An Arab-American Speaks From Cairo

02/06/2011 02:17 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An Arab-American, who must remain anonymous due to the Mubarak regime's crackdown on the media, writes from Cairo. I considered trimming this down for readability, but I worried that I would reduce this into a sensationalist news item rather than the thoughtfully written account of the protests that it is. Further, I did not want to censor the anonymous witness to these events in any way. So, it appears here, unedited. I apologize for the length:

Thursday, February 3

I woke up at 10am today to the TV, and have been writing this since I could get myself awake. I have been trying to gather information about what's going on; dozens of people have come and gone since I've been sitting on this computer, each one bringing in different bits of information.

The police are back on the streets with a vengeance, and so are the thugs. But they have not attacked the square (and that makes me uneasy), instead they are trying to cut it off. Many people were kidnapped from the streets around the Square, some roughed seriously, some put in taxis with a thug on each side and taken away, to a location we don't know. Foreign journalists have been threatened, pushed around, beaten, and had their equipment damaged and/or stolen. The BBC has reported that security services have entered the Semiramis Hotel and are interrogating foreign journalists. I have a friend who came from French TV at the Ramsis Hilton Hotel and I was extremely worried about him today, and in fact, his cameraman's camera was stolen in a scuffle. Foreigners have been beaten; journalists have been threatened; lawyers and activists have been arrested, and two human rights centers have been searched and their computers confiscated, the Hisham Mubarak Center and the Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights.

They are beginning a crackdown and Mubarak is falling back to his tactics of dividing people by putting fear in their hearts and by using violence and the threat of violence. Outside of where I've been all day, thugs have stopped and accosted men traveling alone or in pairs and roughed them up and let them go, or roughed them up and taken them to who knows where. This went on for hours outside where I'm writing. Sporadic gunfire can be heard as well.

A friend reporting from my neighborhood says that a police truck is randomly picking young men up off the streets.

I'm writing now and it's 10pm. I'm worried. Six or seven helicopters are flying over Tahrir Square although you would not know it. All foreign journalists are out of Tahrir; all cameras have been confiscated from the Square. There is no live coverage. And the helicopters are flying over the demonstrators, and Christiane Amanpour is making Mubarak look like he's a dignified, thoughtful man who cares about his country's people - instead of a thug who has impoverished and humiliated and lied to them every day of his reign.

Wednesday, February 2

Although yesterday's events have been the fodder for all media channels, I will nevertheless recount the day for you since it is freshest in my mind. I left the Square around 9pm on Tuesday, with thousands and thousands of people still along all the streets leading to Tahrir Square. I went to a local NGO where I've slept in order to watch the speech by Mubarak. It did not surprise me in the least. He was on TV precisely in order to show his strength, to discourage people, to make people feel weak and small. And in large part, it worked. Believe it or not, more than half of Egypt's population has never known any other president than Hosni Mubarak, any other politics than intimidation, any other regime than one of utter and depraved corruption.

We went home with friends who live far away after the speech and I left early to return to the Square. On my way in, I saw one small demonstration on Ahmed Orabi street, just by my flat, of maybe twenty young men, chanting "With my soul and blood, I would die for you, Mubarak". Between my home and the Square, I saw another four such demonstrations, with not more than 40 people at most. They were walking in the middle of the streets and blocking traffic and some cars were honking their horns in approval of their chants. Tal'at Harb Square was full of people chanting pro-Mubarak slogans.

There were not more than ten thousand people at Tahrir at 9am. It was still cool, the coldest night since the demonstrations had begun. The night's lack of sleep and cold was still on people's faces, in their joints. People have been sleeping with nothing more than a blanket below and a blanket above them. Some sleep on the sidewalk with nothing to cover them, and nothing under them except some cardboard; some have brought tents. Small fires were lit all around and groups collect around them to gather as much heat as possible. A friend of mine had spent the night in the Square because thugs prevented her from going home to a nearby neighborhood at night.

