Monday, April 26, 2010

Fady the Child gets engaged

The view from Dronka. I didn't want to leave

When you leave Cairo heading south, the further away you go and with each passing hour, the more you imagine that you have invented the city. On the train the horizon of never-ending soaring concrete gradually thins out into a thread, turns into the flat line of a weakening heart with only very occasional peaks of isolated towns and villages.

In between is all that green. Donkeys and buffalos and emptiness. At level-crossings people, animals and vehicles wait as the train storms through. On riverbeds women wash dirty clothes in filthy water, in a field of long grass a man rests on one side, propping himself up on one elbow and contemplates something, oblivious to the roar of the train. In the towns and ‘cities’ Cairo is again absent and in memory the idea of it grows more and more absurd. A mirror’s reflection, it stops existing unless you’re seeing it.

A second visit to Assiut, and this time it seemed even smaller. Only the huge, sprawling university campus seems to have grown. On Friday nights there are church meetings, and in the early evening doors open to let out hundreds of beautifully dressed, coiffeured women. We bought ice creams and the shella [Sharshar and his gang] watched the parade. Sharshar joked that at this time it is as if ma2soora el mozaz etkasaret – the “babes pipe” has burst.

A huge advertising hoarding bearing the image of a former police officer and the words, “el eltezaam mesh kalam” overlooked the church we were standing by. It was an election poster for the Shoura elections. Someone told me that in a previous incarnation the man was a state security officer known for being unusually tough and unforgiving. As you stand at the entrance of this particular church his giant face is the first, and in fact the only thing you see.

Assiut City is a city with three hotels and three restaurants the shella deem worthy of their patronage. It has a splendid governorate building which when we were there had a row of brand new Caterpillars parked in front of it. Its streets are filled with unveiled women, a fact I didn’t think I would notice, but I did. Drivers stop at red lights. It is extremely clean. It is hundreds of kilometres and a world away from Cairo, its downstream neighbour.

There are some similarities, of course, like the tiny, barefoot girl struggling along the corniche using both hands to carry a heavy plastic bag half her size. She looked somewhere between three and forty years old.

Assiut is so small that on the first night when two non-Assiuty members of our party decided to leave the hotel for an exploratory midnight stroll without our Assiuty hosts they inevitably ran into three of the Assiuty hosts. A fourth Assiuty host later ran into this party. All by chance and limited geography. They went to eat Koshary and then regretted it the next morning.

Guess who!

The purpose of this visit was to attend the engagement party of Fady the Child (another member of the shella) in the town of Mallawi, governorate of Minya. We set off at dusk for the roughly two-hour ride, passing by the corpse of the Safo soap factory and a hamlet where people’s front doors quite literally open onto the fast agricultural road. There have been numerous, bloody accidents.

We listened to this amazing song as we went.

Malawi, or at least the streets leading up the motraneya [main church, unsure of a better translation] where Fady the Child got engaged are incredibly narrow and crowded.

The narrowness led to an interesting occurrence. Upon the conclusion of the engagement ritual Fady the Child and his sweetheart got in a car adorned with flowers which was followed by friends and family in a convoy for the customary zaffa [wedding convoy]. We followed. We thought we were going to the Mallawi Swimming Pool Club where the engagement party would take place. Instead we left Mallawi proper and followed the happy couple’s car as it did the swerves into oncoming traffic that tradition dictates are necessary to mark and celebrate impending marriage.

At a crossroads the happy couple’s car made an abrupt stop. Two young men on a motorbike got off and started firing noisy blanks into the air. Suddenly a car started doing high-speed circles around the happy couple’s car, in the middle of this busy crossroads, which would be fine except that another driver decided to do the same in the opposite direction. The gun kept firing. Shella member Usha in his car had to make an emergency stop to avoid all this. Tragedy was narrowly avoided. And then a trailer lorry whose driver was unapprised of the festivities appeared and tragedy was narrowly avoided again. Everything in Mallawi is narrow. We concluded that marriage parties purposefully drive to this spot and slip traffic policemen fifty pounds to look the other way because it is the widest spot in Mallawi, and the only place big enough to allow zaffa madness.

We survived, and proceeded to the engagement party at the Mallawi Swimming Pool Club.

