The following are lightly edited notes from a conversation over the phone with IPS correspondent and LobeLog contributor Emad Mekay in Egypt. Check out all our news coverage of Egypt and Emad’s other dispatches, and a story for the wire late Friday night.
I LOOK OUTSIDE AND IT’S HAPPENING, WITH A PRICE
It’s really history being made. It’s the kind of thing I knew would happen, but I imagined it happening maybe in the future life of my kids.
But I look outside and it’s happening. But it comes with a price, and the price is insecurity now and uncertainty in the future. — Could you hear that? The gunshot?
With regard to Omar Suleiman’s appointment as vice president, I’ve been on the phone with dozens of people, and everyone says the same thing: Nothing has changed. Suleiman has been there for 20 years. And Mubarak still has power.
INSECURITY AWAY FROM KEY SIGHTS, POLICE ‘THUGS’?
It’s bad today. It’s not political; it’s security now. And it’s getting out of control.
A lot of the looters are former low-level secret police that have been cut loose, looting and attacking homes and robbing people. Many of them originally were in plain clothes, because their job was to gather intelligence.
The police are in rebellion now. They are bandit police, and they’re turning against society in general. The police are not functioning; there are no traffic police. I’ve been out all day, and all the police stations are all surrounded by tanks.
I have a firsthand report about clashes between the police and the army in Tenth of Ramadan City, about 60 km northeast of Cairo. Eventually, the army was able to round up a bunch of the police conscripts and imprison them in the police station.
Things were more normal yesterday than today. Look at me: Instead of going downtown, I was scared that my kids and wife would be attacked, so I had to come back early. And this is happening in almost every city, in every district across Egypt.
It’s getting very chaotic and I don’t know what will happen next. See, I’m talking to you now, and I just heard another shot fired. And it’s a very nice area. We were concerned that they were going after the areas that seemed affluent.
I spent all day in Sixth of October City, and I’ve seen more tanks coming on trucks. And some areas are being barricaded by the army. Residential areas are unprotected except for police stations.
There’s no police force now. They were ordered to pull back.
IS MUBARAK PLAYING THE SECURITY CARD?
I think the regime is playing a game, really trying to scare people off of change because of this insecurity. Many of the things that are being done seem organized, especially the looting. (Many of these groups are fighting with the army, too.) The government may be just punishing the people.
Of course, this insecurity will have political consequences: Now, the people’s regime change demand may take a back seat to security. People are turning inward; they just want protection. The TV stations are airing live phone calls from people saying, ‘We are in such-and-such location, send the army. We need help because we are being attacked by thugs.’
The government was putting out some ridiculous things, such as accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of looting. That never gained much traction; no one believed it.
But everything outside takes more time. I went to see why I can’t make international phone calls, and the phone company was closed. The banks are closed and ATMs don’t work. The telecom company is closed. Schools are closed, universities are closed.
The food situation is getting worse. There are lines for every kind of item. All kinds of stores — even food stores — have been looted. I confirmed that Hyper-One, a mega-grocery in Skeikh Zayed City, was looted.
Because we’re in an area that’s not hooked up to the gas grid, we have to buy gas cylinders, and we couldn’t buy that either. And we are only four or five days into the unrest. I have maybe a week worth of cooking gas.
PEOPLE PUSH BACK WITH NEIGHBORHOOD WATCHES
The police are attacking people from one area to the next. Me and my neighbors are keeping sort of a neighborhood watch. Everyone is armed with knives and sticks, lead pipes, whatever they can get.
Shots are being fired everywhere now. Mosques are turning into local radio stations with their megaphones. People in the neighborhoods are stationed in the mosque to warn the area about advancing thugs, the gangs that are looting and attacking people.
It’s a very messy situation, very different than yesterday.
Right now, people are coming together and that’s a good thing. People are trying to patrol the streets with just sticks and kitchenware, because the army and police have a monopoly on weapons in Egypt.
There is sort of a very moderate Muslim independent preacher — a televangelist — named Amr Khaled who volunteered to help people form small groups to help protect and establish security.
People are banding together. Everyone is calling everyone else and giving them tips, telling them how to secure their kids. Many hope the chaos and security problems will not affect the political process.
INTERNATIONALS LOOKING TO GET OUT
The governments of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and others have been giving embassy hotline numbers to local television channels to distribute so that their citizens can get in touch and get help leaving Egypt. America has not posted any number for U.S. citizens that I have seen.
WHAT SHOULD THE U.S. DO?
If Mubarak falls, it is difficult to see how the U.S. will be able to secure any influence in whatever comes next in Egypt unless they organize a clear stance now so Egyptians can see it. It would probably take a strong statement that makes the regime understand that this is the future and that the U.S. wants change.
This is a chance for everyone to not make the same mistakes.
The protesters are not anti-American, so why make them anti-American by backing the wrong side. It’s a pretty clear choice.