Sonntag, 6. Februar 2011

Friday, January 28 in Cairo - A Moment in Life

Johannes Gunesch arbeitet in Kairo. In einem englischen Gastbeitrag schildert er seine Eindrücke vom 28. Januar, dem "Tag des Zorns", an dem hunderttausende Ägypter trotz der Abschaltung von Internet und Mobilfunknetzen gegen das Regime auf die Straße gingen.

It is in all eminence that the struggle for life unfolds on the streets of Cairo and all over Egypt today, on this uplifting moment of time on January 28, 2011. I was walking on those streets today, through Cairo, and am overwhelmed by the force of human action I encountered. I write this down, to myself, without access to the outside, an outsider’s look on what happened inside Cairo today, not knowing what can come out of the episodes of the struggle for a life in freedom and dignity, and a life of opportunities that I have witnessed today. But while I write, I hope that the gun-blasts and explosions that are still going on outside are signals of the times that are changing.

It was around 12.30 when I was walking along the Nile on the corniche (Arabic for promenade), past the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the building of the state-run TV and radio-station. By then, there were only few cars and civilians around, as Egyptians were gathering at home and in the mosques in their neighborhoods for the holy salat al- jum'ah, the biggest prayer on Fridays, the yom al-jum'ah. But the official buildings I walked past were already heavily guarded by the riot-police. In bypassing, I looked at the guys, mostly younger then me, I guess. They were all wearing full armor, shields, sticks and guns that shoot plastic-bullets.

Maybe it is because I myself was anxious that I thought they looked nervous. I didn’t know what to expect – and so did everybody else, probably. Since the morning already, both internet- and phone-services were blocked as part of the governmental effort to make it more difficult for people to connect. But as this day has shown, once an idea has spread, its power can unfold without reiteration. By then, the question however still was, would the people come out on the street again despite the emergency law that has been in place since 1981, which prohibits demonstrations. Would the spirit that was ignited on Tuesday, when the protest began, carry over? Would people defy the restrictions? And what about the prayers, what premise would they have? Talk about Islam making a contribution to peaceful emancipation.

From the corniche I went in direction of Midan al-Tahrir, which means lLiberation Square. This is a big place, next to it you have the building of the League of Arab Nations and the Egyptian museum, adjacent to which is the Headquarter of the National Democratic Party, Mubarak’s clientele that is neither national nor democratic. By the time I was approaching, access to the square was already closed down. Lines over lines of policemen were blocking it from every direction. So I turned to Downtown, to the square of Talaat Harb. Downtown is remarkable for its elderly grandeur while it is as lively as the rest of this giant city; it is a commercial and residential district in one, both transit-point for commuting through Cairo and destination for pastime. The streets are wide and the Parisian style architecture of the buildings is more elegant than fancy.

When I got there at around quarter past one, there were no protests. Instead, I joined an expectant crowd with bated breath that was as diverse as the hopes they all have about the future in Egypt. The biggest number of people were young men. But this doesn’t come as a surprise for a country in which 52% of the population is under 25. Also, it doesn’t even say much because amongst those guys, none is like the other and the differences between them would defy my description. Besides that, there were families with their kids, old men that were dressed in their fanciest suits, tourists that were wearing shorts and snapping shots with their digital cameras, and international hippster that tried to disguise themselves as journalists by carrying a notebook (but fail). All of them and many more mingled on the streets when I arrived.

It took about five minutes until the first teargas-bullet was fired somewhere. I didn’t exactly see where it was coming from and against whom it was directed, as police, that was trying to isolate some protesters that had gathered on a street perpendicular to where I was, blocked the view. But it makes a blast, even from a distance; you hear it and immediately shudder. As it turned out, this was one of the first bullets that launched the escalation of ferocity during the day, in streets all over Cairo and the country, in Alexandria as well as in Suez. This bullet was fired closely after the prayers of the gathering day (what Friday means in literal translation) had ended and more and more people went outside to join the protests.

By then, the anxiety I felt before was overtaken by intense anticipation. I was careful but the whole scenery was captivating; people were coming together to express their voice, in defiance of harsh regulations and castigation, for a cause much stronger and bigger than the autocracy they faced. So as I wanted to get closer, I needed orientation amidst the various streams of people that were coming from different directions, all striving to align, fragmented as they were through the police street-blocks.

Midan Talaat Harb, the square where I was, is like the nucleus of a star, with five streets that depart from it in different directions, three in direction of the Nile and Tahrir, one in direction of Ramses and one in direction of Old Cairo. As I went full circle around the square, I saw that the police blocked each of those streets at their end. This meant that within the few minutes that I had been there, a territory of about two kilometers in both north-south and east-west direction was closed. The strategy of the police was to stop people from coming to Downtown, to incarcerate the protestors, keep them separate and thereby to prevent them from aligning.

