Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The trip to Cairo commences

Blog day one: Trip to Cairo.

January 25th marked a day that will forever have changed the face of Egypt. Protests began in the Egyptian Capital of Cairo, as well as throughout other cities in Egypt. A movement organized primarily by the youth via popular online social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook rapidly exploded nationwide. On the first day of the protests, I don't think anyone expected them to get as big as they actually did. I watched with apprehension for any updates on Facebook, translating the Arabic blurbs as they flashed onto my mini-feed in an attempt to stay on top of what was going on. Friends were posting their experiences, which grew increasingly worse. It began with tear gas, then protesters being pushed around by the police, to the outrage that sparked the protests that have continued to this day.

Wednesday's protests showed that the movement was growing in momentum. In an attempt to put an end to the spread of the movement online, the Ministry of Information disabled access to Twitter. This deterred few though, as quick fixes and proxy servers were blasted all over Facebook. Protesters were making their demands clearer by the minute, ultimately reaching the consensus that President Hosni Mubarak had to go. Corruption in the government had to be addressed, and the growing youth unemployment had to be swayed.

Tahrir square has become the focal point of these protests, but by no means the sole location of any activity. I shall discuss that in later postings ;). In Hurghada, we weren't really seeing anything. Karim was growing increasingly worried about his family, and I was increasingly itching to see history being made for my own eyes. We decided to make the drive to Cairo, originally planning on leaving on Thursday. Due to work and travel restrictions however, we were forced to delay until Friday…the Day of Rage…

The Ministry of Information noticed that the blocking of Twitter did little to stem the flow of Internet activism. This prompted the Internet as a whole to get shut down, after attempts to block Facebook again were bypassed by people. It was not until today that any net connection has been restored, and God only knows how long it will last!

Restricting access to the Internet was done in an attempt to ensure that the protests for Friday would be minimized. Instead, it had the opposite effect. What was originally a movement dominated by the youth became a movement spread by word of mouth, resulting in numbers unimaginable showing up in Tahrir Square in central Cairo to express their support. Banners calling for Mubarak's resignation were held aloft by protesters who chanted the same. Although I was never able to make it all the way down into Tahrir, as we showed up around 8 in the evening, we did make our way down to the area to see the results of the protest. What we saw shocked me.

Anyone who has been in Cairo knows full well that 8 p.m. on a Friday usually means a flurry of activity throughout the country. Parties, weddings, celebrations dominate the night, leaving the streets crowded and traffic flowing until well into the early hours of Saturday morning. We were met by a ghost town. Stores were shut, people were already inside as we came just as the first night's curfew was imposed.  The Kornish was empty of cars, minus the army patrols that were gradually filing into the streets. I watched as Army personnel set up road blocks with their military Hummers on the side, thinking of how exciting it was to watch this scene unfold before my eyes. Driving further towards downtown, we saw the Mounib Bridge on fire in both directions, as some protesters had set fire to cars on the bridge itself. (again, in a later blog I will highlight the difference between the protesters and those causing destruction!). Groups of men were still on the streets, making their way slowly home after spending the day in Tahrir.

While many may have thought that Friday was the pinnacle of the movement, instead it became more of the starting point for what came the following few days.

Karim and I were staying with his parents along the Kornish in Maadi. Inside Maadi was safe, however had we gotten to the city just a few hours earlier, we would have witnessed protests staged directly outside of Karim's house. At one point his father opened the window to see what was happening and was caught in a haze of tear gas. Now, Karim's house is next to a discreet prison, that were you not told was there, you wouldn't know any better. Would seem to make sense, putting a prison around the location where many police live in Cairo. After Friday though, and the complete disappearance of the police from the streets (seriously…where do 1.2 million "central security forces" just disappear to!??!), our location next to a prison was not exactly prime real-estate. We had already heard rumours of prisoners attempting to break out of their jail cells in other prisons throughout Cairo, although unable to entirely verify if it was true or not. Now we know that it was probably true, and State TV puts estimates at about 15,000 prisoners who have escaped since the escalation of the movement.

Karim and I headed up to his roof to scope out the surroundings and see what we could see. Needless to say the view was amazing. An empty Kornish, and growing army presence on the streets. Next to us we could hear the deafening roar of prisoners who, encourage by the rumours of other break outs, were attempting to break out also. They were rattling their cell doors, leaving the guards with no choice but to fire warning shots into the air, and occasionally sporadic machine gun fire, in which direction I have no idea.

When we made it back downstairs to the street, the Army were bringing in armoured vehicles on to the roads. I watched as youth on the street swarmed the Army vehicle, in what at first I thought was an act of aggression, but which actually ended up being complete support and delight at seeing the Army assume their presence on the streets. Youth were cheering, hugging and kissing the Army personnel as though greeting a long lost friend. It truly was a remarkable sight to witness.

What the night held in store, I couldn't even imagine… Keep reading to find out ;)    

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