Egypt Report–Feb 4,5 – 2011


Below is what I wrote up for an online journal – however, it went unpublished. Since I’d already done the write-up here it is:

Feb 5, 2011

Time seems a bit distorted due to our changed sleep cycles. It feels like a bit longer, but only yesterday, Volkmar, my neighbor was recounting his experiences in Shehab st. We were standing outside the German Embassy in Zamalek. I’d been complaining about the Street Watch checkpoints and how annoying they were. I nearly lost my temper with them yesterday when they asked to check my fiancée’s luggage at 8 am, on our way to the German embassy, where a convoy of buses awaited Germans and their families to assist with their evacuation.

Volkmar, a German exchange student in his mid-twenties, had been in Egypt for a few months. He lived with his wife and daughter in the apartment above mine. We often met on the stairs in our apartment building and exchanged a hello now and then. He told me that when walking down Shehab St. to a charity run shop, he’d been accosted by several youths from one of the Street Watch and they’d pushed him around a bit saying things that, “Get Out!”, “This is not your country!” His wife had left earlier. He’d wished to stay on previously but he was glad when he’d been asked by the student exchange program (DAAD) to evacuate. He’d spent the night at the DAAD premises as it was a short walk from the office. We’d always planned to get together for drinks, and now we were unlikely to do so anytime soon.

Feb 4, 2011

I’ve not been able to sleep too well. I find it hard to sleep when it’s bright outside and with the Street Watch duty I’ve been pulling in the past few nights, it’s been a bit tiring. After much trying I fell asleep around 7pm and woke up at 11pm to get ready. I looked outside the balcony and the roads nearby had makeshift roadblocks set up every 30 meters or so. The roadblock near my flat is a line of small concrete blocks. In a nearby street it’s an abandoned street vendor’s cart with some of his goods and elsewhere people have commandeered traffic barriers or even felled massive branches from trees by the roadside.

Taking a quick bite and fixing a mug with some tea, I quickly dressed in jeans, a medium weight sweater, heavy jacket and a scarf. I’d grown tired of my stubble so I’d shaved in the morning and found some pimples from ingrown hair where my jaw chafed against the rough scarf I’d been wearing.

Things were a bit different in the street today. Eddy had brought a couple of tables and the guys had set up a game of “Estimation”, a popular card game in Egypt. They were bantering easily and invited me over. I stood with them for a few moments and joked about the cool gangster set up they’d prepped. We laughed and I shot a picture of them with their weapons on the table. The gang wasn’t all present and when I commented Khaled said they were out walking. I waved and said I’d do the same.

Picking up a brisk pace I walked down the street in search of the various groups that I hung out with nearby. I found only the doormen standing. “Salam Waleikom,” I called out to them as I walked by to standard replies of “Wa’alekom Assalam”; greetings of peace between strangers. Absent today were hooded youngsters with pipes, baseball bats and other clubs. Absent also were elderly professionals with their rifles, hunting vests and camouflage pants. The first couple of days we’d seen quite a few people strutting around with their guns. It’d felt like a hunting expedition. I guess the long nights had worn them out too and they’d grown bored with very little action in the night. With no constant threat, they’d grown bored.

My neighbor, an ex-security person, Mr. Khaled held the same concern. I met him on my way to Lebanon St. He’d been chatting with a group there and asking them why there weren’t more youngsters on the Watch. It was around 1:30 am. He seemed a bit upset and he handed them a flyer asking them to post it on their building entrance. He seemed worried but was pleased to see that I was up and about. In a wider sense this dissipation of interest is also plaguing the protests. On twitter under #jan25, #tahrir, and #egypt, I see lots of tweets trying to keep the motivation up. In the streets, people are getting restless and weary.

“Egypt is a country of rumors,” claimed a person I chatted with last night. This came in response to several rebuttals I threw at his claims of, “Israel is organizing these protests”, “they’re pumping 50 million dollars into this”, and “all the anti-Mubarak protestors are being paid to stand there daily”. I’d visited Tahrir Sq. I knew some people out there who were protesting. I’d even met with one of the political figures and heard him share stories of the background discussions between the various political parties. My responses to most of his claims were accounts of first-hand experiences. I suggested he visit Tahrir Square. I think he might do that tomorrow.

Mr. Adel an elderly gentleman, guarding a construction site with the anonymous lad, launched on a long diatribe about the protests in Tahrir and their causes, pulling examples from 1936! He’s a contemporary of the new Vice President, Omar Soleiman. He remembered the revolution and made references to the Cairo Fires of 1952, Mohamed Naguib, first President of Egypt and various others. One moment he was anti-Nasser, and the next he praised him for universal health insurance he provided.

I’ve been having a lot of random conversation on the streets of late. It’s partly to pass the time, and partly because the faces I encounter are becoming more familiar. Sherif, a teenager in Shehab St., complained about his hair getting mussed since he’s been wearing a hoodie every evening for the last week. Startled by the popping and cracking of the fire against the nearby pavement, he wondered at what was causing the popping. The boy next to him suggested it was the paving stones that were causing it and he pointed to the cracked and chipped cement blocks. They’d been scavenging wood from everywhere. He’d even broken the bottom of the police barrier they were standing against for the wood.

Stories of looting have been quite abundant too and all peppered with bits of wry Egyptian humor. “Look how decent those thieves were! They entered through the door and exited through it. They stole all, but broke nothing.” Another story Sherif shared was about guys breaking into the clothing store near his apartment building. “They broke in and grabbed everything and walked to Ard El Lewa [a poor neighborhood nearby]. From the Ezz building they stole the steel safes! It must’ve taken 5 men to manhandle those.” Another told me that when real men stood guard the looters stayed away. “The shop next the grocery store… 4 men stood there with clubs made from branches and kept the looters away, and then this gentleman from his apartment fired a few rounds into the air dispersing them.”

Ibrahim, a colleague, was on the phone with me a few minutes ago. We swapped stories. “These protests are well organized,” he said. “They say that they start at the same times across the country.” I held a different opinion. I pointed out that Tahrir was never empty, so start and end times did not matter there. Additionally, while there was a semblance of organization it was primarily because the various groups were online and broadcasting, picking up and exchanging information. It wasn’t a conspiracy that dated by 5 years as rumors were held.

“I’m going crazy with boredom,” said Ibrahim, echoing my feelings and those of my Street Watch. My doorman, Mohamed, wants a return to normality. When pressed about whether he’d like to go return to the status quo and specifically to the old regime, he said he wanted a return to normalcy; he wants to sleep regular hours, he wants the curfew ended and he wants to feel safe. “Aren’t the protestors satisfied? Isn’t what Mubarak offered enough? They should end this,” says Helal from the street nearby. On twitter I see a frenzy of posts with #Egypt and #tahrir, echoing this sentiment while others report more protests planned for tomorrow, Tuesday and Friday. Are the Egyptian protestors losing focus and public interest? With over 150 dead and hundreds injured, what will the outcome be?

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