Thursday, January 27, 2011

Egyptians hopeful for the future

A sense of hope prevails in the streets of Cairo. Hope mixed with fear of how hard the government could crack down and uncertainty over what will happen next, but above all Egyptians have hope that maybe, just maybe, change is coming to Egypt.

For two days Egyptians have taken to the streets by the thousands, astounding both themselves and the world. Many thought the tens of thousands gathered in Tahrir Square on Tuesday night impossible in Egypt. Many thought Egyptians were too apathetic or too terrified of State Security.

On Tuesday, January 25, smaller gatherings converged on Tahrir Square through the afternoon and into the evening. Successive groups numbering from tens to thousands crossed the Qasr el-Nil brigde into one of Cairo’s most vital arteries. “Down, down with Hosni Mubarak!” they chanted.

They wore broad, sometimes giddy smiles.

Groups talked and laughed. Chants against a repressive regime sprouted again and again. Older men, some of whom participated in Egypt’s last great protests in 1977, discussed politics and smoked an endless chain of cigarettes.

Not all was peaceful: security forces hosed protesters with water and shot tear gas into the crowds. After midnight, Tahrir was ruthlessly cleared of any remnant of the day’s events.

Watching demonstrators press on through clouds of tear gas, watching families with young children brave the streets, hearing the raw emotion as Egyptians chant for freedom – one has the feeling of standing on the edge of something truly momentous.

But nothing is certain.

Wednesday, January 26 saw many small, disorganized demonstrations. The lack of communication meant no one knew where to go and most groups were quickly dispersed. It was also clear that no one expected the January 25 protests to be a success, because no one was ready for continued demonstrations on the 26th.

Even so, Egyptians have come to the streets in a way they have never done under Hosni Mubarak. The fear has been broken, and Egyptians are unlikely to give up and go home.

To quote one twenty-something Egyptian, “Tuesday was the happiest day of my life.”

Peaceful demonstrators attacked with tear gas, tasers

I caught this video last night outside Midan Talat Harb at around 9:30pm. Notice the lack of communication/coordination among the police: as two police try to talk down demonstrators, the first round of tear gas is fired from behind.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Is it a revolution?

At 8:30pm, thousands are gathered in Tahrir Square in downtown cairo. The exits are secured by volunteers, but people are allowed to exit and re-enter at multiple points. It has been a long day, and it is far from over.

A veiled girl wanders through the crowd collecting money in a helmet to bring food for everyone gathered. Every so often cheers erupt, but things are calm.

A few hours earlier, that wasn't the case. At around 3.30pm, I was with a group of roughly 2,000 Egyptians - young men and women, parents with their children, and elderly people - who made their way from Gameat al-Dowal street through Mohandiseen, across Zamalek, and into Tahrir Square. It wasn't long before State Security drove a truck through the crowd and blasted demonstrators with water. Within moments, however, a brave young man managed to climb on top of the truck and turn the water away. He was removed by plain-clothes security, but he succeeded in turning off the water.

Later, volleys of tear gas were fired into the crowd. They sent streams of white smoke through the air and billowed where they fell. Demonstrators ran from the attack - but they never went far. Despite the tear gas, the water, and falling darkness, Egyptians remained where they stood.

Throughout the march to Tahrir, demonstrators called to citizens watching from balconies: "Come, join us! Come out! Where are Egypt's people?"

Prominent opposition figure Gameela Ismail pleaded with bystanders through the entire march to join. One young woman hid behind a friend, another on a balcony smiled nervously and looked away, but an older veiled woman shrugged and stepped off the sidewalk and into the street.

A man wearing an Egyptian flag tied around his shoulders walked hand in hand with two young sons, with his wife and daughter before him.

While security has used tactics such as tear gas and hoses and many have gathered with sticks, the violence is not as bad as expected, and far from what it could be.

Rumors circulate the crowd in Tahrir that demonstrators in Alexandria and Mahalla have taken over the offices of the ruling National Democratic Party there. It is an extremely symbolic move - and the night is far from over.

Jan25: Egypt's Day of Anger

By 1pm, demonstrations in Maadi and before the Supreme Court have been confirmed, as well as demonstrations in Dar al-Salam south of Cairo and in Rafah on the Egyptian side of the border. Unconfirmed reports suggest 20,000 are moving in Old Cairo, but... I'm skeptical of that one.

There are also reports that plainclothes security forces are carrying tasers. Police are expected to be brutal today. We will see what happens. Few reports of detentions so far, and none of violence.

