Tag Archives: revolution

Out of Egypt

24 Feb

It’s still difficult for me to wrap my head around the fact that one month ago, I was writing papers from my desk in Alexandria and wondering whether the Tunisian revolution would spark an uprising in Egypt.  That three weeks ago I arrived in the United States, having witnessed the start of that struggle.  That 13 days ago, I cheered and cried and held my breath as the strength of the Egyptian public resulted in Hosni Mubarak’s descent from his 30-year seat of power and flight from Cairo.  And that in just a few days I’ll be boarding a plane back to North Africa, but that it will be the start of a new semester in a new climate and a new dialect and a new culture and a new country.

I still feel like I was wrenched from Egypt.  The January 25th protests were exhilarating, even more so when they continued through the night and into the next days.  I was glued to the news from Cairo and Suez and the word on the street from Alexandria.  As police turned violent and we heard reports of deaths and beatings, I mostly spent time inside with my host family and friends, waiting to see what would happen.  Twitter was cut off the first day, and Facebook was rumored to be next.  The night of the 27th, Thursday, Facebook was gone and I got my first taste of censorship.  When we woke up the next morning the internet and phone lines were cut throughout all of Egypt.  I panicked.  I felt helpless and trapped…no way to communicate with anyone outside my home.  Hosni Mubarak, I thought, you’ve got me, I feel repressed.  I sat in front of Al-Jazeera with Mama Azza and Mohab and we watched as they played over and over scenes of police vans shooting tear gas at masses of people and driving through crowds.   I ventured out with Mohab and bought an international calling card, to attempt a call to the US.   While we were out, Mohab and I ran a couple of errands for Mama Azza (1/2 kilo of eggplant, 1/2 kilo of green beans), and then ran a couple of our own, investigating the source of the black smoke billowing above our neighborhood.  As we were walking along the Corniche, we saw one of the biggest masses of protesters yet, moving along the Corniche, blocking off Alexandria’s entire main street to cars, waving flags, throwing stones at police vans, and chanting slogans.

We asked around a bit and found out that the smoke was from two police vans that had been set on fire, and learned that a little further down a police station had been set ablaze.  As we were walking, two of the vans in question drove by, looking utterly defeated…battered and dented on every side, license plate hanging by one screw.  The streets were populated by groups of people sharing stories and cell phone videos of the fires and protests.  A taxi stopped in the middle of the usually-congested Corniche and its passengers got out to tape over the numbers painted on the cab and license plate, to cover up any identification numbers on the vehicle.  Two boys ran past us, hiding an object in a sweater slung between them.  No one was going about their daily business now.  The smokey dusk was eerily quiet, and the new curfew went into effect. That night they announced that the police force had left Alexandria, and we watched on tv as tanks rolled into the city; the army had been brought in to keep the peace.  The next day I was supposed to be meeting friends from America at the airport in Cairo, but I still had not heard whether they were coming or not.  So I packed a week’s worth of clothes just in case I heard from them and got ready to leave at a minute’s notice.  It’s a good thing I did, too, as a little while later I got a call from the resident director of our program telling me they felt it would be safer if we were all together to communicate, and that they would be coming to my apartment soon to pick me up.  Bag in hand I said my goodbyes to my host family, not knowing that it would be the last time I saw them before leaving Alexandria.

We piled into a car and made our way to Andrew’s apartment.  Because there were no longer police in Alexandria, civilians had stepped up to the job of traffic control and were directing cars and pedestrians, standing in the middle of every intersection.   On the way, a huge protest blocked all traffic going East on the Corniche.  So, cars turned around and people started forming two head-on lanes of traffic on the side of the street that was open.  It was a city run by the people.

The next two days and nights were spent sequestered in Andrew’s apartment.  The eight of us who were still in Alexandria at the time (everyone else had already left for the semester break), plus Andrew, and Mr. Poopsie the puppy huddled under blankets, paced, waited, wondered, and watched the world from the balcony.  We had no internet, no access to news on television, and limited capability to contact people by phone.  We called our Egyptian friends to make sure they were ok, and kept our phones close waiting for calls from the unlisted numbers that could be our parents or friends on the outside.  We ventured out before the 4pm curfew to secure cooking supplies and made giant pots of stew and goulash.  And we sat around some more…waiting for word from The Program.

We got calls from them every couple of hours, updating us on their deliberation process…first to let us know that an evacuation plan was being designed but that they weren’t sure if they would implement it.  If we were to be taken out, it could be by land, sea, or by charter plane.  Finally after a long first day we found out that they had indeed decided to evacuate us, and it would be by the first available flight.  A few hours later another call let us know that we would be leaving on the 31st, escorted to the airport with a guard, and we would have time to go to our apartments the next day to pick up the rest of our things.  The next morning turned out to be more dangerous than expected, and we only were able to get the essentials: a passport.

