6 February 2011
Living day-to-day through the crisis
It all started that fateful Tuesday.
Tuesday 25 January was Police Day, a national holiday. I was home with my nine-month old baby boy and it was a treat for both of us that my husband had the day off. We were looking forward to a quiet day or perhaps some time out of doors in the warm sunshine. We had heard that a demonstration was being planned in central Cairo, but thought this would be far from where we live in Giza. The demonstration was to demand political change and an end to corruption, and to protest against poverty and unemployment.
By noontime we were getting telephone calls from friends who advised us to stay at home; the streets were unsafe, they said. The demonstrations had swelled, erupting in several spots in Cairo and Giza, and the demonstrators were all converging on Downtown Cairo and Tahrir Square.
We decided to stay at home. On TV, the various channels carried coverage of the demonstrations. Being a part-time reporter with Watani, I called my colleagues to ask about details. I learnt that the demonstrators were, in the major part, young men and women calling for change. The demonstrators were peaceful and the security forces used no violence against them. In certain instances, my colleagues said, it was quite the other way round; the demonstrators, in their zeal to reach Parliament building or that of the Interior Ministry, attacked the security forces who exercised self-restraint and did not attack.
Midnight, however, marked the end of self-restraint. The security forces dispersed the demonstrators using batons, tear gas, water canon, and rubber bullets.
Wednesday and Thursday
Wednesday and Thursday passed by more or less peacefully. My husband went down to work, as did most people in Egypt. I was again at home with my baby, while keeping in touch with my colleagues and constantly browsing through the various TV channels. Alexandria and Suez were the scenes of particular violence.
Smaller demonstrations erupted in various spots in Cairo and were chased by the security forces. More than a thousand demonstrators were detained.
Anxiety set in as my husband was informed that an office his company deals with in Suez had been broken into, the workers inside attacked, and some EGP1.5 million robbed. Things began to look ugly and the danger not so far away.
Thursday evening, news of vandalism and looting of public and private property circulated. Friends called to inform of the burning and looting of Arkadia Mall, east of Cairo; Carrefour hypermarket in Maadi, as well as large numbers of small shops in various neighbourhoods in Cairo. This prompted the President to impose a curfew in the cities of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez.
Calls were being made for a large demonstration on Friday. By that time the call for President Mubarak to step down was vociferous. True, Mubarak had been there for some 30 years, but there was no clear figure or movement—apart from Islamist or minor opposition movements—sufficiently experienced to step in. Would we be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire?
The first hours into Friday signalled the disruption of Internet services. And by 9:30am mobile phone services were down. It didn’t make matters any better that my baby woke up feeling unwell, and there had been no water since the previous evening. My husband went down for medicine, water, and basic supplies. My mother called to check on us; when she heard that Baby was unwell she invited us over—my parents also live in Giza—saying we might as well keep together at times like this; no-one could tell what was coming.
Once at my parent’s place my husband, father and brothers went to the market to buy supplies. It was obvious we could face shortages, and the family decided we would do well to stock on such things as rice, oil, sugar, bread, and other basic necessities. I was relieved to find help with Baby, and it sure made me feel more secure to be in the midst of family and long-time neighbours.
The demonstrations grew more vociferous calling for the President to step down. By nightfall, all TV channels carried views of the ruling National Democratic Party headquarters vandalised and set ablaze. Other fires erupted in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and several other places.
It was announced that the Interior Ministry security forces were pulled out because of fatigue and overwhelming attacks against them—several police stations were captured, burned, robbed, and the detainees therein let out. The army was asked to step in. A curfew was imposed, but the demonstrators and the rioters defied the curfew and remained on the streets.
By midnight President Mubarak came on national TV to address the nation. For me he appeared strong even if rather tired. He announced the dismissal of the Cabinet, and promised reform. The following day Mubarak assigned Omar Suleiman as Vice President and Ahmed Shafiq with forming a new Cabinet that would answer the people’s demands for reform. I uttered a silent prayer for Egypt.
With the withdrawal of the Interior Ministry security forces—which many described as treason—anarchy appeared to reign. There were very disturbing news on TV that Pharaonic antiquities were being plundered. Shops were broken into and looted. But most upsetting was news that Egypt’s prisons had been forced open, thousands of convicts set free and were on the prowl. News flew around that homes were being broken into, families terrorised and forced to hand in whatever money or jewellery they had, under threat of attack. Empty flats or homes were seized. Shops big or small were looted.
We almost panicked. But this was no time for panic. Our next-door neighbours and the families in our street began getting together to discuss how to defend ourselves. The men decided to form their own defence squads and patrol the street. Armed with sticks, iron pipes, knives—anything that may serve as a weapon—plus of course any licensed gun any neighbour may happen to own, they patrolled the street to keep out attackers. They divided themselves into two squads, one to act as night watch and another during daytime. They gathered some rocks which they piled up at the road entry to keep prowlers out.
