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On the Ground in Egypt: Cables from Peace Activists in Cairo

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Imagine yourself traveling from the NY area to Gaza with a returning Code Pink peace contingent when you find yourself stuck in Cairo just as the massive national protests shocked the world. 

These emailed 'cables' from activist Felice Gelman give great detail and texture about the 'live' experience we so badly miss in the age of declining original independent reporting.

Cairo Uprising by GW
DAY 4: Internet has come back up, largely I think so that financial transactions can be processed.  People lined up at ATMs everywhere.  Also out are pro-Mubarak forces., vastly smaller than the anti-Mubarak forces.  First rally I saw this morning was about 200 people in Talat Harb Sq. about 1/4 mi. from Tahrir Sq.  All men and very threatening.  They had nothing to say other than, "We love Mubarak.  He gives Egypt everything."  Group was slowly joined by some shopkeepers whose business has been hurt badly by the protests.   The pro-Mubarak types seem to be trying very hard to create a confrontation, and this is what everyone in Tahrir that I talked to tells me they are worried about.  

Outside central Cairo, life is coming back to more normal although traffic is still sparse.  In the area I was (near the airport), there were small anti-Mubarak and small pro-Mubarak demonstrations/processions with the balance of numbers definitely on the anti-Mubarak side.  

The streets, apart from the protests, remain filled with political discourse and discussion.  People who haven't been able to talk for 35 years have a lot to say!

The internet cafe where I am sitting is in an alley just off Talat Harb between Tahrir and Talat Harb Squares -- right between the anti- and pro- forces.  The owner is standing guard outside with the shutters half pulled down because he is fearful of pro-Mubarak thugs creating a fight.  Closer to the demonstration in Tahrir, there are civilian manned checkpoints searching people for weapons.  There have been several incidents of thugs trying to infiltrate the square with weapons.  

Mubarak's speech saying he will not resign, but will make some constitutional changes and will not run again has upped the ante.  Protesters in Tahrir Sq.  were outraged and told me it was an insult to the Egyptian people.  Now, for example, someone from the Popular Committee for Change told me it is no longer enough for Mubarak to go into exile.  He must be tried and held accountable for the 500+ deaths of demonstrators.  Others felt his speech was to create a split in the united front demanding regime change.  Of course people are tired of the disruption -- no money, no fuel, no work, no pay, and having to stay up all night guarding their homes -- and are eager to bring this to an end.  But, the crowd in Tahrir overnight was far larger than usual, and the crowd this morning was much larger and building.  No matter what, a political process has been unleashed in Egypt that will be very difficult to turn back.  The smaller demonstrations in the suburbs, the political signs on the windows of cars all point to this.  As corroboration is the very observable fact that the anti-Mubarak protest is organic and grassroots.  People are sitting in the streets with pieces of cardboard making their own signs and discussing the slogans as they go.  The pro-Mubarak supporters are carrying Egyptian flags and pre-printed signs.   

Now pro-Mubarak protesters have broken  into Tahrir and have started attacking demonstrators with stones and sticks.  It's getting very ugly.  This is what the protesters have been fearing for days.

DAY 2: From Egypt to the Promised Land

Sunday, January 30, 2011 Crowds are just starting to gather in Tahrir Square to continue voicing their demand that the Mubarak regime go.  The army remains stationed on the roads leading into the square, preventing cars from gaining access.  Everything appears very calm, but we are warned by the demonstration organizers that "something big" could be in the works good or bad we don't know.  

But this can hardly be a surprise.  Mubarak threw down the gauntlet by appoint Suleiman as his number two.  Omar Suleiman is the head of the hated secret police (Egyptian intelligence), works closely with Israel and the US, and is clearly just another face of the Mubarak regime.  The key question here is the relationship between the army and the police.  They are reputed to hate each other.  On the other hand, Suleiman has held the rank of General in the Army.  What kind of deals are being cut among Egypt's elite and will the rank and file in the Army accept any order they receive?  So far their actions have tilted slightly towards the people.  That is, they have prevented the police force from deploying against the demonstrators.  But they have not definitively taken sides against the police.  For example, last night, when demonstrators went to the Interior Ministry to rout out the police hiding in there, the procession was led by Army APCs and possibly a tank.  But when the police began firing live ammunition at the demonstrators, the Army did not fire back, despite pleas from demonstrators to do so.  Also, demonstrators would like to take over the state run television stations to get their message out.  The state media has portrayed the demonstrators as thieves and criminals to the extent they have shown anything at all.  But the Army deployed to protect the state television station building from takeover.    Their ultimate role in this revolution remains to be determined. 