Outside, the civilian-run state faced its first night on the job.  As we watched from our 11th floor vantage point, men began walking the darkening streets in groups of two or three, all carrying long sticks, staves, or even swords.  Scary!  Until, after watching for a little while, we realized that these were the good guys, the neighborhood fathers and brothers and sons banding together on each street corner to protect their own.  When a car passed through the street, they stopped it and directed all traffic to the Corniche, where the army was patrolling with tanks.  When gunshots sounded nearby, dozens of men sprinted to see what the problem was.

Inside we stayed busy making macaroni and cheese that someone’s mom had sent from America, knitting, reading, and watching movies.  On Sunday morning we packed up early and were waiting by the door when the curfew lifted at 8am.  Our dedicated teachers and the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities picked us up in the University bus to go to the airport, and we made it through army checkpoints easily, after a quick stop to grab food and water for another study abroad program whose 35 students had been stuck at the airport for 2 nights.   We had two short and stressful flights, from Egypt to Jordan and from Jordan to Dubai, and then settled in for the 14 hours to America.  Everyone else was going on to different destinations, so I walked out to Washington, DC to meet my parents on my own.

As I was reacquainting myself with cold weather, automatic clothes dryers and drinking tap water, and trying to stop feeling guilty flushing toilet paper, Egyptians were not giving up.  I was back to my own bed, and they were setting up camp in Tahrir Square.  I was at Will’s on the 11th when the uprising became a legit revolution and popular resistance finally pushed Mubarak OUT!  And we don’t know what it will lead to in Egypt yet, but I don’t doubt that the people will fight for the rights and fair democratic governance that they want and deserve, and the rest of the Mid East dictators better get scared if they aren’t already.

As for me, the Program finally decided after two weeks that the best option would be to continue our program in Morocco, since we are not allowed back to Egypt as a government-funded program until it’s officially “safe” …whatever that means.  I’m hoping to go back and visit my friends and host family and tie up my loose ends in Egypt after the end of the program in June, but for now I’m getting excited to spend three months in this bizarre-sounding place called Ifrane, Morocco.  Alpine climate and Macaque monkeys?  Alright Morocco, let’s see what you’ve got.

عيش, حرية, كرامة انسانية! Bread, Freedom, Dignity!

27 Jan

Well, it’s happening.  Instead of spending the day writing my final paper on ‘The Illusion of Social Class in Two Arabic Short Stories’ (all I’ve got so far is the title) I’ve been glued to facebook, twitter, the blogs, and online newspapers, watching the updates on the continued protests all over Egypt.

My expectations for the “January 25th Revolution” were not great.  The Tunisian revolution turned the head of every person in the Arab world hungry for the same, and of course Egypt is in some ways even more ready for change than Tunisia: Egypt’s population experiences even higher degrees of unemployment and poverty, frustration with the authoritarian president of 30 years, and desperation and hopelessness with their country’s decaying infrastructure and services.  But at the same time, many of the things that clicked for Tunisia are elements that Egypt lacks, like a strong middle class built up by decades of investment in education by the government.  One of the main qualities I’ve noticed again and again in Egypt the resourcefulness  and resilience to keep on keepin’ on in any situation, a characteristic that does not typically lead to standing up and demanding change, and so I, along with many other bloggers and analysts, was shocked by the magnitude and reach of the January 25th protests.

The morning of the 25th I had a four-hour-long MSA exam, then a presentation on my internship, so I returned home at 5, exhausted and disappointed that I hadn’t seen a single protest on the supposed day of revolution.  Not half an hour later, however, I began thinking I was imagining hearing chanting from outside my window, and Mama Azza called to me from the balcony, Katelyn!  Protests on Port Said!  We watched from the balcony as crowds of people marched down the nearby street, chanting and waving flags.  I’m going down!  I told Mama A.  Take care of yourself!  she told me, You’re not going to eat lunch!?

When I got down to street level the bulk of the protest had already moved on, marching East down Port Said, a main drag in Alexandria that runs parallel to the Corniche and the Mediterranean.  A few blocks behind them lumbered several fire trucks, and a group of well-dressed ظوابط, high-ranking police officers.  I decided to trail the protests for a couple of blocks, and was walking behind them snapping pictures when I heard someone call out my name!

Professor Radwa?!  I was incredulous.  My literature teacher (yes, she teaches the class the paper is due for), Radwa, was standing on the corner, and came up to me.  It’s not safe in the back, she cautioned, as the police have been spraying protesters with water to get them under control.  So, we moved up into the heart of the mass of people, ever-growing as more people came down from their lofty balcony perches and joined the march.  I was surprised at the diversity of the people who were marching…women and men, ages ranging from the very young (at one point a boy about twelve years old was sitting on someone’s shoulders leading the chants) to the very old.  As the evening call to prayer began to sound, we passed a mosque, and part of the crowd broke off to pray in the street.

The protesters were organized and peaceful, throwing up peace signs and quieting their chants as we passed the mosque, but there was otherwise not a sectarian feel to the chants or signs.

حرية حرية!  they chanted, Freedom, Freedom!