This photo isn't straight

This was the largest engagement party I have ever been to. There must have been around 300 people sitting around that swimming pool. Fady the Child and fiancée sat on the throne (el koosha), as speakers played music at approximately a million decibels.

Fady the Child danced like his life depended on it, helped by the shella and a group of animated young men one of whom danced better than any woman I have ever seen. On the sidelines a cameraman walked through the 300 people and shone a light in their faces. Their image was shown on a projector screen. Girls put their heads together and smiled coyly, a group of three toughs with unbuttoned shirts and prominent necklaces smoked and winked. Some people just stared into the camera blankly. The shella occupied themselves with a cigar Haidar Wahm had brought.

The next day was the final day of the trip, and the Pig wanted to go to a monastery named after a saint he likes, called Anba Karas. It turned out to be a collection of seven churches whose entrance is opposite a furiously busy toc-toc and microbus stop, in Dairout.
Only one of the seven churches is built out of stone. The rest are makeshift constructions made out of wood, and even the church built out of stone has a wooden roof. A guide who took us around told us that they are forbidden from building permanent structures because of laws obliging them to obtain permits which never come, or depend on the mood of the governor in place at the time. Last year, during a sectarian incident, the monastery was attacked by mobs that tried to break down the door and threw Molotov cocktails.

You would never guess though, that this had happened. All is quiet, all is good. And outside el sa3eed, Upper Egypt, plods along, vast and remote, completely overshadowed by its upstart and anomalous little sister, Cairo.

Monday, April 19, 2010


A member of the Banned Organization shortly after he interrupted Sorour. His family have been informed.

CAIRO: A National Democratic Party MP yesterday urged the government to intensify efforts to put an end to the Egyptian people, who he described as “standing in the way of Egypt’s progress”.

Rizel El-Zeft was speaking during a parliamentary session during which members of the Banned Organisation challenged government plans to use deceased citizens to construct a wall around ports of entry into Egypt.

NDP member Mofeed Shehab said that the wall was a first step to removing from Egypt “elements determined to unweave the weft of our society by bringing with them subversive ideas about promoting bald-headed jumped up secretaries to positions of power”.

Shehab said that this could not be allowed to continue, citing the millions of Egyptian pounds that had to be paid out during the last elections in order to ensure that Egyptians voted for the correct candidate.

A member of the Banned Organization interrupted Shehab in order to condemn the presence of baton-wielding thugs during parliamentary and local elections.

Shehab joined the member of the Banned Organization in condemning the thugs who he said are too expensive for the value they provide.

He stressed that as a business-friendly government issues of cost-saving and quality must take priority, adding that if the member of the Banned Organization continued to interrupt him he would ask NDP member and goalkeeper Ahmed Shobeir to benchmark his head.

“If we must have elections, I suggest that we use special electrified voting cards. This way, if a citizen makes the incorrect choice in the polling station he is dispensed with immediately without the need to employ excessive numbers of personnel for this purpose”.

The debate then turned to the issue of protests.

"I don't know why the Interior Ministry is so lenient with those who break the law. Instead of using water hoses to disperse them, the police ought to shoot them; they deserve it,” NDP member Hassan Nashat El-Rassaas proclaimed.

He was immediately rebuked by PA speaker Fathy Sorour.

“And I suppose you’ve sat down and done the calculations about how much the bullets would cost?” Sorour said, before shouting “STOP! HAMMER TIME” and throwing his mallet at El-Rassaas’ head.

As El-Rassaas’ lifeless body was removed from parliament Sorour said, “one down, 79,999,999 to go”.

The issue was taken up by NDP member Ahmed Ezz who said that protestors are dealt with adequately by karate death squads who beat them to death at a quarter of the expense. Ezz added that the use of this traditional method of crowd control is also better for the environment as it does not involve smoke emissions, as is the case with canons - a method of crowd control proposed by the head of the PA’s security committee.

Ezz also proposed that citizens’ bodies be buried in the foundations of constructions in the new cities in order that potential building land is not taken up by cemetries.

The Banned Organization member asked Ezz who would live in these buildings if the NDP was planning to get rid of the entire Egyptian people.

Ezz objected to the accusation with some vigour, even throwing his cushion at the Banned Organization member while condemning his “twisting of the facts”.

