we want equity and to have the right to elect our president. We will no longer be silent. People who were negative about change before are now starting to speak and demand change. There was a lot of corruption and we lost our sense of compassion for one another; we lost our dignity. But now we are standing stand by stand demonstrating our courage and power to change the future. I want the world to know that I went to the demonstrations and it was peaceful ; we were well organized with clear goals: freedom, we wanted our demands to be heard.
Nagham (15 years old 10th grade attends an English schools): I wanted to be out there with my sister protesting too but my mother wouldn’t let me. She was afraid I was going to get hurt. When I saw the people there fighting for something I believe in I wanted to be with them and help to make a change. I want my dad to come back because I miss him. All my friends have their fathers here in the hard times; I find him on the phone but I don’t have him in my life; all that because my government wanted my dad to help them steal money. He would not support the corruption. My father had always demonstrated to get of corruption so when he was asked to be a part of it he knew he could not do that and so he quit. Eventually he had to go to Saudi Arabic to get a job to support his family. I am very proud of my father because he’s a very honest man. In a quiz for English we were asked who our role model is and whose footsteps we want to follow and I said that is my father. All I want is for the government to be better to have good management that takes into consideration what the impact of what they do on the people. I want everything to be better to have better lives. I am afraid that when people see I am 15 years old they won’t care what I think. But I am trying very hard to make people listen to my voice. And I am proud to be Egyptian. Thank you!!!!
Areeg (32 yo rana’s cousin employee with CARE—education officer) The price we are going to have to pay is worth what it will cost for change for too long we were afraid to demand change. I think what is happening now is giving a positive energy to the people. There is no way to turn back now we’ve gone too far. But it is good for the Egyptian people and the world to see that we will no longer live with oppression. We believe everyone in Egypt has the right to have their basic needs met and this is not the case now. Those of us who began this protest our lives are good lives. we were fighting for those who don’t have good lives. Yesterday my domestic was telling me she doesn’t want a fancy house, or car, or private schools for her children or all the things the wealthy have. all she wants is the bare minimum that’s all she wants—enough food that she and her children are not hungry, decent health care, adequate schools. It was very sobering to talk with her and understand her demands. I was out there fighting for her.
Shaza (friend 24 years old Faculty of Law shams university—administrative prosecution—with government sector investigate the case or pass it on to the courts—criminal case to send district prosecutor) Egyptians have a chance to change they remain silent for years and we have a chance even those who were afraid of change and the govt and police (tyrants) are part of the mubarak system oppressive/repressive situation —no trust with police linked to mubarek—when we found so many people on the street Tuesday we realized we can make change solidarity in our message—military doesn’t take money (bribes) from people to help them—some people will fear of system fear they couldn’t provide their basic needs if they begin a revolution; now everyone on the street despite their social standing we don’t want Mubarak system anymore. Egyptian people know what they want: change constitution; change council; courts and judgments; annulment of the past elections; redo the elections; term limits —question: are you ok with newly named people?—vice president is ok kind man – in contact Egyptian groups well informed and good transition but we don’t want him long term—until we can have the opportunity to have elections. It’s important for the world to know we are trying to stand together—we are hand in hand protecting one another sharing the experience together. when people ask what happened in the church on new years eve—it’s important for people to know islam and Christian we were there together and we didn’t know or care who was islam or muslim. We are doing this together. our aims were the same. Those of us who were protesting—we have cars, we have good jobs, we have apartments—but we were doing this for those who didn’t have this and for the future of our children.
The last comment Rana shared with me as we clung to one another at the airport. “Diane Mubarak is not listening to us; please someone hear what we are asking. Someone listen.”
The scene at the airport is total chaos. Frightening, terrifying, threatening. I have never been more afraid of getting hurt ever in my life. Thousands of people are massed into the terminal hall trying to get a flight out. There is water, milk and God knows what else spilled on the floor making it very slippery. People push forward with a force that takes your breath away–and you are banged into walls of suitcases, carts, people standing frantically trying to get to a counter to beg for a ticket. At one point I am pushed forward against a woman clutching a baby in her arms. When she is pushed into a pile of suitcases the baby flies out of her arms and nearly trampled as people push forward in their effort to move ahead. For the ONLY time in my life I thank GOD i am a BIG woman and I grad a nearby cart and thrust my body backwards into the crowd in an effort to give her the room and time she needs to gather her baby. Sweat is running down my body, my heart and head are both pounding from the pushing, the struggle to stay on my feet. I clutch my boarding pass and passport and curse the suitcase I am drawing with two computers. If ever I face this again–SCREW THE COMPUTERS!! What should take about 10 minutes to go from the ticket counter to the passport control takes at least an hour if not more. Corinne had warned me it took her 3 hours but there was still some structure and system when she was there. Now there’s just mass confusion and a dangerous momentum that is speeding the movement forward but at such a dangerous price. Three men begin fighting and thrusting their fists at each other over the heads of women and children standing between them. Three other men try to calm them and I beat on the one man’s back and tell him to calm down we are all struggling to get on a plane. But no one is listening. You don’t have time to think nor to plan how to get from point A to point B. I can see the sign at the end of the terminal hall and wonder how I will get there. My flight is scheduled to leave in 20 minutes and I am no where near the passport control.
2 hours later–finally at the boarding gate–people continue to straggle in–bewildered; scared; exhausted; their clothes wet from the exertion of moving through the wall of frightened people. When I have a moment to think about all that has happened my heart weeps for those I leave behind. As scared as I am–I feel tremendous guilt that because I was born in another land I am able to walk away and let them face this alone.
God please hold them in your hands; keep them safe. Enshallah–keep them safe.