The Egyptian Protests: A View from the Ground (Neighborhood Watch)
Part II of my notes from Cairo – note this should not be mistake for expert analysis on Egypt. This is simply my notes of my own experiences.
Friday Night, January 28: The police disappeared late Friday night. One friend said they knocked on their house and said: “protect yourself, we’re leaving.” No one knocked on my door, but it wasn’t hard to tell that they were gone. I had dinner with a couple from downstairs and we stayed up for hours watching the news and waiting for Mubarak to speak. The news said he was preparing to speak around 6:30 pm, but he didn’t come on until after midnight.
I listened to him say he was going to replace his cabinet and then I listened to President Obama’s brief comments. After breathing in tear gas and listening to gun fire down the street, neither man really impressed me.
There were a lot of single shots and rounds of automatic fire. My house is on a narrow side street off a main road in an upscale suburb of Cairo. I finally fell asleep around 3 am. The last thing I remembered was three bursts of automatic fire
Saturday, January 29: I woke up to the sound of my phone ringing, which was the first clue that the cell network was back up. The night before Egyptian authorities imposed a 6 pm curfew, which I believe only myself and other foreigners observed. The night before was tense and loud. Usually I sleep with an air conditioner on (yes, even in the winter), but even my rattling old model couldn’t drown out the sound of shots.
After a shower, coffee and breakfast I head out to see what is happening. It is before noon, but already young men are congregating around the Grand Mall with clubs, chains, and any sticks they can find. Most of the stores have been boarded up or covered in paper to protect the glass. Egyptians out here aren’t prepared for riots with metal shutters.
I went grocery shopping to stock up on food and am home by curfew. I had dinner downstairs – tacos – and a friend spends the night in my apartment, after neighbors told him his area was going to be bad on Saturday night. Already there were rumors that looters were going to be out in force.
It became clear to me what was going to happen. Mubarak was going to make a play for power essentially attempting to convince people that a police state with him was better than chaos without him. And that is exactly what happened.
There were three groups of looters – undercover thugs from the regime, prisoners that escaped/were set free and other elements looking for free stuff.
Saturday night was the worst in terms of gunfire and chaos. A number of young men and some older men from the neighborhood banded together and started to build some roadblocks. With no police it was up to the neighborhood to protect itself. After one intense period of gunfire myself and two other foreign males went outside. When we saw what they were up to, we pitched in.
There were already about 12-15 on our triangle corner, where our small street meets a major road. Most of them had sticks and clubs, but one guy had a golf club and someone else had a pistol.
Myself and another friend went back inside to arm ourselves. I found a wooden club with four nails that had fallen off the bottom of a bureau in my apartment. My friend found a metal pole. So armed we went back outside.
There were rumors that men on motorcycles were going around scouting neighborhoods for looting. And so when we saw one of them we all threw bricks at him and forced him to stop, we checked his ID and sent him on, but mostly we just wanted him to move on somewhere else.
With sticks and clubs, we were only a deterrent. If someone with a gun showed up, we were in trouble. We could only hope that our deterrent would force the would-be looters on to another, softer target.
All night long there was shooting. It was constant. Once we heard what sounded like a serious gunfight breakout across the railroad tracks at the Grand Mall. Only 20 meters up a small slope, it was still too far. Finally, myself and a friend went across the streets and up the steps to get the story. I talked to a guy standing watch, who said someone tried to steal something and one of the merchants opened fired. “Everything is calm now,” he said.
It was a relative statement. Over the next few hours we stopped numerous cars, making sure they were from the neighborhood. Around 11 pm we decided on white armbands and a signal of whistling. Some of the guys made molotov cocktails and the guy with a gun insisted on firing it into the air anytime something suspicious happened. I tried to convince the rest of the watch that the bullets that went up had to come down. They looked at me like I was a bit soft in the head. I didn’t say anything the next time he fired, but I worried it would be my luck to be shot by someone on my own team.
Finally at 12:30 I turned in with a promise to come back out at 4:30 am. The shots continued but I’m too tired to pay more attention. My friend stays out and stands guard. I can’t believe how tired I am when my alarm goes off at 4:15. There are many reasons I have never been a soldier, but I now know that I can add guard duty to the list.
I sat in front of the bank, which has only one private guard, who is asleep inside. Megdi the guard keeps telling us to wake him up if anything happens. Still, I’m not sure what he can do. Megdi only has six bullets.