“Egyptians who possess two nationalities or two companies will be spared the clean-up,” Ezz explained.

After the debate members of the Banned Organization were invited to throw themselves off the October Bridge at its highest point.

Howa dah el 7al Habib El-Adly said, dusting off his hands as he walked away through Cairo’s deserted streets.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


"Hey! Pretty lady! I have coffee, you want?"

I left the demo fuming yesterday and wanting to draw blood out of someone and anyone, and luckily found that my friend Hadeel had sent this by someone called Karin Badt (“professor of cinema and theatre in France”).

In the days before the Internet, Debbie and Mike and Jason and Sharon parachuted into a country for ten days, observed the country through a tour bus window or experienced meaningless encounters with tourist industry workers whose “friendship” they construed as a rare window into the hidden world of this ancient land and its mysterious people.

Debbie and Mike and Jason and Sharon might share their reflections during the photo slideshow in their living rooms, in between having a laugh about the image of them pointing at the hieroglyphic with the erect penis. A postcard is possibly the extent to which these reflections would be recorded for posterity.

But now, thanks to the Internet and lax submissions policies, the whole world can read that fucking postcard.

Badt’s path has quite clearly crossed with an obnoxious, salacious hustler in Luxor whose bit of patter and apparent attempt to get her in bed she misinterpreted as an anthropological examination of Egypt’s sexual mores.

Or maybe she did indeed stumble across a concealed pearl (“Mike/Mohammed”) in the algae of Luxor’s tourist touts. Let us examine the evidence. I suspect Mike/Mohammed is a figment of Badt’s imagination but we’ll ignore that and proceed.

The first paragraph reads like a Mills & Boone novel. Maybe Badt’s being ironic. We’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and move on, but not before pointing out that most of my female friends if asked whether they “would like to know the difference between making love to an Egyptian woman and a European woman” by some turd would tell him to shove his wisdom up his arse and exit-left immediately.

Badt however senses she is being admitted into an inner chamber and says “yes”.

Mike/Mohammed informs Badt that his first step as a Don Juan began in pubs in the English countryside where he had “experiences with European women”. Mike claims to be stunned the first time he is set upon by one of the lady predators in the pub and describes his “it’s no coffee!” encounter with the innocence of a choirboy invited to polish the church silver by Father McRandy.

Note also the “the sun setting in the desert hills behind him, with the Valley of the Kings just beyond”- scene-setting with the finesse and subtlety of a “your name in papyrus” souvenir.

I didn’t know this but apparently in England it’s considered vulgar to ask for sex and people offer coffee instead – fancy! All those missed opportunities I misinterpreted in job interviews etc. But again this is Mike/Mohammed describing his fascinating encounters in the UK and obviously not actually Badt making up a load of old shite.

Mike/Mohammed was taught to give pleasure by a “British lady” through “using his mind” to “resist for one hour” [Mike/Mohammed apparently slept with Paul Mckenna]. Again, right-minded women who had made it this far into the conversation would deduce that douchebag Mike/Mohammed is offering coffee, but Badt is either oblivious or feels that duty calls and she must resist.

The conversation turns to Egyptian women and Mohammed/Mike “looks downcast”, as well he might given that his first attempt to get into Badt’s knickers failed.

Apparently, ALL women are circumcised/circumsized [sic] in Egypt and sex is a painful, two-minute affair for women and merely a “chance to relieve themselves” for men – who lucky for all the circumcised/circumsized women haven’t had Mike/Mohammed’s Paul Mckenna experience.

Mike/Mohammed was once married but the union failed because he married an inanimate object.

“She was a board,” he said. “That’s why the marriage failed”.

Confirming his douchebag factor +100 Mike/Mohammed tells Badt that he and the board had one son that he has never seen. The marriage was arranged of course – “as are most in Egypt” but the difference is that his was arranged in a hardware store because he married a board and he’s a tool.

There is then the inevitable description of sex with circumsized/circumcised women the reading of which is arguably more painful than the act itself.

“I had known what it is like to have sex with a woman who has pleasure, and it’s such a difference. Egyptian women don’t feel anything!” Mike/Mohammed says breathlessly, possibly while gyrating his hips.

