ON Friday, the “day of rage,” I was in the streets with the protesters. Friends and I participated in a peaceful demonstration that started at the Amr Ibn al-As Mosque in Old Cairo near the Church of St. George. We set off chanting, “The people want the regime to fall!” and we were greeted with a torrent of tear gas fired by the police. We began to shout, “Peaceful, Peaceful,” trying to show the police that we were not hostile, we were demanding nothing but our liberty. That only increased their brutality. Fighting began to spread to the side streets in the ancient, largely Coptic neighborhood.
A friend and I took shelter in a small alleyway, where we were warmly welcomed. The locals warned us not to try to escape to the metro station, and pointed us toward a different escape route; many of them even joined the protests. Eventually, a man drove us in his own car to safety.
Clearly, the scent of Tunisia’s “jasmine revolution” has quickly reached Egypt. Following the successful expulsion in Tunis of the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the call arose on Facebook for an Egyptian revolution, to begin on Jan. 25. Yet the public here mocked those young people who had taken to Twitter and Facebook to post calls for protest: Since when was the spark of revolution ignited on a pre-planned date? Had revolution become like a romantic rendezvous?
Such questions abounded on social networking sites; but even cynics — myself included — became hopeful as the calls continued to circulate. In the blink of an eye, the Twitter and Facebook generation had successfully rallied hundreds of thousands to its cause, across the nation. Most of them were young people who had not been politically active, and did not belong to the traditional circles of the political opposition. The Muslim Brotherhood is not behind this popular revolution, as the regime claims. Those who began it and organized it are seething in anger at police cruelty and the repression and torture meted out by the Hosni Mubarak regime.
And, from the outset, the government decided to deal with the people with the utmost violence and brutality in the hope that the Tunisian experience would not be repeated. For days now, tear gas has been the oxygen Egyptians have inhaled. So much was in the air that there are reports of small children and the elderly having suffocated on the fumes in their homes. The security forces in Cairo started by shooting rubber bullets at the protesters, before progressing onto live ammunition, ending dozens of lives.
In Suez, where the demonstrations have been tremendously violent, live ammunition was used against civilians from the first day. A friend of mine who lives there sent me a message saying that, Thursday morning, the city looked as if it had emerged from a particularly brutal war: its streets were burned and destroyed, dead bodies were strewn everywhere; we would never know how many victims had fallen to the police bullets in Suez, my friend solemnly concluded.
After having escaped from Old Cairo on Friday, my friends and I headed for Tahrir Square, the focal point of the modern city and site of the largest protests. We joined another demonstration making its way through downtown, consisting mostly of young people. From a distance, we could hear the rumble of the protest in Tahrir Square, punctuated by the sounds of bullets and screams. Minute by painstaking minute, we protesters were gaining ground, and our numbers were growing. People shared Coca-Cola bottles, moistening their faces with soda to avoid the effects of tear gas. Some people wore masks, while others had sprinkled vinegar into their kaffiyehs.
Shopkeepers handed out bottles of mineral water to the protesters, and civilians distributed food periodically. Women and children leaned from windows and balconies, chanting with the dissidents. I will never forget the sight of an aristocratic woman driving through the narrow side streets in her luxurious car, urging the protesters to keep up their spirits, telling them that they would soon be joined by tens of thousands of other citizens arriving from different parts of the city.
After several failed attempts to break through the security checkpoints and get to Tahrir Square, we sat in a cafe to rest. Three officers from the regime’s Central Security Forces, all in civilian clothing, sat down next to us. They appeared to be completely relaxed, as though they were impervious to the sounds of bullets and shouting, or to the numbers of wounded and dead Egyptians being reported on Al Jazeera, which was being broadcast on the coffee shop’s television. They and their colleagues were all over the city, spying on their countrymen.
Hour by hour on Friday evening, the chaos increased. Police stations and offices of the ruling National Democratic Party were on fire across the country. I wept when news came that 3,000 volunteers had formed a human chain around the national museum to protect it from looting and vandalism. Those who do such things are certainly highly educated, cultivated people, neither vandals nor looters, as they are accused of being by those who have vandalized and looted Egypt for generations.
The curfew meant that I couldn’t return home, so I spent the night at a friend’s house near the Parliament building and Interior Ministry, one of the most turbulent parts of the city. That night, the sound of bullets was unceasing. We watched from the window as police shot with impunity at the protesters and at a nearby gas station, hoping, perhaps, for an explosion. Despite all of this and despite the curfew, the demonstrations did not stop, fueled by popular fury at President Mubarak’s slowness to address the people and, a few hours later, indignation at the deplorable speech he finally gave.
On Saturday morning, I left my friend’s house and headed home. I walked across broken glass strewn in the streets, and I could smell the aftermath of the fires that had raged the night before. The army, called in by the regime to put down the protests, was everywhere. I tried first to cross over to Tahrir Square, in order to see for myself whether the museum was safe. A passer-by told me that the army was forbidding people from entering the square, and that shots were being fired. I asked him, anxiously, “Is the army shooting at the demonstrators?” He answered, confidently: “Of course not. The Egyptian army has never fired a shot against an Egyptian citizen, and will not do so now.” We both openly expressed our wish for that to be true, for the army to side with the people.
NOW that army troops were monitoring the demonstrations, the police force had completely disappeared from the streets, as if to taunt people with the choice between their presence and chaos. Armed gangs have mushroomed across the city, seeking to loot shops and terrorize civilians in their homes. (Saturday night, a gang tried to rob the building where I have been staying, but was unable to break in.) Local volunteers have formed committees to stand up to the criminals, amidst an overwhelming feeling that the ruling regime is deliberately stoking chaos.
Late Saturday, as I headed toward Corniche Street on the Nile River, I walked through a side street in the affluent Garden City neighborhood, where I found a woman crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me that her son, a worker at a luxury hotel, had been shot in the throat by a police bullet, despite not being a part of the demonstrations. He was now lying paralyzed in a hospital bed, and she was on her way to the hotel to request medical leave for him. I embraced her, trying to console her, and she said through her tears, “We cannot be silent about what has happened. Silence is a crime. The blood of those who fell cannot be wasted.”
I agree. Silence is a crime. Even if the regime continues to bombard us with bullets and tear gas, continues to block Internet access and cut off our mobile phones, we will find ways to get our voices across to the world, to demand freedom and justice.