Possible alternative political leadership to Mubarak does exist, but may not be able to surface in the face of American (and Israeli?) machinations for "stability."  That alternative leadership does not rest in a single person, but rather in the Popular Council for Change and the Popular Parliament I described earlier.  Most people seem to feel Egypt needs a little time to develop a real political process. 

Later Sunday afternoon one amazing event after another continues to unfold.  When we left the hotel early in the afternoon, we met a human rights activist/reporter that Medea knew who invited us to come to the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Justice, which he said was at the center of the organization of the protests. (This Center was the organizer of the April 9th Movement protests in 2008).  We went into an unprepossessing building in a narrow street, climbed up about six flights of stairs and came into a room that was filled with young organizers/activists.  We met with Nada Saddek, a middle aged woman who is a key person at the center.  She told us a number of interesting things pointing to the conclusion that Mubarak is trying to save himself by creating chaos.  At least four prisons, 3 in the Cairo area and 1 in Alexandria were emptied of their prisoners.  Her daughter called her on the way from Alexandria to Cairo to tell her men in prison uniforms were trying to hitch rides along the road.   This fits right in with Nada Khassass' story of the police using criminals in prison uniforms to attack the press syndicate.  She also told us that the police had seized ambulances which they were filling with police officers who jumped out with automatic weapons and killed people.  We saw some concrete evidence of that at the Interior Ministry.  As we walked towards the demonstrators there last night, we saw that the crowd was trying to roll over an ambulance quite shocking since we had seen nothing like that before.  The ambulance was literally thrown up in the air, and emptied of whoever was inside it.  The driver then frantically backed it down the street away from the crowd with the back door hanging ajar.  Now, it turns out, the ambulance was being used to smuggle police out of the building where they were holed up.  Finally, several people told us that the army arrested police officers for several criminal acts attempting to loot the Egyptian Museum, robbing a bank in Alexandria.  Of course, the lack of almost any communication, and my inability to understand what is broadcast on television, makes it impossible to substantiate anything I haven't actually seen. 

We also discussed with Nada the possibility that the almost complete disruption of internet service was an effort to sow chaos.  February 1 is payday, and the banks have no way to transfer money to people's accounts without the internet.  Many people who can ill afford it will go with no pay.  Nada told us she is conserving her money because of this worry.  Her daughter needs surgery for injuries from an auto accident but Nada is postponing it until she knows whether or not money will be available.  People are also worried that the government will stop shipments of food into the city.  

Other rumors circulating are that the Minister of Interior was arrested by the Army.  He had been hiding in the Interior Ministry, which may have been why the police took so many lives shooting live ammunition into the crowd.  (The New York Times said the police at the Interior Ministry fired rubber bullets, but live ammunition was clearly used.  We interviewed an 11 year old boy who had been shot twice, and produced the bullet that had been extracted from his arm.  It was not a rubber bullet. 

Another rumor was that the Minister of Defense was arrested. (This turned out not to be true).   We were told that he had ordered the army to shoot live ammunition at the demonstrators on Friday.  A general refused the order, creating the rift that led to the army tilting towards the demonstrators.  Later this afternoon, the chief of the army came to Tahrir Square to tell the demonstrators not to worry, things will move forward. Again, I can't substantiate any of this.  But people very much want to trust the army and believe that it is with them.  This afternoon, the air force staged continuous flyovers with fighter jets roaring and rolling across the sky.  Some people took this as a very positive sign.  Others saw it as a show of strength after the arrest (if it took place) of the Minister of Defense.  

Regardless, Tahrir Square began to fill up again with people streaming in all afternoon, and the crowd growing particularly after work.  It seemed a little smaller than yesterday, but not by much.   And many more women and children came out to join in.  