Badt points out that Mike/Mohammed had just told her that “there’s a sex trade in Cairo [and Luxor, and it’s sitting with you]” and we think she’s finally catching on, but alas it was only to ask whether “all prostitutes are circumscribed [sic]”.

Mike/Mohammed, Luxor’s answer to Dr. Heba Qotb, says that of course they are all, but whether he’s talking about FGM or the enclosure of prostitutes within defined bounds is uncertain.

Mike/Mohammed makes another attempt at Badt by telling her that he’s “lonely” in Luxor and spends his days with tourists to “pass the time” wink wink. “Like with you, we had a chance to talk, and so we passed the time. And I will never marry again, I’ll just have an affair here and there, that’s it – and have you got the bloody message yet you stupid woman”.

Mike/Mohammed’s attempts fail but even as he is dropping Badt off he is making a last-ditch attempt, telling her about an Australian girl with whom “he had the opportunity to spend the night”.

The account ends with a UN statistic about the number of women in Egypt who have undergone FGM in Egypt, and a picture of a pharaoh.

I am so sick of chancers making green out of Egypt with tinpot bullshit like this.

Badt, sweetheart, if you want to discuss FGM, talk to an expert and circumcised women. If you want to discuss sexual relations in Egypt talk to more than one person and preferably have a point to the whole exercise.

If however you want to peddle stereotypes about British women, fetishise Egyptian men and reproduce bullshit about Egypt “substantiated” by a half-arsed paragraph at the bottom, then mission successful.

Does the Huffington Post pay for submissions? Pay me. I’ll sing you any motherfucking tune you want to hear.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Kefaya, slowly awakening after its hibernation, organized a protest today, exactly a week after the police battered demonstrators on April 6.

The existence of a sort of nervous anger immediately struck me when I arrived. Around two hundred people were assembled outside the public prosecutor’s office. The usual buffer zone of absent black-clad riot police lined the perimeter of the area. Beyond them the men in suits and sunglasses.

A group of young people began congregating at one end of the pen in which the demonstrators were being held. The slow surge gradually gained intensity, to chants of, “why are you fencing us in?” The riot police started looking unsure. Suddenly there was an enormous push and the steel barrier between protestors and the police was lifted up. The riot police – conscripts, from impoverished backgrounds – hesitated, looked behind them for orders. Reinforcements were brought in and the surge was stopped.

On the other side of the road Bahaa appeared, and began chanting. Bahaa is a protest veteran who seems to like to take risks if not actively provoke the police. Today he swaggered (there’s no other word for it) up and down 26th July Street waving his arm above his head while police officers chased behind him making a feeble attempt to pen him in. He continued marching and shouting. Other protestors joined him when it looked like the police were beginning to lose patience.

At the same time protestors under the impression that Bahaa was being arrested again tried to storm the barrier. Concentrating on this, I lost track of what was happening with Bahaa. The next time I looked he was prostrate on the ground surrounded by people throwing water on him in an attempt to revive him. He had apparently fainted.

He woke up, got up and again started chanting, before pulling off an officer’s hat and throwing it in the air. This seemed to be the last straw. The beating began, and from my vantage point Bahaa disappeared in sea of arms and fists. One officer actually slapped another across the face after pulling him off Bahaa.

Sayyed, another demonstrator who went to Bahaa’s aid was also set upon, after he slapped an officer who had been hitting him across the back of the neck. They chased him down like a pack of dogs and then roughly four officers beat him unconscious. You can see it the video below. An officer pulls them off while behind him Sayyed slowly slips down the car the officer is propping him up against.

Improbably, Bahaa reappeared after this, topless, his hair dripping wet from the earlier dousing of water and his trousers half falling down his legs revealing what looked like a black thong-type affair. Some of the demo wolf-whistled. But Bahaa looked both pitiful and manic. He was again set upon by tens of police officers who flagged down a passing taxi and attempted to bundle him in. They were unsuccessful and the taxi driver sped off. Another taxi was stopped and Bahaa pushed inside. Four of five officers got in with him and sat on top of him. I don’t know where he was taken.

One positive thing: for the first time, I saw Egyptian protestors (admittedly less than 10) being allowed to demonstrate in the street unmolested. I also heard chants of "the street is ours" for the first time today.

