Saturday, January 29, 2011

An eyewitness account of the Egypt protests

Egypt protests
A protester flashes a victory sign as a police truck burns in Cairo. Despite teargas, water cannon and the arrival of the army, the regime's curfew showed no sign of being observed. Photograph: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images

This is the scene that took place in every district of every city in Egypttoday. The one I saw: we started off as about 20 activists, after Friday prayers in a small mosque in the interior of the popular Cairo district of Imbaba. "The people - demand – the fall of this regime!" Again and again the call went out. We started to walk: "Your security. Your police –killed our brothers in Suez."

The numbers grew. Every balcony was full of people: women smiling, waving, dangling babies to the tune of the chants: "Bread! Freedom! Social justice!" Old women called: "God give you victory."

For more than an hour the protest wound through the narrow lanes. Kids ran alongside. A woman picking through garbage and loading scraps into plastic bags paused and raised her hand in a salute. By the time we wound on to a flyover to head for downtown we were easily 3,000 people.

The government had closed the internet down in the whole country at 2am. By 9am, half the mobile phones were down. By 11, not a single mobile was working. Post offices said the international lines had been taken down. This is a regime fighting for its life. And fighting for its ability to carry on looting this country. As the protesters walk through Imbaba, we note the new emergency hospital where building has been stopped because of a government decision to turn it into a luxury block of flats. The latest scandal of this kind is the Madinti project. The chant goes up: "A pound of lentils for ten pounds – a Madinti share for 50p."

Now, as I write, the president has announced a curfew from an hour ago. And the army has started to deploy. If I were not writing this, I would still be out on the street. Every single person I know is out there; people who have never been on protests are wrapping scarves round their faces and learning that sniffing vinegar helps you get through teargas. Teargas! This is a gas that makes you feel the skin is peeling off your face. For several minutes I could not even open my eyes to see what was going on. And when I did, I saw that one of my nieces had stopped in the middle of the road, her eyes streaming. One of her shoes lost, she was holding out her arms: "I can't, I can't."

"You have to. Run." We all held arms and ran. This was on 6 October Bridge, just under the Rameses Hilton, and the air was thick with smoke. The thud of the guns was unceasing. We were trying to get to Tahrir Square, the main square of Cairo, the traditional destination of protests. But ahead of us was a wall of teargas. We ran down the slope of the bridge and straight into a line of central security soldiers. They were meant to block the way. We were three women, dishevelled, eyes streaming. We came right up to them and they made way. "Run," they urged us, "Run!"

"How can you do this?" I reproached them, eye to eye.

"What can we do? We want to take off this uniform and join you!"

We jumped into a boat and asked the boatman to take us closer to Qasr el-Nil bridge, which would bring us near Tahrir. From the river, you could see people running across the bridges. Some young men caught the gas canisters and threw them into the river, where they burned and fizzed on the water.

We scrambled on shore under Qasr el-Nil bridge and joined the massive protest that had broken the security cordon and was heading to Tahrir. I cannot tell how many thousands were there. People were handing out tissues to soak in vinegar for your nose, Pepsi to bathe your eyes. Water to drink. People were helping others who were hurt. The way ahead of us was invisible behind the smoke – except for bursts of flame. The great hotels had darkened their ground floors and locked their doors. The guns thudded continuously and there was a new rattling sound. The people would pause and then a great cry would go up and they would press on. We sang the national anthem.

Once, a long time ago, my then young son, watching a young man run to help an old man who had dropped a bag in the middle of the street, said: "The thing about Egypt is that everyone is very individual, but also part of a great co-operative project." Today, we are doing what we do best, and what this regime has tried to destroy: we have come together, as individuals, in a great co-operative effort to reclaim our country.

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