By noon, we had doubled our numbers, but twenty thousand or so in a place as large as Tahrir Square does not look impressive. The area around Bustan, Qasr al Nil, and Champollion Streets -- the area across from the side of the Egyptian Museum -- was full of pro-Mubarak people speaking to journalists and TV, making statements about how much they love the President, how much he's done for the country, and how the badly the demonstrators in Tahrir had been treating them. I kept my mouth shut around these groups on my way to buy whatever I could find from the closest bakery. These groups were inching their way closer and closer to the entrances to the Square.

By 2pm the pro-Mubarak camp was about a thousand people strong and they were pressing their way in slowly. Men formed a wall of locked elbows to keep them out. Three rows of men held up for about half an hour under constant pressure but eventually, the pro-Mubarak demonstrators broke through one part and revealed their intentions immediately: they ran to one of the small gardens along the side (about a meter higher than street level) and immediately destroyed three tents and trampled everything in their way. They tore down signs large and small and roughed up people in their way. But they could not advance further than this island. Their gestures and language was violent, but they were not suicidal and did not push further nor did they throw anything. But the men at their edge were pushing and shoving and shouting. Those further in were holding up their signs and slogans, some of which were eventually snatched and torn. The friction burst into violence as they began to throw stones, and several men were injured in the first minute and taken to the makeshift field hospital in the mosque. The violence turned against them and they were soon forced out of the garden and on to the streets facing the side of the Egyptian museum.

That's when the threat of violence became a constant part of our life in the Square. At the entrance to Champollion, Qasr al Nil, and Bustan streets it started to rain bricks and stones from 3pm or so. The army did nothing to stop this and they witnessed exactly how the violence began. The army had allowed these people in the Square in the first place.

The peace inside the Square was shattered and the situation remained tense until this morning. Barricades made of fencing, sheet metal, and traffic barriers were put up at all the entrances to the Square. People pleaded with the soldiers to move their armored cars in a formation to prevent pro-Mubarak forces from entering. At two entrances, the soldiers did in fact comply. Metal rods were used to break up any fencing and any sidewalk and any wall made of brick as this was the only ammunition available. People used all means at their disposal to transport this ammunition to the entrances to the Square: carrying them in sacks and bags, dragging them on what had been anti-Mubarak signs, making piles of them at spots behind the front lines. Men were instructed to wrap their heads with any covering then others helped them to tie cardboard onto their heads to diminish the damage of any blow they might receive from a flying brick or stone. The pro-Mubarak forces attacked from the Museum side; from one of the buildings facing the side of the Museum they threw Molotov cocktails at us. This battle of nerves and bricks and stones went on from 3pm until 6am this morning, but anti-government demonstrators won this battle, even though we were cut off and in a siege situation, one that continues until today.

There were many hundreds if not over a thousand injuries yesterday alone, mostly to the head and face. Broken noses, broken teeth, lost eyes, and bashed in head wounds were most common. The initial field hospital was far away from where most of the fighting took place yesterday and so the doctors set up another makeshift field hospital near Bustan street where the injured could be carried. They were performing the best they could under the circumstances, bandaging wounds, performing basic stitching, changing dressings, and calling in ambulances for serious cases.

Some of these pro-Mubarak thugs were caught, in the Square, because they had come in as part of the anti-Mubarak demonstrators; they were also caught from the streets around where they were roaming in groups and threatening and beating all people on the streets. After dark, it became safer in the Square than out because there was intermittent gunfire until early this morning. Several people died last night, and many more were injured by this gunfire. I left at first sunlight, around 6am, to a place where I could sleep not too far from Tahrir.

More than a million people had demonstrated in and around the Square on Tuesday without a single scuffle. The epitome of order and organization and civilization. People's IDs were checked as they entered the square and all bags were searched. The same scenario and procedure for entering the Square took place on Wednesday, but the pro-Mubarak thugs came in with violence as a goal regardless.