People have so much to say.  Thirty five years of being muzzled means you have a lot to say.  Everyone wanted to talk to America via the video camera. This is the message people wanted to send:

The Egyptian people are hardworking, educated people who want to live normal lives.  Instead they face massive unemployment, lack of healthcare, declining quality of education, lack of housing, a police state where there is no opportunity for self-expression, no political freedom, massive government corruption, lack of public services.  In other words, complete frustration and lack of opportunity.  Many told me this was their first protest but they had simply had enough.  

People are very angry with the United States for its support of Mubarak and for the military aid that has been used against the people.  Person after person showed us wounds that they said came from US bullets.  Then they would say, "We are not stupid.  We know the US thinks that, without Mubarak, we would attack Israel.  We don't want to attack Israel.  We don't want a religious state.  We want a normal life and the freedom to choose our government."   The model for the centrists among these demonstrators is Turkey strong, productive, respected, independent.

When I say everyone wanted to send this message, I mean everyone.  Anyone who could speak English came crowding up to us, began talking and would not stop.  People who did not speak English tried to find someone to translate and, if they could not, began talking anyone.  They wouldn't stop either.  I realized that it has been so long since people could freely say what is on their minds they have a lot to say.  Hope to upload some videos which will give a better idea of their thoughts.   

DAY 1: From Egypt to the Promised Land

We arrived in Egypt about 5 pm, went thru immigration and customs with no signs of abnormality, got our bags and came out to look for our pick up from the Lotus Hotel.  No sign of anyone.  We tried to get a cab to take us to downtown Cairo, but rejected the outrageous (it seemed to us at the time) offer of a ride for E 250.    It still didn't dawn on us what was happening.  We tried calling the Lotus, but couldn't get thru.  Only after noticing that, in the huge crowd of people that was building at the terminal, no one was using a cellphone did we realize that the government had shut down the cellphone networks and the internet as well.  The cabdrivers told us it was impossible to get to downtown Cairo.  The entire area is cordoned off.   We settled for an offer of a cab and a hotel room in Heliopolis for $90. It seemed like a bargain given the circumstances.  

The road out of the airport was eerie.  Almost no cars when normally it would be choked with traffic.  The same on the main boulevard thru Heliopolis.  As we neared Mubarak's palace, we were stopped by a roadblock.   Our ingenious driver turned around and found a way to our hotel thru the side streets.    

It's a very strange feeling to be cut off from communication with anyone while watching an uprising taking place on television.  Athough I imagine Mubarak's aim is to prevent the organization of demonstrations, the feeling induced is not one of passivity.  Rather, I think, it makes you feel like it is worth taking risks.  You have to go out and join up to find out what's going on. 

Everyone we talked to at the hotel, the desk manager, the bell boy, the waiter, and the guests who understood what was going on  -"  were quietly or loudly supportive of the demonstrations  -"  albeit with not much political sophistication. "35 years of Mubarak  -"  he has to go" would be representative of the general feeling. 

The next morning we talked to Tighe and learned that it was possible to get to downtown Cairo.  We got a driver, for a fairly exhorbitant price, and took off.   Again, almost no traffic on the road at all.  We arrived on Talat Harb St., which had been the center of demonstrations and police action the prior day, and went into our hotel.   Tahrir Square, just a few blocks away, was already starting to fill with demonstrators.  We went out to join the crowd.  The army had blocked most of the main streets leading into the square to separate the police from the demonstrators.  The police, other than some undercover plainclothesmen, were nowhere in sight.   The demonstration was almost like a be-in from the 1960s.  People of all ages were out on the street.  Old people, young people, parents with small children, men in suits, men in workclothes, and a surprising large number of women  -"  maybe 10%.   Contrary to what we heard the US media was saying, this was no Islamist exercise.  When the hour of prayer came, you could make the count.  No more than 15% percent of the demonstrators were praying.  We saw several signs with both the Christian Cross and the Muslim crescent on them.  (We learned later that this was the symbol of the Revolution of 1919 against British rule).  Some people were sweeping the streets to pick up litter.  Some others were bringing drinks to the soldiers.  
The overall feeling was one of peace, joy, and excitement.  People were jumping up on tanks to shake hands with the soldiers.  Many people said to us, "This is the real Egypt."

We were constantly asked where we were from.  When we said the US, people welcomed us to Egypt and asked us to spread the word at home that this is a peaceful revolution, and that all the Egyptian people want is the right to choose their government.   

