Hosni Mubarak is 82-years-old. He has been Egypt's absolute ruler for three decades. He is America's biggest ally in the Middle East. He has probably never really figured out how to use a computer. I cannot imagine that he tweets or even fully comprehends how this most omnipresent of social networks works.
His restive and frustrated subjects though have been preparing online for Friday the 28th of January 2011 for (I imagine) -- a rather long time.
My friend Negma's checklist from a few hours ago is simple. It will also probably be life saving.
- Vinegar for tear gas. Check
- Gauze. Check
- Gloves. Check
- Headscarves to cover face. Check
- Bandages. Check
- Sunglasses/Goggles. Check
Negma will head out in a few hours to the Omar Makram mosque in downtown Cairo. The mosque is just off the now famous Tahrir Square. She has not been to a mosque in years and neither have her many Zamalek girlfriends who will be joining her with all of the supplies they have been collecting in the last 48 hours. They know they are not alone and will be joining thousands.
Negma has had no Internet since about 4 pm Eastern time on Thursday. Her blackberry messenger went down hours before as did Facebook and Twitter sporadically. Most friends I could only reach on the phone today felt that it was almost like Hosni Mubarak's goons were doing a practice run all day to test if they could manage to shut off the entire Internet. They finally seem to have succeeded.
As she is talking to me, she puts the phone on hold for a brief moment. A friend has just called and says that she has heard that Mubarak's regime will be shutting off the water and electricity on Friday as well. It is just the beginning of a long night of rumors in Cairo.
Our conversation is fragmented and she lets out a torrent of words, because she knows that she might be cut off any minute. Her bullet points are as follows (and she will probably face a torrent of real bullets in a few hours)
• Internet has been very spotty all day -- its almost like they were practicing with Facebook and Twitter and now succeeded
• The big protest on Thursday was at the downtown Lawyers Syndicate. The police forced the few hundred protestors into the building
• We heard that the army was out in Suez after they burnt a police station and a fire station there
• Thousands of protestors started marching from al Haram in Giza near the pyramids towards Tahrir square -- it's a very long walk
• There were more than a thousand protestors at Ramses square
• Don't assume that this is a Twitter and Facebook "revolution" -- they have been useful yes, but the majority of Egyptians do not have the Internet or smartphones. However the "leaders" of the movement have used twitter to communicate details to each other about which streets are blocked, where there is tear gas, their own coordinates and then also to the outside world with the common hash tags of #Jan25 and #Egypt. A lot of the tweeting has also been in Arabic but now "please know that no one is tweeting anymore, Parvez-Khalaas."
• My friend saw plainclothes police pouring gasoline on cars parked in the downtown area. They will later probably set them on fire and say we were violent rioters in order to have an excuse to kill us
• Now people are saying that "they" will shut off electricity and water before the Friday prayers as well
• I am praying that not everyone gathers in downtown. They are prepared for us there. We need to surprise them by spreading across each and every neighborhood in Cairo
• Nothing seems to have happened in Heliopolis yet (this is in response to my question about whether they have any access to the opulent Presidential palace in that particular part of Cairo)
• The Copts (the Christian minority) are saying that while we pray, they will watch our backs. They will wait outside the mosques to look out for our safety -- "this is why I love my country so much more now"
• I am so worried. People were also angry that Al Jazeera was not reporting properly and focusing more on their "world exclusive leak of Palestine Papers"
• I hope it does not get worse. It will, if we fail this time.
• I don't like Baradei and it is so irritating to have all the ignorant Western journalists give him so much attention -- I know he has some support with rich people and with middle class youth -- but people are questioning why he suddenly decided to return the country three days after we started getting killed. What has he done for Egpyt in the last thirty years to deserve to lead us? He is no better than the Brotherhood. They are all "fucked up."
I ask her if Baradei practices "Islam light" like the Brotherhood now does? She laughs. The line gets disconnected at that laugh.
And then Negma is gone. Every single attempt I make over the next few hours to contact her, fails. I do not have a landline number for her and her mobile no longer answers. The probability of her appearing online (like she did frequently in the past 48 hours) is now very remote.
President Obama gives a tepid interview saying that "President Mubarak" has always been a great "ally" and that he "made peace with Israel". Critically, Obama fails to mention that the Egyptian people did not necessarily make peace with Israel. In fact the disconnect between what the Egyptian "government" does and what its people think has grown exponentially in the three decades of Mubarak's tyranny. On American cable, Rachel Maddow opines as usual about the tepid political workings of an ineffective US congress and CNN has some kind of reportage on the celebrity do-nothings, the Kardashians. I try to tune into my Al-Jazeera English app. US cable especially in my town of New York refuses to carry the channel. Ten minutes of staring at their analysis reveals nine minutes on their obsession du jour "The Palestine Papers" and a one-minute update from their reporter in Cairo.
And then. This silence. This horrible silence of an entire nation wiped off the worldwide web by a tyrannical dictator in this the second decade of the twenty first century.
As I go to bed in the early hours of Friday morning (Eastern US time) I am worried about Negma and the thousands of other Negma's just like her entering what could well be the bloodiest Friday prayers in Egypt's post colonial history. I wonder if Hosni Mubarak got any sleep on Thursday night -- as his now disconnected and very frightened nation stayed up, uncertain, afraid and leader-less.
Friday is the holiest day of the Islamic week. It is also the beginning of the weekend in Egypt where Sunday is the first day of the work week.
Mubarak has never really paraded his Islamic credentials. I wonder if he feels any sense of impending doom on his Judgment day for potentially ordering the massacre of scores of believers, most good Muslims as they emerge from praying the one obligatory group worship required by Islam on its holiest day.
On January 28th 2011 in Cairo, will it be the scent of jasmine or the smell of blood?