Saturday, January 29

There are rumors from early in the morning that the government has released the prisoners from the highest security prisons around Cairo, Abu Zaabal and Tura. (It turned out later to be true). I saw absolutely no vandalism in downtown Cairo in the area of Tahrir square although I was told that shops were looted in Mohandiseen along two of the major shopping streets. But there are absolutely no police of any kind on the streets anywhere. People are directing traffic by themselves quite efficiently.

On my way to Tahrir Square I see tanks and armored vehicles in front of the TV building, preventing traffic from heading into the Square or moving south along the Nile. Pedestrians move without any problems and I head to Tahrir. The NDP headquarters is still burning, black smoke swelling out from the hulk of the building. The aftermath of yesterday's events are scattered for everyone to see. The remains of the burning trucks, the streets littered with bricks and stones and metal barricades, broken signs and their twisted metal. And people everywhere walking around, inspecting the residue of Friday's events. People are walking around the NDP compound freely even as the main building still burns. Most of them have never been allowed in this compound.

A makeshift emergency aid clinic that was set up in a mosque a central area just off the main part of the Square on Tuesday is overflowing with injured people, doctors, nurses and others helping out. The doctor I spoke to told me that they'd treated 1,000 people since Tuesday, with 300 other cases in critical condition that were sent to hospitals, and that about 50 people had died in the clinic. I cannot vouch for these figures in any way, but this was for an interview for French TV that I translated.

The atmosphere in Tahrir square, however, was joyous. People were stunned at these events, most of all activists and the politically-inclined because no one could have dreamt up this scenario on Monday, a week earlier. People had slept in the Square on Friday night, and it has been, very literally, liberated territory since then, with people sleeping every single night. Live fire could be heard in the afternoon coming from the direction of the Interior Ministry, nicknamed here, of course, the Ministry of Torture, and the immediate area around the Ministry was a war zone of burned out cars and the carcasses of police trucks, bricks, stones and debris all over the streets.

On our way home on Saturday night and every night I have gone home since then, there have been "committees" of mostly young men blocking the major roads and the entrances to every neighborhood in Cairo. They are carrying sticks, clubs, batons, baseball bats, swords, knives, makeshift spears and anything that can do injury, and they're blocking the roads with everything that can stop a car or truck from passing. They search the trunk, ask for IDs and car registration; they're extremely polite and I've never felt safer. On my street the atmosphere is festive at night: men have brought down tables and chairs, water pipes and radios, and are hanging out. I told my cousin that every man who's got marital problems is now on the street enjoying the curfew and getting to know the street's residents better than anytime before. Perhaps for the first time in their lives, young men feel that they have some authority over their affairs.

Around midnight, we could hear gunfire and shouting from the apartment. There were responses to this gunfire and after a little while, we began to discriminate the different sounds: pistol fire, shotgun fire, machine gun fire. This lasted for several hours but we went to bed anyway, feeling completely safe with all the men on the street protecting us.

The next day we learned that they caught some of the thugs who fired because they eventually ran out of ammunition and were outnumbered ten to one. They were beaten to a pulp and turned over to the army and it turned out that they were informants from the local police station. This same situation played itself out in many neighborhoods of Cairo on Saturday night. By accident of course.

Liberation Square has organized itself into a settled community. There is a trash committee cleaning up the street, and people are treating them with respect that they've never had for their local garbage men. There is a "radio station" with microphone and speakers that is trying hard to keep unfounded rumors from spreading and reporting the major developments around Cairo, Egypt and abroad regularly. There is a committee that passes out water to make sure that no one goes thirsty. People have also brought in water, food, juice and blankets and passed them out in solidarity with those camping in the square. Young doctors organized a first aid field hospital at a mosque once the imam called for the injured to be brought into the mosque for safety. Until yesterdays' events, the events of Wednesday February 2nd, Tahrir Square has been a festival. And yesterdays' events forced people to organize themselves into defense committees: those breaking up the sidewalks, those carrying or dragging the rubble to all the entrances, young men breaking up any metal fences and dragging anything that can be used as a barricade to the entrances, and young men who have been putting their lives on the line throwing stones at the thugs, criminals and undercover police, that have been trying to break into the square since yesterday afternoon.

