Three Days in Cairo

07/04/2013 04:19 pm 16:19:44 | Updated Sep 03, 2013

"Do you really want to come to Egypt? Right now? Really?"

The job interview was friendly, but not encouraging. Just a day before news had broken that American Andrew Pochter had been killed in a clash in Alexandria. Besides just rallying against their president, some Egyptians were now decrying Mohammed Morsi's perceived support from Washington and calling for American Ambassador Anne Patterson to leave the country. The State Department followed suit by warning Americans they shouldn't come to this volatile nation unless absolutely necessary. Rhetoric coming from the Egyptian military made it clear they too desired Morsi's toppling.

But if I really wanted the job it was mine.

Work as a freelancer had dried up in Amman and a nice stable desk job, albeit one in an unstable country, would at least be interesting. So I said yes, booked my ticket, and prepared to fly into the unknown.

Touching down in Cairo, things went smoothly. From my 8:30 a.m. arrival time, I had reached my new apartment in Giza by 10:00 a.m., unfazed and unhindered by the revolutionary forecast of Molotov cocktails on the runway. I gave a quick greeting to my roommate and made a weak attempt at unpacking before giving up and sweating off to sleep amongst the clothes and toiletries strewn about my bed.

But the slumber was short-lived. Drowning out the whir of my already full-blast fan, the rumble of low-flying helicopters shook my apartment.

Newly roused, I stumbled to the balcony to catch a view of two American-made Apache gunships circling central Cairo and banking in wide loops around my neighborhood. Joining me on the balcony, the roommate tells me the military has just issued a 48-hour ultimatum for the president to "share" power with his opponents and rumors are circulating that police have started to arrest Muslim Brotherhood officials. It's the late afternoon of Monday, July 1, and it looks like there's going to be a mid-week coup in Cairo.

So on that night I found myself wandering into the throngs of Egyptians packing Tahrir Square and other city nexuses demanding the ouster of an unpopular, but nonetheless democratically-elected Islamist President. The protests in Tahrir were for the most part peaceful and it wasn't hard finding the way there. Just before sunset one needed only merge into any flag-carrying crowd on any main street and just go with the flow. All roads lead to Tahrir.

If forceful executive overthrow weren't the declared item of the day, the massive, and million strong protests could have been mistaken for a national holiday. The red, white, and black of Egypt's flag were everywhere. Families came to picnic, hawkers sold corn-on-the-cob, young couples marched together holding hands, and Roman candles, drums, and ever-present vuvuzelas were drowned out only by the military aircraft overhead. There were effigies too.

A popular one depicted Morsi and his followers as sheep. Banners and placards reading "airhal" or "get out" were numerous too. This slogan has become the rallying cry of the latest revolution. At this point the military didn't have an obvious ground presence in the square, but reassured protesters with frequent helicopter fly-bys. The crowds erupted as they came, roaring in approval. Every laser light in Tahrir was pointed skyward at the choppers' arrival, reflecting in their rotors and creating an impromptu lightshow.

Back in the crowd, shoulder-to-shoulder, I made the mistake of bumping into an abaya-clad elderly woman edging in for a better view. She turned around, gave me a dirty look, and shoved back. I don't know if her intended target was my Nikon, but she hit it dead on and disabled my ISO settings. From there on out I was shooting blind. It's best not to screw with the revolutionary Egyptian grandmas of Tahrir; they mean business. I made my way back home in the early morning hours as protests continued.

Night two began much like night one, but things appeared more organized. Makeshift barriers of barbwire and rope were set up on some of the entrances, and what looked like regular civilians -- not military or law enforcement -- patted down protest entrants for weapons. Sitting areas for families to gather and take in a meal were also set up and a separate section of the main protest area had been established for women and children to join the cause without fear of assault or harassment. Many younger women ignored the barrier however and joined their male counterparts near the center.