What they did not expect was that the protests were already happening everywhere, and that thousands of people were finding ways to come together nevertheless. There were numerous streams and islands of groups of people, fragmented but widespread, that all contributed to the dynamics of the events. And in those dynamics, people found together, despite the restrictions and impossibility to communicate. It was as if there was one big protest while in fact there were so many smaller ones going on. And since they could not gather at one single place, they entered the streets from their houses instead and started to progress until they faced police or managed to join together with others that were doing the same.

After I decided to leave Midan Talaat Harb on the main street in direction of Ramses square, this dynamism was quick to seize me and the people around. It was the chanting that I heard first, “Yasqut, yasqut, Hosni Mubarak”, a demand to the president to “step down”, magnified by hundreds of voices. Then, at the corner of Qasr el-Nil I looked around and saw the masses, some were carrying signs and many were waving the Egyptian flag. They were coming in my direction, away from the police, which could alter the direction of the march, but not its premise, only making it stronger the more the people were being confronted with the guardsmen of the regime.

From that moment on, things happened quickly. Once I was absorbed by the first stream of people, more and more protestors arrived from different directions and joined the ones that were already there. Within a few minutes, masses were on Talaat Harb. I cannot tell how many there were, but I would guess around five thousand. It felt as if a wave had been initiated that grasps everybody within its reach. And the wave was heading in direction of the heavily guarded Ramses square.

First, the scenery reminded me of a public holiday. Families had come, people were smiling and looked joyful, it seemed; spectators were standing on their balconies so that everybody could follow. But on second look, I also realized that many people were bracing themselves, in anticipation of what would happen. Shop owners had pulled down their curtains and locked their gates, and many protesters were wearing masks or had stuffed paper in their noses. Maybe the people on the balconies were just too afraid to come down to participate? After all, the vigor of today’s “day of wrath” doesn’t only mobilize people for a common cause, but also intensifies their means. So maybe the people on the balcony had seen it coming?

As the head of the procession came closer to the police, it was like the point of no return was already crossed and the face-off set to commence. For a rugged regime that considers demonstrations “a threat to its security” and outlaws them accordingly, the pervasiveness of the protests probably – and horrifyingly so – equals a major assault to be terminated. The people however see in the protests the (only?) means to achieve the termination of the regime, which is why the pervasiveness of state-control has probably only served to trigger the scale of the demonstrations. Both add up.

The course of action that followed hastily was perplexing. A spiral of aggression was unleashed. Bullets of teargas were shot in the crowd. They were picked up and thrown back. Once the bullets were shot, the crowd would disperse and move back a bit, only to align and approach again, but each time more intensely, in response to which more bullets would be fired. The rush of (thousand) commands, but no conquer. While this was happening, people were screaming, continued to chant, and some were smiling. Maybe it was because they knew that with each bullet fired the regime would come closer to defeat. And others stopped happily to greet a foreigner, maybe because they are proud to share their achievements with the world. The sparkle of emancipation?

While some people were marching slowly, others, the ones up front, would run in zick-zack, amidst teargas, so to not have to retreat. People started to suffocate. The air feels heavy when you inhale teargas, as if suddenly all the oxygen was gone, your eyes start burning, the vision becomes blurry and an immediate sickness takes a hold of you. I thought I was far enough away from the bullets, but once the gas spreads through the air and is magnified by bullet after bullet, it recklessly conquers a wide territory. As people were still joining the demonstrations and protests had erupted at the other blockades all over the city as well, from which more bullets of teargas were fired, Cairo was soon drenched in the bitter combination of smoke and chloride.

Against the teargas, people were holding onions under their noses to block the nostril and washing their eyes with Cola or Pepsi, which works best because the sugar trounces the acid. To support the people on the streets, residents were throwing water bottles out of their windows to help protestors wash their faces. Within few minutes, I saw three elder men and one woman that had collapsed under the pressure of the trouble on the streets. Immediately, people rushed to help them, the solidarity they showed was imposing. I felt that what I saw on the streets today was different from what I had encountered before. Because the demeanor of public life here can be a bit rough sometimes, while customs of communal courtesy are suspended to the private life, the repository of gentleness. For today however, when people were united in anguish and by a common cause (at least/at last?), this was different.

And the spiral kept spinning, further turning the events into a collective movement. It was around two. By then all the prayers were over and more and more people who might initially have had reservations against joining the protests or feared the reaction of the regime joined the streets. It was as if the paradox that there is a lack of public space to actually exercise the collectivity, be it Egyptian or Muslim, that is so highly valued here, had come to be resolved a bit. This time it was a collectivity in public.