There was calm after Bahaa and Sayyed were assaulted, and demonstrators began leaving. A protestor sitting on the railing next to me tried talking to the conscripts. Attempted to persuade them to refuse to obey orders because once they’ve finished their service they’ll go back to their lives where they’ll be fucked over by the state they’re currently protecting. They looked up impassively. Childlike is not the correct epithet, because these are hardened men who will use their batons if instructed to.

Wretched is a better description. Wretched and stoic and, as usual, they – the silent poor – were on the frontline of Egypt’s relentless march to a better future: quite literally standing between the old guard and the forces of change, absorbing the blows of a battle not really being fought in their name. How will Mohamed ElBaradei or Hamdeen Sabahy or the workers’ movement reach these people? Once they take off their uniforms and disappear back into their underworld; illiterate, uneducated, too busy surviving on the margins to be angry, too marginal for their anger to count. Who will reach them?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

I fought the law, and (for now) the law won

I attended my third “April 6” last Tuesday, and have been pondering why the police went ballistic ever since.

If you follow events in Egypt you’ll know what happened. If you don’t, this video sums it up.

Jack Shenker, the Guardian’s fantastic writer and raconteur extraordinaire presents his analysis of events here. I agree with his view that protest in Egypt is cyclical, and is often galvanised by events/opportunities not necessarily linked to the grievance to which the protest give voice.

Shenker says however in his last paragraph:

Oppressive autocracies the world over have a dizzying array of tactics in their arsenal to cling on to power – from media manipulation to strategic support from superpowers – and it is only when they are feeling at their most vulnerable that the basest of these tactics, naked violence, is resorted to. Tuesday's clashes indicate that in Egypt those vulnerabilities are bubbling to the surface; both ElBaradei and the grassroots campaigners below him are in a position to take advantage.

It’s this - the idea that Tuesday’s violence was the product of vulnerability - which I take issue with, and by Jove I’m going to tell you why now.

Ready? Go.

Tonight (and every night) the streets are ours

Prompted by Tuesday’s events I picked up “Life as Politics: How ordinary people change the Middle East” by Asef Bayat, which I have been meaning to read ever since I bought it. It’s a really interesting read. Bayat’s thesis is that, unable under repressive regimes to resort to traditional channels of dissent, ordinary people challenge authority and carve out a space for themselves (intentionally or otherwise) in their every day lives in seemingly mundane ways. Bayat gives the example of people who illegally build informal housing that the government is then forced to recognise by installing water and electricity etc. Bayat calls it “creating realities on the ground”.

Bayat talks about the significance of public streets in the relationship between a repressive government and the people it denies a voice:

Here, conflict [between the public and state officials] originates from the active use of public space by subjects who, in the modern states are allowed to use it only passively – through walking, driving, watching – or in other ways that the state dictates. Any active or participative use infuriates officials, who see themselves as the sole authority to establish and control public order.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly who have an idea that I spend my life covering protests in Cairo that take place almost exclusively in these places:

1. On the steps of the Journalists’ Syndicate
2. Outside the public prosecutor’s office
3. On the steps of the Doctors’ and Lawyers’ Syndicates

And more recently:

4. Outside the People’s Assembly
5. Outside the Cabinet Office

The agreement between state security and protestors is this: You can say what the bloody hell you please. You can even turn your protests into sit-ins. You can be in the thousands. But only if you’re in one of the five places listed above.

(I’m excluding here workers’ on-site protests because – as significant as they are – I don’t think factorys and company premises count as public space, in most cases).

As Bayat says, there is no such thing as public space - with the meaning of space belonging to the public, with all that that implies - in Egypt. This has implications for any kind of potentially collective behaviour, even the most mundane, such as when Shady Ahmed played guitar in Zamalek and was surrounded by confused police officers within minutes.

The last time I witnessed violence like Tuesday’s was during the protests against the Israeli invasion of Gaza, when men coming out of Friday prayers erupted into ‘spontaneous’ chanting.

However, the last time I saw a mass demo was also during the Israeli invasion of Gaza, when hundreds of mostly Muslim Brotherhood protestors demonstrated outside parliament and then marched to the Doctors’ Syndicate where they protested some more, unmolested by the police.

