Friday, September 28, 2007

Welcome to the Hotel California

Having peered down the slope of Egypt’s dark side in el Hussein yesterday I decided to launch myself fully down it by attending a protest tonight, downtown.

Organised by Kefaya it was a demonstration against torture, against the imprisonment of journalists, against corruption and was also an expression of solidarity with the courageous workers on strike in Mahalla. Essentially, it was against everything and sought to deliver the usual two fingers to the regime.

Arriving in Talaat Harb Square, comrade Sharshar and I found it devoid of all dissent other than the disembodied voice of protestors with a loudspeaker standing on the balcony above Groppi in the Ghad Party headquarters. At ground-level however the pavements had been entirely occupied by the police: battalions of the boys in black, officers in white, plain-clothes officers with their walkie-talkies and pen and paper writing down what was being chanted above, and the rows upon rows of baltageyya, plain-clothed moustachioed soldiers who are called in to dispense order when things heat up. Some of these men were sitting down on the length of the pavement lining Groppi, others were standing outside the Madbouly bookshop. Meanwhile, Thursday evening strolling families cut through this scene of mass mobilisation as if it wasn’t even there, impervious to the yosqot yosqot [down down] Hosny Mobarak being bawled out above their heads.

Word eventually reached us that another demo was being held outside the journalists’ syndicate. Arriving there, we found a scene of much greater animation on the syndicate’s steps: some 150 people carrying banners and led by protest leaders leading the chants with gusto. All was contained by the usual black banner of soldiers standing behind the metal barriers, and on the other side of the road the officers in white uniforms or no uniforms milling about and making notes. We joined the demo, and as we passed through the narrow gap in the barrier I noticed that people already there were not being allowed out, but didn’t give it too much thought. Sharshar helped me to (inelegantly) mount a ledge on either side of the steps which gave an excellent view of the proceedings and which, above the crush of bodies, proved mercifully cool.

The passion on display during the protest was impressive, even if the slogans were largely anti- the status quo without being obviously very pro anything: I have heard this criticism of the Egyptian opposition movement on numerous occasions, and while it does seem to be a serious weakness I nonetheless admired the courage of the individuals leading the chants, men and women, sometimes with their children. To be so publicly visible, to risk all and identify yourself to the men watching across the road with their pens and papers and know that they when the media and the crowds leave you are completely isolated - that requires guts, or desperation, or perhaps both.

Some forty minutes into the protest it became obvious that only camera crews and journalists were being let out of the protest, and with difficulty. Some sixty people were assembled at the exit, arguing with the policemen who were dictating who and who could not be let out. Tensions inevitably escalated and one woman began punching the soldiers trying to force her way out. Down the line a white-haired veteran activist mounted the shoulders of a man and literally tried to climb her way over the soldiers, unsuccessfully of course.

As the situation heated up more soldiers in black were brought in to act as back up behind those stationed at the barriers, and the foreign journalists started to make their exits. It was at this point that I began to realise to what extent we were at the mercy of the police, whose approach to crowd control is to hit anything which moves. And the terrifying thing is that there is absolutely no-one who can help protestors if demonstrations turn nasty, hence the importance of a media presence, and in particular the foreign media, who are able to both publicise and (to some extent) prevent the worst excesses by security forces.

We were kept there for nearly three hours, watching the police mobilise outside and wondering what for. It was an odd mixture of tension and boredom, but the Mahalla workers and Kefaya activists remained undaunted, and if anything seemed spurred on by it all. Eventually however people began queuing up at the ‘exit’ in an attempt to leave, and we joined them.

While waiting I amused myself by taking photos of the soldiers acting as a human barricade. In these unfortunate youths the regime has succeeded in creating automatons, programmed to stand for hours on end or to sit in their furnace-like trucks until required or beat people. But they are entirely uncomprehending of what is going on before them because they are voiceless, disenfranchised, poorly-educated kids without choices. I larked about with them while waiting to get out, took pictures of them. They posed, put their baseball hats on back to front, smiled, laughed, asked for more pictures, complained that they didn’t stand out in the picture, told me I was ‘honey’. These men were exactly like children, emasculated. Empty vessels, and just as at the mercy of the regime as ‘we’ the protestors are.

The police said goodbye to us by letting us out one by one, through a space roughly half a metre wide. It was a petty, pathetic and entirely unnecessary gesture, the act of a bully. It would have been annoying but bearable, if it wasn’t also dangerous. The legendary volatility of crowds is surely known to the Egyptian police, the way they can take on a life of their own suddenly and without warning. As someone who remembers Hilsborough, the danger was certainly very present in my mind. People were frightened, and angry at the humiliation and as a result pushing, and meanwhile at the exit the police were picking and choosing who could leave: ‘known’ faces were turned away, as behind them the crush worsened. Eventually it was decided that women should be allowed out first (which made me briefly feel like I was on the Titanic), and lovely Sandmonkey identified to the police which girls were in his group and held back the police as Umm Nakad and I literally fought our way through the gap. Sandmonkey came out later, followed by Sharshar.

I said salaamo 3aleikoo to the police as I tumbled out of the tunnel, out of curiosity to see if they would respond, and they did return the greeting while they watched me flying across the pavement. One officer said to Umm Nakad ‘aih ya mama, bete3mely aih hena enty, rawwa7y baytek.’ [what are you doing here, love? Go home]. I have no doubt that if given the orders to these same officers would have happily beaten us both to a pulp, but it was nonetheless a reminder that it is not these men who are issuing orders, and to direct wrath against them is to miss the point, somehow. Tonight it wasn’t just the protestors who were humiliated but also the pitiful kids in black and the police, driven by corruption and low-wages to make a mockery of themselves and their profession while doing the dirty work for a regime which has lost all credibility.

Would it be trite to say that Egypt and Egyptians deserve far, far better than this?


fully_polynomial said...

hayel. you're on a roll of depressing posts. edeena aktar!

Anonymous said...

It saddens me to say that things aren’t that different in my neck of the woods. In the shadow of the General Assembly yesterday people were being pushed, beaten and plastic twisity cuffed……..story didn’t make any of the rags here, as anything that involves the secret service never sees the light of day.


Basil Epicurus said...

You made it out? I was getting ready to tell the world your story..

Hebe said...

sigh , its perfectly heartbreaking