But the spiral also kept spinning to further turn things violent. The face-off between the police and the protestors intensified. More teargas meant less willingness to step back for the people once they comprehended how far they had come already. They were far from being dispersed or backing off. The police, in turn, launched their riot-trucks. Those are heavily armed and shielded unimogs. At their top, there is a small window, through which a policeman can reach. From there, he can look out – and fire.

While I was on Talaat Harb and only saw what was happening there, the same had happened at other parts of the city as well. The lines of police opened up to those trucks. They started speeding up immediately, with the guy on the top shooting more teargas and plastic bullets. They were aiming arbitrarily in the direction of the biggest group of people. Now, everybody was running. Running from the bullets, running to find a spot to hide, and running not to get run over by the people around you. But people did not run away to leave. They would gather again and withstand the intimidation of the police. They built street-blocks with anything they could grab and pile up. Some reached for stones to throw at the police while others were urging them to remain peaceful.

It was chaotic and very hectic. But the police had failed again. People were not leaving. It was them who stayed while the trucks were ordered back behind the lines of the riot-police. After this clash, a moment of calm came about that gave everybody the chance to look around. Still, all the roads around Midan Talaat Harb were blocked. There was a big black cloud over Tahrir. The street to the Egyptian Museum was completely sealed off by police. So as it was getting later and no getaway apparent, I started to wonder how I would get out. I wanted to be home before dusk. The problem was that my flat is at the other side of the Nile, in Dokki, the direct way to which is over Tahrir, which however was blocked. Hence I had to figure out a way through the blockades in the northern direction to get home, which for the reason of distance alone I knew was going to take several hours.

But had it not been for this detour, I don’t think that I would have realized the background to the anger of the people, the desperation they turned into a mobilizing force for upheaval. After I managed to squeeze through a small alley to get past the police-barricades, heading out of Downtown brought me to Shubra. The immediately recognizable difference between those two neighboring districts is emblematic for the increasing gap between rich and poor in Egypt. It is mindboggling.

A few meters out of Downtown, a vast area unfolds that looks completely different: houses are crumbling, partly shattered and much smaller in size; the convoluted streets are packed with people that dress practically rather than elegantly while one out of four is unemployed and many live off around 50 dollars a month; there are no sidewalks, and if there are, then they are being used as market-space for people to exhibit their goods; besides all that, there are animals, donkeys, hen, dogs; it is polluted and everything is covered in a layer of dust and sand, trash is piling up and everything that is not being used no more is left to decay, including vehicles, houses, products of everyday usage. When I was walking by, some people looked at me a bit befuddled, maybe because foreigners don’t usually come there, I suppose, even though those streets are so close to the main places of inner Cairo.

Inside the district, no protests were taking place; people were rather going about their everyday business. But at major intersections, they were also gathering, seeking to progress to Tahrir. Their movement was also restricted, but less concertedly so. Maybe it is a reflection of the way that it has been going for too long a time that public attention is vested elsewhere. So even though it might be shortsighted, I linked how the protests were unfolding to the situation in the districts I crossed. Two differences occurred to me: In contrast to Downtown, where the crowd was from all walks of life, the protestors outside were mostly young men, there were no families this time, only very few women and no foreigners or reporters at all; and it also seemed like there was both less restraint among the people to hold back the anger against the regime, which might have built up for so many years of exclusion and inequity, and a bigger inclination to exert to aggression against not only the police, but also the artifacts of the wealth that they don’t share and get to enjoy. It was different to what I had seen in Downtown in that when they were being attacked by bullets of teargas people resorted to throwing stones at the police more fervently and they destroyed billboards and went against shops in a more agitated manner.

From there, I went over the railways bridge to cross the Nile. I saw somebody water-skiing. A tourist maybe or local resident, indifferent to what was happening around, dismissive of the force of the protests, maybe even fearful of the threat to the current state of things that the demonstrations set about. I wasn’t sure. Maybe my characterization of the people and the scenery around condensed into few incidents the attributes and traits of thousands, only to capture the diversity of human life. But I did so knowingly. Because the intensity and immediacy in which all people were showing courage today and solidarity, anger and frustration actually felt like there was one.

When I left the bridge on the other side of the river, the road along the Nile in Southern direction back home was blocked. So I entered the streets of Kitkat and Imbaba, a district that is to Mohandessin and Dokki what greater Shubra is to Downtown; destitute and deprived while bordering with more prosperous neighborhoods. Here also, protests were happening and events unfolding in a way similar to what I had seen before: despite the differences, people were united in their struggle for a common cause.

It was this most captivating feeling I had when I arrived home. Overwhelmed by the moment, a moment in time after which everything can change, who knows; a moment in life that is not about morality or legality or any other form of representation that can be tainted; it is a moment that brings together humanity and entails all the forces that can turn this struggle for life into good hopefully, or better – but also be distorted again. The next days will show, initiated by the moment today that has it all. Times are changing.

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