I have spent most of the last week at Tahrir Square and the downtown area. Last Tuesday was one of the most amazing events I've witnessed in my life with possibly more than a million people in and around the square, all of them sharing the hope of a better life without Mubarak and his corrupt and ruthless regime that has forced the ordinary Egyptian women and men to live in shame and humiliation because they are forced into a never ending cycle of poverty and all its related problems

Friday, January 28

No mobile telephones from around 10am.

Heavy police presence in my neighborhood of Mohandiseen on the two major roads around my flat, Ahmed Orabi and Gam'at Dowal Al Arabia.

The sermons before Friday prayers were calling for people not to demonstrate against the government, that demonstrators were being manipulated by foreign hands meant on creating divisions in Egyptian society. This in my neighborhood and others according to friends.

Demonstrators leaving the Mustafa Mahmoud mosque surrounded by police but no clashes until we reach Dokki Square about two kilometers away, where police presence was even heavier than around the Mustafa Mahmoud mosque. Police fired tear gas on demonstrators (by now we were over thousand people and still growing) so demonstrators moved toward Galaa Square on the Nile, where the Sheraton Hotel is. A very heavy police presence at the square preventing people from crossing the bridge toward Tahrir Square with four police trucks parked on the bridge, blocking the way across.

Demonstrators walk right up to the riot police cordon and do not retreat until riot police begin to fire tear gas. Young men begin to throw stones and break up the sidewalk tiles and concrete into pieces to use as ammunition against attacking riot police. Tear gas covers the square and stones continue to be thrown. Police attack and retreat but demonstrators do not break up. We can see tear gas being fired under the October bridge about two kilometers to the north and at Dokki Square one kilometer to the west. It is about 2pm. A tear gas canister falls into the cabin or a police truck and it starts to burn. Another canister falls into a balcony of a building on the square and sets it afire. Young men manage to force riot police to retreat and take over the four trucks parked at the entrance of the bridge. They open the hoods and dismantle the motors, and push one truck off the bridge. From behind and then atop the trucks, they push the riot police back further to the other side of the bridge. The security presence guarding the entrance to the Nile to the south - the direction of the Israeli embassy - is completely passive, watching the clashes, but not taking part whatsoever.

The bridge is taken and demonstrators move toward the opera house on the island of Zamalek. We can only get half way because of the tear gas. The same scenario taking place in front of my eyes is happening at every downtown street around Liberation square I learn from a car that is moving around different parts of central cairo to spread news of demonstrations. Tear gas, rubber bullets and shotgun pellets are being used by the riot police. Against stones. Many people are injured, many suffocating and retching from tear gas inhalation. Ambulances going back and forth moving people from the front lines of the demonstration to the rear.

My eyes and lungs are burning and I cannot breathe, cannot run. The police have flanked us from the garden and fired many canisters onto the street. The bravest kick the canisters off the sides. I'm moving back toward the bridge for air where I remain for 15 minutes. It's extremely crowded and I'm pushing hard to get to where I want to be on the north side along the railing to get the most fresh air. I don't understand the massive crowding. People are telling me not to retreat, that they have come from Giza, that there are thousands of them, but I'm dumb with lack of oxygen; I don't understand the significance of what they're saying.

I get the air I need and move back to Galaa Square, with difficulty toward the intersection to Murad street, and I see something I have never seen before in Egypt. Tens of thousands of people coming from the direction of Giza Square and the Zoo. They are moving peacefully, cheerfully on one side of the street and this flow of men and women continues for the half hour I remain there talking to a friend, trying to pull myself together to go back to the tear gas. They filed into the square and across the bridge directly, calmly. But certainly there must have been many street battles they left behind them. Whatever has taken place on the front lines of the bridge I don't know (though I can guess) but by the time I get to the main entrance of the opera house, the road is clear of riot police and I can see that the bridge leading to Tahrir square is also full of thousands of people. But the square itself is covered in white smoke. It is about 4:30pm now, just under an hour to dusk. The bridge is littered with stones and rubble from the broken sidewalks.