I’m not claiming that I’m making an earth-shattering point here, but the key here is consent: my yard, my rules.

Which brings me onto the next issue, the fact that the April 6 Movement informed the Interior Ministry that they would be protesting in advance.

Tommy, you gonna let him get away with that? You gonna let this fucking punk get away with that? What's the matter? What's the world coming to?

I’ve never heard about a group notifying the Interior Ministry in advance that they’re protesting. It’s unnecessary mostly because 1. The Interior Ministry always knows everything in advance and 2. Protests are almost always held at one of the five places listed above.

Unsurprisingly, the Interior Ministry informed the April 6 Youth Movement that it had banned the march, a day or two before it went ahead. Seventy or so brave young people were able to briefly congregate outside the Shoura Council despite the efforts of state security officers.

Have you ever watched Goodfellas? Remember when they do the huge airport heist and Robert De Niro warns gang members not to buy anything flashy afterwards for fear of attracting the cops’ attention, and one of the members and his wife come into a bar in new fur coats and they end up hung up in the meat freezer?

State security had a similar reaction, because the tiny protest was essentially a big, “up yours, I don’t care what you say, this is my street too”.

No kids, it aint.

Hit first, ask questions later

The Interior Ministry is like an easily provoked, irascible man in a pub. Generally always spoiling for a fight, seeing insults where there are none. Ask the Nadeem Centre about that. Aside from the many accounts of torture and abuse in police stations documented by NGOs, the kind of “naked violence” which Shenker describes took place (in addition to the Israeli attack on Gaza protests) in December 2009 during the Gaza Freedom March, when peaceful protestors decided to obstruct traffic in Tahrir Square and were immediately pounced on my the police.

Again the common factors in all these protests are:

1. Protests taking place in an area other than the five fucking places I spend my life in, and
2. An absence of prior consent, and
3. A complete disregard for the inevitable international condemnation of the violence

My point is this: the regime (and specifically the Interior Ministry) did not feel vulnerable on Tuesday, it felt insulted. The violence was punitive, not defensive. It was about reminding the April 6 Youth Movement (and Egyptians in general) about who they daddy is.

Having said all that, I lift my cap to protestors for the challenge. Fuck this regime, keep pushing.

The ElBaradei factor

If I’ve explained my reasoning sufficiently clearly you’ll see that I think ElBaradei has nothing to do with these events. The same would have happened if the protest had gone ahead and ElBaradei and his many spectacles had decided to retire in 2011, instead of 2010.

A far more interesting question is why ElBaradei’s visit to Mansoura was allowed to go ahead so freely. I heard a rumour that ElBaradei was initially scheduled to pray at a far larger mosque in Mansoura accommodating thousands of men, but that he was asked to change this to a far smaller mosque. I’d be interested to know if this is true. Was some kind of agreement reached?

As I suggested in my last post, the regime’s absence from Mansoura is worrying. I wonder if their silence is because they’re waiting for his National Coalition for Change to implode from within. I wonder if they have other plans. I wonder what their reaction would be if ElBaradei decided to have a Friday post-devotional stroll in downtown Cairo in the coming weeks. I wonder if the arrests of Egyptian National Coalition organisers in Kuwait is a message that, ElBaradei being untouchable at the moment, they’re starting at the very edge of his bubble and working their way inwards.

Friday, April 02, 2010


To the Delta today, where I watched ElBaradei do his stuff through a rugby scrum of media in Mansoura.

As usual, the trip there was odd. After disembarking from a microbus driven by a man with a predilection for using the front of his microbus to sexually harass the back of lorries at the speed of light (we arrived from Cairo in record time. He truly was a maniac) I got in a taxi.

An old, nearly blind, man got in the back, guided by a young man on a break from army service, and we set off after the old man both finished entreating God for a safe journey and managed to shut his door after several attempts.

The army recruit got out, we continued on our way. The old man held forth on various topics in a thick Delta brogue, before asking, “wel usta menayn?” [and where is the driver from?]

The driver said he was from a certain village. The old man was going to the same village.

“Tab ow2af. Ow2af khamas da2aye2”, [stop. Stop five minutes], the old man said.

“Delwa2ty?” [now?]

“Ah” [yes].

