Despite the confusion, the scimitar-edged tension, the no-go zones and the adrenaline-charged atmosphere, the Day of Departure in Egypt seems to have been a palpable success for President Hosni Mubarak’s massed opposition. Even the Obama administration seems to be urging him to step down without delay. But, by its very nature, chaos is unpredictable and peace only tentative. By SIMON ALLISON from Cairo.
This morning, I tried to get near the action in Tahrir Square. Not too near – all the reports of journalists being attacked, and two close calls myself, made me nervous. I was heading for Saad Zaghloul Metro Station, which a contact told me would be a safe area for protestors. The idea being they would gather there after noon prayers, and march straight to Tahrir Square along Al-Qasr Al-Aini Street, where the army would have a significant presence due to the number of ministries and government buildings on the street and ensure that things remained calm.
This may well have been what happened, but I didn’t get even as far as the metro station. As soon as the taxi turned towards town from the Corniche, we ran into checkpoints. Actually, there had been checkpoints along the Corniche as well, but these were relatively friendly and uncomplicated affairs. The ones downtown were a bit more serious, and there was also a serious upgrade in weaponry – big ceremonial swords were now not so ceremonial; more like sharpened knives. And guns, of all description – rifles, handguns; there were probably muskets in there somewhere for all I know.
Checkpoints were separated from each other by only 20m or 30m and manned by pro-Mubarak supporters, all in plain clothes. At each, the presence of an “ignabi”, a foreigner, excited interest. Not necessarily hostile, but suspicious of my motives for being here. I wasn’t concerned for my physical safety, but I was concerned for my passport. It was demanded at every checkpoint, and sometimes kept for a few minutes as Mubarak’s men examined it and debated among themselves.
I had travelled as light as possible, and without anything that could identify me as a reporter – no camera, no video camera, no notebook, no bag, not even a pen. All I had in my pocket was the room key from the hotel where I’d dumped all my stuff (and have since been unable to return, because it has become the headquarters of the pro-Mubarak faction). When asked, I said I was trying to get back to my hotel, and showed the key as proof. It seemed to work.
After about seven checkpoints, I saw a large group of perhaps 30 or 40 policemen manning a major intersection. These were the first policemen I’d seen in the centre of town since they were removed from the streets. I thought this was a bad sign. They didn’t stop us, but just past them was a very large checkpoint.
Photo: Anti-government protesters take part in Friday prayers at Tahrir Square in Cairo February 4, 2011. Tens of thousands of Egyptians prayed in Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square on Friday for an immediate end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, hoping a million more would join them in what they called the “Day of Departure”. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
I’m not sure what put me on alert, but I sensed that this was a dangerous one. As soon as I was spotted, the vehicle was surrounded and a sabre-wielding man in a purple shirt demanded my passport. He wanted to know my nationality. I told him. “No, no, what country in South Africa?” he asked.
This is a common question in Egypt, where many people assume South Africa is just a geographical region. I tried to explain. The taxi driver tried to explain. The purple shirt was not convinced, and started flipping through the passport. His eyes lit up in excitement. “You’re Tunisian! You’re French!” He’d seen an old Tunisian visa in Arabic and could read it. My heart sank. I denied it furiously. Just as furiously, he shouted over me. “Tunisian! French!”. The two nationalities seemed to go hand in hand, and neither was in his good books; the French for being European, and the Tunisians for getting the revolutionary ball rolling.
Suddenly, he opened the back door and jumped in. “Drive!” he shouted at the taxi driver, waving my passport and his sabre around the backseat of the car. It looked sharp.
We drove to the next checkpoint where there was someone who was clearly in a position of authority. I suspect he was a plain-clothes policeman. He looked at the passport and then at me. Suddenly he smiled.
“Nelson Mandela?” he said.
Sensing the mood change, I nodded frantically and repeated: “Nelson Mandela, yes, Nelson Mandela!”
He smiled again. “A good man. Okay, okay, no problem. We are very sorry about all the inconvenience.” The purple-shirted sabre-rattler’s face dropped. “You’ll understand that it’s a bit of a difficult time at the moment. I advise you to turn around and go somewhere else because it is going to be extremely dangerous for foreigners around here today.” His manners, once he’d established my bona fides, were impeccable, and he appeared genuinely sorry that I had to see his country at its worst.
I’m not the only person to have had problems on Friday. The Guardian’s Peter Beaumont and Jack Shenker, who have been on the scene from the beginning, were made to kneel at gunpoint, detained for two hours and warned not to return. Al Jazeera are saying that many foreigners have been detained by security forces of some kind. Were it not for my South African passport, I would definitely have been among them. I give thanks again to our foreign ministry’s inaction. A triumph for quiet diplomacy.
But the checkpoints and roadblocks have not prevented Egyptians from getting through. The opposition organised safe routes, and they are working as the crowds in Tahrir swelled, so the Mubarak supporters slinked away, making access to the square easier.
But still dangerous. There are reports of small groups of vigilantes going after foreigners as they try to enter the square. I will, much to my disappointment, not be making it to the square tonight. But so far, the Day of Departure has been an overwhelming success. Estimates are that 5 million people marched in Alexandria, Egypt’s second biggest city, and the number is higher in Tahrir. There are also some reports of large protests in other cities, although there is very little information coming through. Take all estimates with a large pinch of salt, with crowds this size, accurate estimation is a highly skilled art, and it’s unlikely that any one is getting it right amid the chaos.
But there is no sign that Mubarak is at all influenced by this massive show of defiance. State television is reporting that only 10,000 people are demonstrating in Cairo and that daily life has returned to normal. The Friday sermon, broadcast on radio and TV, merely called for unity and stability, and deplored the use of violence by Egyptians on Egyptians.
However, there are signs the army is being slightly less passive than it has been. There have been reports of military top brass being sighted in and around the square – one general even waving to the demonstrators. The military are also preventing the main contingent of Mubarak supporters, gathered on Midan Talaat Harb (just outside my poorly chosen hotel). If Mubarak does go, it will be because his generals leave him no choice.
As darkness descends on Cairo on this 11th day of mass protests, and the curfew comes into effect, the situation remains unpredictable. While the people have made their demands fairly clear, Mubarak, safe in Sharm el Sheikh, might still refuse to move, the old crocodile’s skin impenetrably thick after 28 years of personal rule.
What then is Plan B? Until now, the protests have been intended to be completely peaceful with the violence instigated almost exclusive by pro-Mubarak supporters. One wonders how long this peace can last. One also wonders how long the unity of the opposition movement will be maintained. It has been quite an incredible achievement so far, given the myriad different political positions represented in the opposition, but surely cracks will begin to show.
For now though, the opposition is enjoying the massive show of force which demonstrates the country really is behind them – and praying that Mubarak will finally get the message and be on the first plane out of the country. DM
Simon Allison is a specialist in African and Middle East politics, with degrees from Rhodes university and the School of Oriental and African Studies. He lived in Egypt for four years. He also co-authors the politics blog Third World Goes Forth.
Main photo: A boy shouts anti-Mubarak slogans after Friday prayers at Tahrir Square in Cairo February 4, 2011. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany.
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