By the time I cross the bridge to the Cairo side of the city, night time is just around the corner. There is no more forward movement toward the square because the central part of the square full of white tear gas, the stench is nauseating and even burns my eyes from a few hundred meters away. The group I'm with now (I keep seeing friends, but the people I was with at the beginning of the day are lost to me for now) begin to move along the Nile to the south, toward the October bridge, Abdul Minim Riyad Square, and the NDP headquarters. Riot police trucks come from that direction and block the way. Immediately, within 30 seconds, the sidewalk tiles are broken up or taken in whole (each one weighs a good ten kilos). Some trucks are preparing to pass under the bridge, revving up their motors, to move towards the US embassy, and as they do, they are pelted by dozens of stones. Four or five trucks pass, one by one. None gets below the bridge without being hit many times, the steel-reinforced windshields of three or four being shattered as they pass. Everyone standing at the railing has thrown something. The trucks that have remained at the beginning of the underpass turn around and go back, and we chase them. It turns out they are empty of soldiers because they go to the entrances of the NDP headquarters and park broadside in front of each of the two major entrances.

The NDP headquarters are pelted. It seems a hopeless act of venting anger because the wall is about three meters high and the first floor windows are all reinforced with plexiglass. But people are nevertheless pelting. My mind says no, but I'm doing the same thing too. Some men manage to climb one side of the cement and brick fence and manage to get in the building, jumping like mountain goats. Others have pushed the police trucks in front of the gates enough so that people can pass through. The gates are broken and the NDP headquarters is now open territory for every Egyptian who has never been allowed to step into this compound. Everything inside is looted completely. All food and drink in this complex is brought down within fifteen minutes and passed out among the demonstrators immediately. Soft drinks, juice, water, sweets, and bags of sugar. Everything else is looted or broken on site: chairs, desks, computer screens and computers, standing fans, and documents are taken. Every car in the compound is scavenged. Then place is suddenly on fire and a cheer goes up in the air.

(I learned later that night and the following day from friends who live in various parts of the city that police stations around Cairo had been torched in the same way, people deliberately targeting their anger and their pent up feelings of humiliation against the police stations and their officers).

The museum is adjacent to the NDP HQ and demonstrators have spontaneously joined hands around the two main entrances to the museum to prevent looters from entering. It's a totally spontaneous reaction to the situation.

Abdul Minim Riyad square is on fire at several points. Four or five police trucks are burning black smoke. Others are flying around the square randomly, like a trapped animal, trying to run over demonstrators in an attempt to get out of the area. One on top of the bridge is also on fire blocking one of the exit ramps.

There are tens of thousands demonstrators everywhere now, moving in groups, heading in different directions. There are a series of battles around the front and back entrances to the TV building, just south of Abdul Minim Riyad Square on the corniche. Tahrir square is completely taken over except for the quadrant towards AUC, which leads both to the parliament in one direction and the Interior Ministry in the other. This is where there is a series of constant furious street battles of raining bricks, tear gas and various kinds of armed weapons between riot police and demonstrators. Live bullets are being used as well I saw the cartridges with my own eyes on Saturday morning.

These street battles continue around the AUC, Parliament, Interior Ministry quadrant and the TV building until 2 or 3am, but before midnight, the army comes in, at first in a pickup truck, small bus and two jeeps. Heated arguments break out between demonstrators about whether to let the first group of soldiers in or not. The soldiers are saying they are on the side of the people. I do not trust the army and the impassioned arguments go on for fifteen minutes. The military cannot go anywhere; they are totally paralyzed and surrounded and can only get out if they fire. They would not have been able to go through unless people let them through, which they did, only to discover that they were part of the Presidential Guard bringing in ammunition and tear gas to the Interior ministry forces placed around and protecting one of the most sensitive quadrants in the country. Later in the evening, several army jeeps are stopped and the soldiers removed as people discover that they are not coming to protect the demonstrators.

