- Life Style
Yesterday afternoon I sat on the road in the middle of Tahrir Square next to fresh graffiti calling for the ousting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Never has cold concrete felt so good.
The day began and ended in Cairo’s central square. Hundreds of protesters appeared at around 2PM and pushed their way through a half-hearted attempt at a riot cordon. There then followed an improvised tour of symbols of the regime; the shiny new National Democratic Party (NDP) headquarters where fists were raised and middle fingers saluted, the Maspero television building, the state-controlled Al-Ahram newspaper headquarters, and the mirrored Gomhoreyya building with its giant picture of Mubarak that was the scene of a protest last year because of its vitriolic coverage of the Khaled Saeed murder.
In between, protesters rambled Cairo’s streets, big and small. Bystanders gaped, cheered, some joined. A market trader in the Wekalet al-Balah market raised a chair at the march threatening a physical welcome if demonstrators dared set foot in the sea of brightly colored rails of clothing behind him.
Later politician Ayman Nour appeared and, in a grand fashion, presented a riot police officer with an Egyptian flag. He and his acolytes assaulted the officer with kisses. Happy Police Day and all that. The bewildered officer held the flag awkwardly, like it was a turd, before returning it.
Non football-related moving assemblies are not tolerated in Egypt. As the numbers increased and reports of other marches in Mohandiseen and Shubra came in I wondered if we had all inadvertently entered some 5th dimension. In Galaa Street I stood less than 100 meters away from a mosque where one cold Friday morning in 2009 during the Gaza war I watched plain-clothed policemen descend on men emerging from prayer even before they had the time to put their shoes on, and beat some of them senseless.
Normal programming was resumed in Dokki, on the Galaa Bridge, where some 500 protesters, including a man in a wheelchair, did battle with a riot police cordon.
Protesters demonstrated with riot police soldiers—conscripts--who used their batons as protesters pushed. “What can we do, ehna ghalaba,” they responded.
“If we’re allowed through the cordon then we will all be respected. We will all be treated like human beings,” a man said. The soldiers stared at their feet.
Egypt is often described as a country of many wonders and one of them is security bodies’ inexplicable stupidity. After deploying three rows of riot police against protesters on the Galaa Bridge, demonstrators walked five minutes up the Nile to the October Bridge where police resistance took the form of ten twitching riot police soldiers who were pushed aside in a matter of minutes.
There was a carnival atmosphere in Tahrir Square as the march joined the thousands already there. People sat on the square’s grassy island, sat on the ground or just milled about, luxuriating in the ecstasy and newness of being able to move without being herded about by some Jobsworth traffic policeman or plain-clothed officer, slowly absorbing the fact that they were finally in charge of a piece of their Egypt.
One of the day’s highlights was watching a man scrawl “Down with Hosni Mubarak” on the back of a large NDP Youth advertising hoarding, as the crowd looked on and cheered.
The next time I saw the hoarding it had been torn down, and people were stamping on the NDP logo.
Security forces reverted to type when protesters attempted to reach parliament. Rocks thrown by riot police injured numerous demonstrators. Later as the riot police cordon began creeping forward demonstrators initially fled before returning, their bodies forming a Mexican wave. As dusk fell, the police sounded their sirens before teargas canisters were thrown into the crowd. It was an eerie scene of flashing traffic lights, the wail of the police trucks and hacking, coughing bodies searching desperately for water under the shadow of the monolithic Mogamaa complex.
But still they did not leave. One resounding chant rang out above all others: el sha3b yoreed esqat el nezaam (The people. Want. The regime to be removed) delivered in an insistent staccato.
The Interior Ministry has made the convenient and farcical claim that the notoriously tarmac-shy Muslim Brotherhood was responsible for the Day of Anger. But then the regime blames the "prohibited group" when a member of the cabinet spills his coffee, because there is political mileage in it. I doubt anyone will buy either this story, or the claim that the demonstrators were political activists led astray by sinister foreign elements.
The only foreign element at work yesterday was Tunisia, whose spirit was everywhere. I asked one man however who looked around 60-something, whether the events in Tunisia had influenced his decision to attend the demonstration. “Not really. We were angry long before their revolution happened,” he said.
It is this anger that formed the bedrock of yesterday’s protests and will fuel any future uprising--to which the regime will respond by tear gassing, beating, shooting and killing protesters as it did in the early hours of this morning. It (“the information technology government”) may also demand of ISPs that they again block Twitter (which has proved invaluable for spreading information about protests) and block the mobile phone numbers of members of the Front for the Defence of Egyptian Protesters.
They can do this, but it will be to the sound of investors rapidly pulling out; the Egyptian stock market reportedly lost nearly $4 billion and counting in the first 15 minutes of trading today.
The Egyptian regime ignores human rights groups’ demands that it stop stomping over the rights of its citizens, smug in the knowledge that it has the political backing of foreign powers happy to look in the other direction. It will be interesting to see whether it can do the same with its financial backers, now that Egyptians have inconveniently drawn the curtain back on the reality of what life is like under a regime which is happy to steamroll over its citizens in pursuit of its neoliberal aspirations.