At home, we gathered empty glass bottles, all sorts of spray, any wooden or metal utensils around, and insect-killer sprays, and placed them all on the dining table. We pulled the table close to the door in order to be on hand lest any prowler manages to come up to our door.
Sunday and Monday
It was a near-impossibility for anyone to go to work. We only went out for emergency. The Internet was still down. The Stock Exchange and the banks were off. The demonstrations continued. The curfew was still on from 4:00pm till 8:00am. There were shortages in supplies, especially bread and fresh produce. Prices had spiralled. Tourism had crashed and foreigners were leaving the country. The outlook for the economy and jobs was bleak.
Ahmed Shafiq was already into forming a new Cabinet. He picked figures who mostly had the respect of the people. Suleiman called for dialogue with the formal opposition, which the opposition rejected, and promised there would be re-elections shortly in all the contested constituencies. Shafiq promised his Cabinet would bring in reform. Even though the demonstrators in Tahrir persisted in calling for the downfall of Mubarak, other voices could now be heard calling for him to stay on till Egypt was back on its feet. In all cases, presidential elections were scheduled for later this year.
I called Watani and was told to do my work at home and either dictate it by telephone or bring it over to the paper if matters calmed down.
The Interior Ministry announced the security forces would be back on the streets the following day. Everyone gave a sigh of relief. The army was doing a fine job, but it was obvious it could not replace the security forces. Each had its own domain.
The worry and strain were taking their toll on all of us. My baby could feel the nervousness around. My neighbour told me her four-year-old daughter, who normally slept alone, insisted on only sleeping in her mother’s arms. And her elder daughter, who is nine, described to me in whispers how her heartbeat speed up in fear when she views the news on TV. “My heart beats far quicker than the 70 beats a minute it’s supposed to beat,” the little girl said.
Was this it? This was the big day for the ‘million-person demonstration’. A call had been sent for people to demonstrate in Tahrir Square. The square can carry no more than a hundred thousand people, so how can a million stand there? And even if others demonstrated in various places, I wondered whether the demonstrators realised what ‘one million’ really was.
The voices of the Muslim Brotherhood had, for the past couple of days, begun to be heard. Islamic and jihadi slogans could be seen among the demonstrators. Mohamed ElBaradei, who had flown into Egypt on Thursday evening to join the demonstrators, and who declared he was willing to lead Egypt through a transitional stage, did not appear to have gained much backing. We took him with apprehension; he had never had a clear agenda.
We sat, our eyes glued to the television set, closely following what went on. Following the euphoric calls for Mubarak to step down with which the day began, and the relatively few demonstrators calling for Mubarak to stay on, the afternoon came with the crucial question: what after Mubarak steps down, if he does? None of the demonstrators gave any answer to that.
The demonstrations spread right up to our street. But this was a relatively small group who carried slogans and chanted for Egypt. “Whoever loves Egypt can never destroy Egypt.”
The President’s address
Tuesday evening president Mubarak went on TV to address the nation. We heard him talk of the demonstrations, the vandalism, and the turmoil that had been sweeping Egypt all through the week. He said that he had responded to the calls for change by instating a new Cabinet, a vice president, and calling on Parliament to conduct re-elections in all the constituencies in which the elections had been contested. He said the new Parliament would be assigned with amending the Constitution to stipulate a maximum period for any one person to act as president. Tears welled up in my eyes as I heard him remind how he had served Egypt diligently ever since he was a young military pilot. “I have served this country to the best of my ability and now I want to rest,” he said. “I never planned to run for president later this year, and I say clearly that I will not do so. I will stay on till the end of my term because I love this country and want to see it through a peaceful change of power. I do not want it to suffer from anarchy.
“I love this country in which I was born, in which I served, and in which I plan to die.”
This is a man worthy of respect, we unanimously said, hoping that would be the end of the crisis.
Wednesday and Thursday
Wednesday and Thursday brought further demonstrations, many of them pro-Mubarak, and they clashed with the original demonstrators. This was a sorry sight. Hundreds were injured and some five died. It was a setback that made us feel there would be no light at the end of the tunnel.
Then Omar Suleiman and Ahmed Shafiq talked to the opposition and to representatives of the demonstrators and announced the results on TV. Even though the two more significant opposition parties, the Wafd and the Tagammu asked for more time to list their demands, matters appeared positive; Thursday ended on a hopeful note.
The Muslim Brotherhood, however, had refused to engage in any dialogue had announced they were rallying for demonstrations on Friday. We awaited the dawn of a new day, fervently praying that matters would settle down in a manner that would be for Egypt’s good.