We stopped in the middle of a side street.

“Ta3raf enta ___?” [do you know ____?]

“Aywa” [Yes].

“We ____ ebn _____?” [and ______ son of ______?]

“Aywa. Tab ya 7ag ana ma3ya zabou-“ [Yes. Hag I have with me a custom-]

“Mashy. Ta3raf el 2ahwa elly 3and awwel el balad?” [OK. Do you know the coffee shop as you first enter the town?]

And so it went. The driver stared at me, smiling, as he answered. I stared back. We had got through half of the town’s inhabitants before el 7ag was persuaded that we could proceed while he continued his survey of the land.

I arrived fucking early – thanks to that lunatic in the microbus - at the Kidney Centre where ElBaradei would be visiting his friend Dr Mohamed Ghoneim. Luckily I needed the toilet. I went to a KFC. The toilet door had what I assumed was ‘push’ written in Chinese (?). What can it mean?

Outside the streets were clean and empty and burnt white in the sun. I like Mansoura a lot. There are two entrances to the Kidney Institute. At one there was the usual gaggle of patients/relatives waiting to get in. At the other was a journalist fighting with the Institute’s security, also about getting in or something.

The Egyptian political opposition arrived and then they started fighting with security, too. Apparently only five names had been put on a list. Like in a posh nightclub. A big hoo-hah then broke out within the Egyptian political opposition about whether the names on the list should go in, or whether no-one should go in, in protest. In the end George Ishaq went in, but only after cracking a joke about who would be praying in the mosque with ElBaradei during the Friday prayer. “Everyone’s praying except me. I’ll pray next time”.

More standing about in the sun while ElBaradei was inside. I spoke to a pharmaceutical sales manager in a ElBaradei T-shirt who said that ElBaradei makes him feel that there is still hope, that the country still belongs to “us”.

ElBaradei came out and as usual there was pandemonium, mostly the fault of the media, who descended on him like vultures. He retreated into a mosque to pray while outside onlookers and supporters gathered.

By the time prayer had finished there were some 300 people gathered outside the mosque, chanting and milling about and generally excited. ElBaradei fought his way out of the mosque and we turned left. A tight ring of National Coalition for Change young people encircled him. A second ring of journalists surrounded them. Beyond the journalists were a random collection of supporters, men who had been praying at the mosque and curious onlookers. In total I estimate that there were between 500 – 800 people there. The chanting filled the street. It rose up the balconies of the buildings surrounding us and cut through the traffic brought to a standstill by the surge of people.

The crowd was so intense that ElBaradei sought refuge inside a building for around 20 minutes before his jeep came and carried him off. (I later learnt that he held a short press conference. Missing the main event is rapidly becoming my trademark).

There was no uniformed police presence during all this, and very few identifiable state security investigations officers. I remembered a book I just finished reading called the Soccer War by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinksi. He talks about silence:

SILENCE: People who write history devote too much attention to so-called events heard round the world, while neglecting periods of silence. This neglect reveals the absence of that infallible intuition that every mother has when her child falls suddenly silent in its room. A mother knows that this silence signifies something bad. That the silence is hiding something. She runs to intervene because she can feel evil hanging in the air. Silence fulfills the same role in history and politics. Silence is a signal of unhappiness and, often, of crime. It is the same sort of political instrument as the clatter of weapons or a speech at a rally. Silence is necessary to tyrants and occupiers, who take pains to have their actions accompanied by quiet.

I find it extraordinary that today a man unconnected to the regime was allowed to walk through an Egyptian street, and that hundreds of people were allowed to congregate around him unmolested by the police. Tomorrow there’s going to be a protest for a minimum wage in Cairo, and the street will be black with uniformed riot police.

Where were they today? Why did they allow Egyptians to gather together and experience a sense of genuine optimism without knocking seven shades of shit out of them and of hope?

I overheard two middle-aged men speaking while ElBaradei was hiding inside the building. One was saying, “they can’t touch him. He’s protected because howa ragel 3alamey [he’s international]” – as in he’s a former international diplomat.

I contended that that the regime doesn’t fear anyone, if past experience is anything to go by.

“No”, the second man said. "It does fear something".

What? I asked.

“Us. The people,” he replied.