Cairo Dispatch: Diverse Crowds Demand Changes

The following is a set of edited notes from a conversation between myself and IPS’s correspondent in Egypt, Emad Mekay, who was filing dispatches for LobeLog until the Internet went down. He was on the streets of downtown Cairo today until just after the curfew, when he returned home and we chatted by phone.

Slow-building protests started out with diverse crowds, including children

From the morning on, the number of protesters was increasing by the hour. Immediately after Friday morning Prayers at Sixth of October City, a suburb of Cairo, 3,000 people were out in the streets. By afternoon prayers, the number doubled. In the crowd there were many women, some with kids in tow.

The crowd appeared to traverse social lines, from people wearing the garb of door-guards to middle-class and affluent people. Even school girls were out.

I took it as a sign that people really want change when they risk taking their children out. But when things got out of hand, a lot of people pulled their kids out of protests.

Also soon after clashes started, residents began stocking up on food, and in the main area of Cairo, shops were closing their doors. People were unable to get around in cars.

Only the protesters, the police, and the army were left on the streets.

Of course, I got hungry. I stopped at a state-run bread distribution center and I jokingly asked the woman selling bread why she wasn’t protesting. She asked how many people were out, and I said about 4,000 so far. She said she’s waiting for more people. She’s technically a government employee.

In downtown Cairo, people in their homes and apartments looking out from their balconies and windows were throwing food and water to the protesters. Protesters were even allowed to go and make landline calls and go back down to the streets (mobile service is down in many areas and for many different services). This is in downtown Cairo, some of it in affluent areas. People would just open their doors to let people in.

Protesters going after symbols of the government

Before I went to Cairo, I was near the protest from a nearby main mosque. They were marching down and singing songs like ‘down with Mubarak.’ On the way, there was a police station. Some protesters tried to get in, but didn’t initially throw stones.

These are the symbols people are focusing on now: pictures of Mubarak, police stations, and NDP offices.

I don’t think there’s sympathy for the government — though people are worried about what’s next and whether things will get out of control.

The protesters are not looking outward at all and not mentioning Israel or the U.S.

They are concerned about better lives in Egypt. There were no religious slogans except for “alluhah akbar,” which is also a general expression of celebration.

Army presence in streets, perhaps military intelligence

The branch of the Army that came to downtown Cario to protect the (state-run) TV and Radio building were from the Republican guard, which is the presidential guard.

There were reports of tanks around the U.S. and other embassies, protecting those diplomatic installations.

There were cars around the city in strategic areas with tinted windows. It’s illegal for civilians in Egypt to have tinted windows. Usually, these cars are some kind of military intelligence.

There also appeared to be a communications tower being set up downtown (for police to communicate). But this sort of activity is usually conducted by the military.

Government blames the Muslim Brotherhood

Basically, what the government was trying to do was say that it was the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) behind the unrest, but most of the leadership of the MB was arrested ahead of the protest.

Instead of having senior officials from Mubarak’s party come out and say its the Muslim Brotherhood, a parade of low-ranking governemnt officials came out and said the MB did this. They were blaming the Brotherhood for the “riots,” and for fires.

Unsubstantiated rumors flew that the government itself had set fires in order to blame the MB. People noted that it took nearly four hours for firetrucks to come and fight the fires; they guessed that the authorities could have easily called in services.

Communication breakdown

At home, people were watching satellite broadcasts like Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and even Al Hurra, the U.S. government-funded station, which all had good coverage.

Most forms of communicating out are down or suppressed. There is still no Internet service, and mobile phone services are still down. [Mekay was unable to dial the U.S. from his landline.]

People are complaining that landlines are often busy, too. People are phoning into Egypt in terror, trying to call their families.

The authorities cracking down and cutting all communications really infuriated everyone. It was a sign that they might be losing control.

Nervous excitement

When I came back here, there were some intellectuals who were blaming Mubarak for what’s happening.

Everybody’s nervous; you might hear it in my voice. I don’t know if it’s just excitement, but things are boiling. It’s scary in a way, too, because I personally don’t know what’s going to happen next.

There are reports on satellite television of two more protesters dead in Mansour, a city in the northeast Nile River Delta. Al Jazeera just reported that in the main city on the Suez, 11 people died today, on top of the three others that have died in recent days.

The government may react more violently.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. We should know more tomorrow. As I said, everything depends on the army. If they support the regime, it will survive. If they join the people, the regime will fall. My guess is they will stand with the regime. Still, this is something new in Egypt, and it’s hard to envision a simple return to the status quo. Mubarak running yet again in a fixed election — somehow I don’t see it. He may end up stepping down as a result of the army and the U.S. telling him he should/must.
    Won’t happen tomorrow, but perhaps in a few weeks.

  2. I don’t know that the military will do much, save to keep the Suez Canal secure. I am apparently the only discussing the substantial strains on NATO, our force multiplier in the region. Consider Afghanistan, Georgia and the the EU financial crisis, this has essentially destroyed NATO while we weren’t looking.

    Further, the Wikileaks phenomenon has been vastly overblown with regard to Egypt, but not Europe. It’s Europeans that have been shown the hypocrisy of their gov’ts, the Arabs were never deceived about their govt. It’s again, WE who are exposed to the brutal truth of our gov’t double dealing, sophistry and support for vile regimes–the Arabs were never so deceived or propagandized as we in the West.

    So, the military over there may not have the support to which it’s accustomed. They may be more ambivalent in attacking their own people. You can’t order troops to follow absurd orders for long. (If the protesters were more violent, it would make the military’s job easier, but reports are rolling in that when a few protesters get too animated the others are appealing to them to keep their heads.

    Finally, one other facet exists that no one has acknowledged. I long thought that the only reason MLK got any traction in this country is that at least he wasn’t a Black Panther or Nation of Islam type, so, though still an African-American he was the most reasonable figure to open up to. These protesters have the same benefit of positioning. They aren’t terrorists, they aren’t the Muslim Brotherhood. That may mean that the GoE may have no choice but to acceed to the protesters. Again, what is the alternative?

    If we/they suppress this, it will give these masses no choice but to ally with the MB. We need to be careful what dilemmas we draw. We might define the whole world as against us, and those aren’t good odds.

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