There were at least 100,000 people in Tahrir Square, with more people joining in the demonstration all the time until close to 5 o'clock.   There were other areas where demonstrators gathered as well.  They hoped to takeover the state run media and gathered in front to of that building which is on the Corniche.   The army clearly wasn't ready or willing for that to happen and had stationed soldiers with machine guns and automatic weapons on the balconies of the building, ready to shoot down into the crowd if necessary.  The soldiers were backed up by tanks and APCs.  Again, the spirit of the crowd was one of friendly determination and there were no efforts to break into the building.   

The only building in Cairo that was burned was the headquarters of the National Democratic Party  -"  Mubarak's party.  That large, high rise building was set on fire yesterday and was still burning today.  Firefighters made no attempt to put out the flames, which also incinerated the cars parked in the lot in front of the building.  

Just as we were about to return to the hotel, the crowd learned that Mubarak had chosen Omar Suleiman as president (turned out he was appointed vice-president).  They were not happy.  Immediately the chant began "Out with Mubarak, Out with Suleiman."  It is clear people are looking for a regime change, not just a different face.  I think the appointment of Suleiman, rather than seeking a compromise, is a major challenge to the people.  Suleiman is the head of the secret police and has played a kind of DarthVader role in Egyptian politics.  

We went back out to Tahrir Sq. about 8 pm.  The crowd was significantly diminished but there were still thousands of people.  We walked up towards the area where the police had made their last stand two days ago, before going into hiding in the Interior Ministry complex.  The army was barricading the streets that ran into the Interior Ministry in what looked to us like an effort to protect the police from the demonstrators.  However, people were gathering on a side street that lead to the entrance to the Interior Ministry complex and no soldiers were there.  We walked on to take a look.   Some students from the American University of Cairo told us the police were shooting into the crowd with live ammunition and that some people had been killed.  As we walked a little closer, a fusillade of shots was fired into the crowd we were approaching, followed by tear gas.  We ducked down a side street to get out of the way.    We continued hearing gunfire for several minutes.  Later we heard a report, which we couldn't confirm, that 10 people had been killed.

Some very interesting things are happening here.  Most impressive is the self-organization which has taken place.  We saw people cleaning up, directing traffic, and everywhere neighborhood watches were formed  -"  almost on every block  -"  to guard against looting and thievery.  And all of this is happening with the greatest good humor and respect.  The only violent action we saw was a crowd of about 20 demonstrators caught an undercover policeman, and dragged him into a building  -"  presumably to beat him up. 

There is good reason for neighborhood watches.  Not only are the police not on the streets, but the police opened the prisons and let criminals out to help them with their attacks on demonstrators.  Nada Khassass, one of the organizers of the actions, told us that a group of young people, including her, were chased into the Press Syndicate building by police and criminals, some of whom had not even changed out of their prison uniforms.  When they got inside the building, thugs and plainclothes police demanded the security guards open the doors.  They refused.  The thugs tried to force the doors but weren't able to.  She also told us that some looters entered the Egyptian Museum  -"  the home of priceless treasures and the demonstrators barricaded the building to keep them from escaping with stolen goods.  When the Army came to search the building, the thieves they found were two police officers, three soldiers, and some employees of the Museum.   She also told us that, in Alexandria, two police officers were caught robbing a bank.  

The role of the Army, she says, is a bit ambiguous.  They have clearly refused Mubarak's orders to disperse the demonstrators, but it is not clear what the next step will be.  The danger is a military coup.  She felt that a military government would only be acceptable to a small portion of the demonstrators.   Although the formal political process has been gutted over 35 years by Mubarak, there is an informal political structure which could play a role in forming a new government.  The two trusted groups she cited are The Popular Committee for Change, and the Popular Parliament.  The Popular Parliament came out of the last fraudulent parliamentary elections, where many candidates were prevented from running at all, and others had their votes stolen.  It is 91 people who, had there been an honest election, would have been chosen for Parliament.  

However, Egypt is a client state of the US, and certainly the US will try to control the outcome of a regime change.  The US government is much more likely to favor a military government than a popular government.  

 

(OpEdNews Contributing Editor since October 2006) Inner city schoolteacher from New York, mostly covering media manipulation. I put election/finance reform ahead of all issues but also advocate for fiscal conservatism, ethics in journalism and (more...)
 

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