اسقط اسقط حسني مبارك!  Down with Hosni Mubarak!

حسني مبارك, باااااطل  Hosni Mubarak, obsolete/worthless! (and continued with names of other politicians)

عيش, حرية, كرامة انسانية!  My personal favorite: Bread, Freedom, Dignity!

And they called to the masses watching from the heights of their balconies and rooftops:

انزلوا, انزلوا!!  Come down, Come down!

and, واحد, اثنين, الشعب المصري فين؟!  One, two, People of Egypt, where are you?!

As the group passed by the street where my friends live, I went to meet Monica and Mae, saying farewell to Radwa and wishing her luck.  There I saw the first sign of police presence.  Other than the high-ranking officers walking behind the protesters, I was shocked to not have seen previously a single other police officer or sign of security.  However, here, officers were blocking off the side streets and permitting pedestrians to pass through only one by one.  I met Mae and Monica, and we stood for a minute watching the masses of people go by, before rejoining the group.  After walking a few more blocks, we started noticing several people running back from the front, calling that the police were beating people.  We decided that was probably the point at which we should remove ourselves from the fray, so we retreated to a side street and watched the events unfold.  Almost immediately after reports of police beatings were coming from the front of the lines, a group of around 50 Shurta (police) with batons and shields ran past us toward the rear of the protesters, boxing them in from both ends.  Behind this group followed 7 or 8 large trucks, where we could see more soldiers crowded inside the grated windows.

We received a text message from our teacher, still in the midst of the protests, that the police had beaten the protesters with batons and sprayed tear gas, and that the men in the group had protected her with their bodies.  We later read that there were over 8,000 demonstrators gathered near Sidi Gaber who clashed with the police.  The protesters dispersed, but regrouped later in the evening in various locations, some were detained and arrested in Ibrahamiya, and some continued to march along the tram, which I know because the regrouping was happening just as I was heading home from Monica/Mae/Nada’s apartment.  As I walked back to my apartment to have birthday cake and celebrate Mama Azza’s birthday with relatives and friends, the streets were buzzing about the protests, and the energy was almost tangible.  Even the shop owners, as they were moving merchandise inside and closing their doors in preparation for the masses passing by, were exchanging tidbits of what they had heard and experienced that day.

Protests continued into the night in Cairo, with a massive sit-in at Tahrir square, and the end of what had been relative police lenience compared to the forceful crackdown on protests that Egypt is used to.  The morning of the 26th was quiet, but the rest of the day saw 10,000 more people marching in downtown Cairo, government censorship of twitter and facebook, loss of mobile networks and internet in some areas, police violence toward journalists and protesters, and the number of people who have given their lives in this struggle raised to six.  The most significant protests were in Suez, where demonstrators clashed with police after the deaths of two protesters in initial marches the day before, and attempted to take control of government buildings.  The people forced the retreat of the regular police forces and the army was brought in.  Protests in Suez continue today, and there are rumored to be more continuing in other areas later in the evening.  More nationwide marches have been called for tomorrow after the Friday prayers.

It’s hard to say at this point where these protests will go.  There have been rumors of political leaders and the president’s family fleeing the country on private jets, but I’m still skeptical about that bit of information.  Tomorrow, the Muslim Brotherhood, which until now has refrained from officially participating in protests, is expected to join the masses, and El Baradei, Egypt’s opposition hero, is expected to return to Cairo to join in as well.  I keep thinking back to Tunisia, though, and the period of close to a month between Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation that sparked initial protests, and the culmination of these protests in the 14th of January ouster of president Ben Ali.  Can Egypt hang onto this energy for that long?

Will it turn into a full-fledged revolution, or just scare Mubarak a little and get him to make a couple of key changes?  Who knows.  At this point, I wouldn’t put anything past the Egyptian people, and I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next.

Revolution is in the Air

20 Jan

يا بن علي, قول لمبارك, الطيارة, في انتظارك

It may not have the rhyme and ring in English that it does in Arabic, but the meaning is still apparent in the translation of one of the many chants floating around facebook statuses and twitter these days, “Hey Ben Ali, tell Mubarak, the plane is waiting for you!”

Everyone’s talking about it.  Revolution.  It seems like all around us governments are dying and evolving…Lebanon’s unity government has collapsed, Israel’s faces new instability and change, Sudan has cast votes to determine whether the South will become independent, Palestine is seeking recognition by the UN, Jordanians are rioting, North Africa is on fire with demonstrations and protest, and the people of Tunisia have undertaken what is being called the region’s first true revolution.

The parallels between the conditions in Tunisia before the uprising and the current conditions in Egypt are making people turn their heads, question whether the people here could rise up turn the government upside down, break the long-standing emergency law, and throw out the stubbornly-powerful president of 30 years.  Change movements are calling for a January 25th Egyptian revolution.  Will drastic people-power induced regime change happen in Egypt this month as it did in Tunisia?  I don’t think it’s likely, but maybe it will get things started.  We’ll just have to wait and see.