Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Looking back - Tahrir on February 1

The following is an article I wrote at midnight last night Cairo time, before Tahrir Square turned into the madness it is in now. Please, read and reflect on what the government is sanctioning here in Egypt.

Egypt Continues to Protest

Internet service in Egypt has been cut almost entirely since midnight Thursday. The government undoubtedly cut service to disrupt coordination among would-be demonstrators in an effort to dissuade Egyptians from protesting.
Two days earlier, on Tuesday, January 25, Egyptians went to the streets in numbers not seen since the 1970’s.
For human rights lawyer Amir Salem, the massive turnout of Egyptians demanding political change is something he never thought he would see. As a young man, Salem participated in the student demonstrations in Egypt in 1973 and 1977.
On the evening of January 25, Salem sat in Cairo’s Tahrir – Liberation – Square. “I was in prison for that demonstration in Tahrir Square” in 1977, he told me. “Now after thirty years I’m here watching the young people, and most of them are the age of my son and daughters. I am very, very happy.”
Wednesday saw a number of violent clashes between police and demonstrators across Egypt and a call for a major demonstration on Friday, January 28, nicknamed the 'Day of Rage.'
Activists frantically made phone calls late into Thursday night in anticipation of the government’s closure of mobile phone service, which indeed occurred around 9am on Friday morning.
“We arranged everything from yesterday because we knew what they would do,” prominent opposition figure George Ishak told me outside a café early on Friday morning. “We are now ready. The plan is ready.”
Some activists worried the lack of communications would stop Egyptians from going out on Friday.
It didn’t.
Egyptians braved tear gas, government thugs with sticks, water hoses, rubber bullets and buckshot-like live fire. In Abdelmonem Riad Square, behind the Egyptian Museum and steps from Tahrir, the afternoon saw a back-and-forth battle between demonstrators and police.
Police shot tear gas at demonstrators. The people kicked it away, threw it back, or tried to put it out. Police threw stones. Demonstrators threw them back. Police shot rubber bullets at demonstrators. Demonstrators set police vans on fire.
As dusk fell, demonstrators stopped retaliating. They lined up and began to pray, meters from where riot police with shields and guns stood in a ragged line. Shortly thereafter, a line of police trucks began moving out of the square and reports came that the army was moving in.
Watching from above, long-time opposition activist Gameela Ismail had tears in her eyes.
“I can’t believe what happened today,” said her teenage son, Shady. “The people beat the police. The police gave up.”
Student Sara Abed participated on Friday in Nasr City and then on the Qasr el-Nil bridge, which leads into Tahrir Square. “I think we made a clear statement to the government, although they are still denying it,” she told me in a café in Cairo's affluent Zamalek neighborhood on Saturday morning. “It’s our right to call for our demands. All the people will protest and they are willing to do it peacefully.”
“We’re not responsible for any damages,” she added. “It started by the government.”
Reports of looting and violence around Cairo had surfaced throughout the night. Downstairs in the café, the cashier was writing out orders and holding the cash in his hand because the cash box had been stolen during the night.
Egyptians have been extremely frustrated with the sporadic violent events. They stress that it is not the demonstrators or the Egyptian people who have been responsible for such acts, but government-hired thugs and plainclothes police officers attempting to convince the people to ask the police to return.
Al-Jazeera reported over the weekend that citizens had arrested a number of government thugs who had broken into the Egyptian Museum. The men, reportedly carrying secret security IDs, were then turned over to the army.
Abed reported seeing citizens standing arm in arm in front of the museum to prevent anyone from entering, something I also witnessed.
Since Friday, demonstrators have congregated in Tahrir Square under the watchful eye of the army. The army was greeted with relief by Egyptian citizens. While officially remaining politically neutral on the situation, the army has maintained the respect and appreciation of the people.
Around 5pm on Tuesday, February 1, two taxi cabs filled koshari, a typical Egyptian fast food dish, pulled up outside the military checkpoint leading into Tahrir Square. One of the cab drivers said the food had been paid for by the army and was to be distributed among the people.
Over a million Egyptians took to the streets across Egypt on Tuesday.
As night fell, Tahrir was still full of people. For the fourth night, people made fires, set up tents and other shelters, and settled in for the night. Groups continued to congregate. Posters with slogans in Arabic, English, and a dozen other languages remained scattered around the square.
Around 11pm, President Hosni Mubarak made a speech announcing he will not run for reelection this fall. As with other attempted concessions, such as dissolving the government and swearing in a Vice President, the statement was received with anger and disdain.
After eight days of protesting, Mubarak has made no indication of stepping down, which is foremost among the demands of the Egyptian people. The people are determined to continue their demonstrations until he does so.

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