At one point in the evening, I am completely dumbfounded to find five tanks and many armored vehicles rolling in to the square. Demonstrators are overjoyed and climb on top greeting the soldiers as saviors. The chant that is heard like thunder: "The army and the people are one hand." I don't like it.

The tanks and armored vehicles move in around the museum. But at least one armored vehicle, at another part of the square, is burned (the soldiers were taken out first) as people don't trust their motives. Two jeeps are prevented from entering the square on Qasr al Nil bridge. They are turned into scrap metal in a matter of minutes when people discover that they are coming to reinforce the riot police. Heated discussions about what to do with the soldiers but they are not harmed, though terribly shaken.

By the time I made it home, partly walking and partly thanks to people who picked me up along the way, I learned that a curfew has been put in place, which explained why there was no form of public transportation and almost no traffic at all.

Thursday, January 27

A very heavy security presence underneath every bridge connection between Cairo to Giza by evening. Riot police trucks were placed on the bridges and below, with officers camping out for the night. Internet service is cut off around 9pm all over cairo. No sms service when I try it at midnight
Wednesday, January 26

An incredibly heavy police/security presence on Wednesday at Liberation Square with tens of Central Security transportation trucks at every intersection into Liberation Square and around the Supreme Court, with dozens of police officers at these intersections. No trace of yesterday's demonstrations whatsoever. The graffiti had been painted over, the one burned car was removed, all the stones on the streets had been swept up, and all traffic was moving normally.

Tuesday, January 25

Unbelievable. Totally peaceful demonstrations, unprecedented and "spontaneous", throughout Cairo,not just in the downtown area, that continued in their various neighborhoods or moved toward Liberation square, the heart of downtown. The rhythmic, rhyming slogans that were chanted by thousands over and over were: "The people want the downfall of the regime" or "Collapse, collapse Hosni Mubarak," or simply "Get out". These demonstrations took everyone by surprise: ordinary people, activists, politicians, and the government as well. Even the people who had made the initial calls to demonstrate. Never before had demonstrations on this scale taken place in Cairo - not just in the downtown area but throughout the city.

Attempts by central security forces to break up the demonstrations with riot police using batons, and wearing helmets and carrying shields. Interior Ministry Central Security (basically riot police, or to use the Brave New World terminology, semi-epsilon morons, probably the lowest paid group of people in the country) forces using water cannon many times during the day on demonstrators and then firing hundreds of tear gas canisters against peaceful demonstrators camping out in the square starting at 1am on Wednesday morning, emptying the Square completely within half an hour due to the enormous number of canisters fired.

And the Arab-American author offers this general note about the protests:

Although the socio-economic and political situation in Egypt has been very bad for years and deteriorating year after year -- meaning that wages don't allow for a decent standard of living, public education is a joke, and public health care almost does not exist (and most people cannot afford private education or private health care) -- let alone the political situation which is intolerably oppressive and in the control of just one party, the party of violence, fear and corruption. There is no serious public dissent that is not immediately silenced by intimidation and outright violence. Still, no one believed what happened last Tuesday, January 25. I believe this surprised even the organizers who called for these demonstrations. It was the first time that a revolution had an appointment: January 25, 2011, 2pm.

There is no other name for what has taken place in Egypt other than popular revolution. Hundreds of thousands, millions of people have been demonstrating against this oppressive regime in every city in the country, from Damietta and Alexandria on the north coast to Aswan in the south. The only organization that can get a few hundred thousands on the streets would be the Muslim Brotherhood and they are not and have not been throughout their entire history, a revolutionary organization. The Muslim Brotherhood are also the only organization that has supported the Egyptian people by providing social services for the 40 million who live below the poverty line.

There is no unified political leadership to what is happening. But that does not mean that there are no opposition political figures in Egypt. These people, from all political currents, have spoken up since Tuesday.