On the massive Soviet-style Mugama government complex overlooking the square, someone had begun painting slogans with laser projectors. Declarations like "Long Live Egypt" and "The Army and the People United," were cast. So too was a recurring readout that counted down the hours Morsi had left on his military ultimatum, one he said publicly he would ignore. At this point, there were 18 hours left.

I managed to fix my camera the night before with a pocketknife and Vaseline and I was back to shooting. While on the outskirts of the action, a large bald man cornered me and demanded to see my passport and identification. I vaguely recall encountering the same individual the night before, but I slipped off into the crowd before he could continue. This time he grabbed me by the arm, refusing to let go. I asked him if he was a cop and he responded by demanding more identification. It's unclear if this was a botched citizen's arrest or a shakedown, but my only crime was being a foreigner with a camera. His partners arrived (I'm still not sure if he was plainclothes law enforcement or not), and told him he was overreacting. Cairo's Kojak angrily relented and let me go. Once again I returned home to my apartment to rest and prepare for what would turn out to be Morsi's last night in power. News reports indicated his ministers were jumping ship, as he remained defiant, insisting his presidency was legitimate.

As the sun sets on July 3, the crowds are in force once more, emboldened by what they know to be the government's final hours. As I walked along Tahrir Street towards the square, a military convoy of APC's loaded with armed soldiers in desert utilities and helmets pulled away coming from the square itself. They get a hero's welcome from marchers who ran up to shake their hands, give them kisses, and flash victory signs. For me it brought up two flashbacks from American history class: The first was of WWII newsreels showing the liberation of the Low Countries. The second was of Kent State and the 60s, where it seems the last thing unarmed protesters would want is for the army to show up with guns, but the opposite was true this night in Cairo.

Police in riot and SWAT gear also took up positions along the main Tahrir entryways and they too were treated like champions. Kisses and handshakes are exchanged and children are hoisted upon their shoulders and armored vehicles to pose for snapshots.

Entering Tahrir, I'm once again pulled aside and another man (not Kojak this time) demanded to see my paperwork. This one took it a step further and accused me of being a spy. Privy to the exchange, a man behind me told him to back off and that I was a Palestinian (incorrectly). The accuser let go and muttered something about me being a Hamas agent (also incorrectly).

To a degree there is an anti-American sentiment circling these protests, but most of the furor is still directed at the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. Still, there are posters and graffiti to be found calling for the downfall of the U.S., despite the fact that no one has yet to effectively explain to me why the American government would want to get in bed with Islamists right now. However, Tahrir probably isn't the right environment to have that conversation. On the other hand there are protesters here, mostly young men and teenagers, who are completely receptive to me being an American. Some hugged and kissed me and asked me to pose in group photos. The good Samaritan who vouched for my false Arab origins told me he used to live in Chicago, knew I was an American, and that I shouldn't be wandering around Tahrir with a big camera as people are paranoid. The rest of night however proceeded without incident and the big announcement everyone was here for finally came over the airwaves.

Just outside the square, cars pulled to the side of the road and set their radios on max volume so everyone could hear. Crowds gathered in hushed silence before exploding at the news that the president had been sacked, the parliament dissolved, and that pending future elections, Egypt had returned once again to de-facto military rule (it may have actually never left this status). Various political and religious factions broadcast their stances. On TV there's unanimous support for the coup, even though the military is so far trying to depict this as something other than that when a democratically-elected head of state has just been forcefully removed from power and imprisoned. Backlash from the Muslim Brotherhood isn't yet apparent, but that's probably because they're busy being arrested and their TV stations have been blocked.

So it's the early morning hours of July 4 and fireworks and celebrations continue throughout Cairo. The future is uncertain, but everyone who isn't a former government official or in the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be having a great time. It's not everyday one gets caught in an act of history and despite some anxiety about what happens next I'm in a good mood. From Tahrir I trudged back to my apartment on a pleasantly breezy Cairo evening and cracked a celebratory beer. I'm definitely glad I came to Egypt when I did.