@Sandmonkey reported on Twitter about 20 minutes ago that security had collected the IDs and mobile phones of everyone in Cilantro (the one on Gameat al-Dowal in Mohandiseen, I presume). Another Tweeter from that location had earlier reported the manager making calls on multiple mobile phones and security escorting 20 veiled girls off the premises.

Reports say Ayman Nour is leading a group from Bab el-Sharia to the Supreme Court, and another says police will allow a demonstration in Gameat al-Dowal at 2pm.

According to journalist Ian Lee via Twitter at 1pm, "Supreme court protest picking up. Random groups sprouting up. Police rush to contain."

@AkherElAkhbar reports police are checking cars entering Cairo. Ahram Online has reported that the demonstration in Dar al-Salam has been stopped by police, and that no demonstration is happening in Alexandria.

Will try to keep you all updated as the day continues, but I'l heading out soon to see what's happening for myself.

Update at 1:15pm: Protest outside Supreme Court reportedly picking up. Some confrontations between protesters and security, protesters have reportedly broken through the barrier and are heading toward 26 July.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Spiced tea, social norms, and me

As a foreigner and as a young woman I am doubly suscept to being dubbed inept when it comes to physical actions (how these classifications equate to social superiority is another subject entirely). Whether it comes to cleaning my apartment, carrying my groceries, or making a glass of spiced tea, Egyptians regard me with the same look of incredulity mixed with amusement when they realize I intend to carry out said tasks myself.

Take the glass of spiced tea I am currently sipping.

Since April I have worked part-time at a small cafe in the upscale Cairene neighborhood of Zamalek (actually located on an island in the middle of the Nile). My current tasks are usually coming up with unique and tasty soups during the week and making waffles on Saturday mornings, but for a while I opened up shop at 7am three to four days a week.

I knew how to make an espresso, a cappuccino, and everything in between from my days as a barista in Rome, and making sandwiches and salads is kind of a no-brainer. I just had to remember how much everything cost and I was pretty much set.

The shop has seen a couple makeovers in the nine months I've worked here, and at this point I'm actually the second-oldest employee. However, I'm also the only foreigner (read: light-skinned American) and I still work part-time. This means that the other employees constantly want to do things for me and I still get thanked for washing the dishes - even if it's entirely my own soup-making mess.

I also enjoy the cafe as a place to chill and write. A few minutes ago I took a break from writing (my other job) and headed down to the kitchen to make myself a glass of spiced tea. Aya, one of the girls who works in the cafe, watched me for a few moments before saying, "I make it."

The scene isn't particularly uncommon and I resigned myself to the bar stool with an amused smile. When Aya finished her current task, she looked at my glass, shook her head, and dumped it out. "No way!" she told me. A few minutes later she handed me my glass of spiced tea with the perfect amount of foam and a dash of cinnamon on top. I thanked her profusely and retreated back to my laptop with my steaming cup.

I adore Aya. She's a cute young Egyptian girl with a bit of spunk and a good sense of humor. She's a diligent worker even if she does work at the slow, steady speed typical of Egyptians. She speaks enough English that we understand each other decently and my attempts at Arabic incessantly send her into fits of giggles (she still can't believe I know what leben rayeb is; it's buttermilk). But she still asks me if I need help every time I go to buy vegetables, even though the vegetable man knows me, and thanks me when I wash the dishes. She's a dear, but I doubt she'll ever take me seriously as an employee at the cafe: I'll always be the nice foreign girl who comes in sometimes and is friends with the owner (who I met only because she was looking for part-time employees and I needed a hobby).

Similarly, my landlord was bemused when I told him I clean the apartment myself (I've since resorted to assuring him my old cleaning lady comes), and I'll never forget the look of shock on one upper-class Egyptian friend's face when he saw me scrubbing my kitchen the first day I moved into my flat. He simply couldn't understand why I would resort to doing such things myself, never mind that there were old grease stains everywhere.

(I do recognize that there are deeper underlying social norms and concepts tracing back hundreds of years contributing to many of these experiences, but again, that particular academic debate is another issue entirely.)

Occasionally having to insist that I am quite competent gets a bit old. Yes, I can clean. Yes, I can unclog the drain. Yes, I can carry my groceries. Yes, I can iron my shirt. Yes, I can flag down a cab and tell him where I need to go. Really. I promise. I'll be fine.

But frustrating or not, being underestimated has its benefits. Police seldom take me seriously at demonstrations, and consequently aren't bothered by me. I never stop or take my keys out of my pockets when I go through metal detectors, I've talked my way into sporting clubs without an ID, and I've gotten into various government buildings simply because no one can imagine that I - a young, confidant white foreign girl - would be near any of these places if I didn't belong there.

Even so, yes, Aya, I can make my own spiced tea.