Eyewitness: The people against the police

It would appear that the people of Egypt have decided to take responsibility for their own fate, rather than blame foreign powers.

By JORDAN GERSTLER-HOLTON
February 3, 2011 06:52
Rioting in Cairo's Tahrir Square

egypt riot mob 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

CAIRO – “Long live Egypt and long live President Mubarak!” and “Yes to Mubarak, no to instability!” emerged as common slogans on Wednesday, as the street’s unified voice calling for the fall of the Mubarak regime was suddenly broken.

This followed an announcement by President Hosni Mubarak the previous night that he would not run for reelection. The demonstrators broke into two camps, one for Mubarak and one against him.

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Hussein Ibrahim, 45, with gray hair and gray mustache and flannel suit, was one of the protesters in favor of Mubarak staying in power for another seven months, until the election.

“For 30 years, Mubarak has preserved Egypt’s stability,” he said, against “Qatar, Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas and other who wish to destroy it.”

He was part of a group headed to Tahrir square, chanting, “With our spirit and blood, we will defend and die for you, Mubarak!” Passersby cursed the Mubarak-supporters, calling them “crazy donkeys” and “stooges of the regime.”

Meantime, soldiers directed Ibrahim’s group away from a checkpoint close to the American Embassy.

At the offices in Garden City of Al-Masry Al-Youm, an independent opposition newspaper that is regarded as the most influential in Egypt, the chief editors had ordered the place evacuated. Rumors spread that the independent Al-Shorouk daily had come under attack earlier in the day.



This reporter relocated to a second Al- Masry Al-Youm office downtown, a blocks from Garden City, while others decided to work from home.

The office downtown came under attack, however, during the writing of this article.

A commotion broke out at 4 p.m., with people screaming and running to pick up their steel rods.

Panic broke out as passing vigilante security groups outside the office were momentarily misidentified as thugs.

Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt

Improvised guards, armed with steel rods and other light weapons, stood at the door to the building, carefully checking IDs of all who entered.

In the meantime, vigilante security groups formed downtown, in Garden City and in surrounding areas, throwing poles and rails and other debris in the street to form impromptu checkpoints, and carefully checking IDs of any who wished to pass.

Drivers and the new gatekeepers yelled at each other when passage was denied.

In front of the Egyptian Museum, Mubarak supporters and their opponents clashed. They threw stones at one another and beat each other with sticks. Horses and camels were seen in the area, adding to the chaos.

“The government paid these supporters to come out in favor of Mubarak,” a middle aged man who refused to give his name said. “1956, 1967 and 1973 destroyed us, and then Mubarak brought us stability for 30 long years.”

He vehemently defended the peace with Israel. “As long as somebody does not attack you, you don’t attack them,” he argued.

“Leave, leave, ya Mubarak. Tel Aviv is waiting for you,” was one of many slogans heard in Tahrir Square on Tuesday afternoon, when the mood among the estimated 2 million people there was decidedly in favor of the president’s immediate ouster.

“Leave, leave, you American and Israeli traitor,” was another call heard from one of the many groups, chanting slogans and hosting speakers, that spontaneously formed among those in the square.

One picture consisted of a photo-shopped image depicting Mubarak as a vampire with a Star of David on his forehead. The symbol was also drawn on the forehead of a Mubarak effigy that hung from a lamp post near the center of the square.

Yet despite scattered displays of anti- Israeli and anti-American sentiment during the eight days of protests so far, the burning of Israeli and American flags, which have become customary for Western audiences to see on TV when protests in Middle East take place, were no where to be seen. Moreover, the anti-Israel and anti-American slogans were relatively benign, as protesters tended to emphasis Mubarak’s close relationship with the two countries, rather than decrying Zionism or US imperialism directly.

To the casual observer, it would appear that for the first time since the state’s creation, the people of the most populous Arab country had decided to take responsibility for their own fate, rather than blame foreign powers.

“The people want the president to go,” “He will go; we won’t go,” were among the most commonly repeated slogans, as the demonstrators, many of whom have slept in Tahrir Square for several days, swore that they will not stop protesting until Mubarak leaves the country. Others went further by calling to put him on trial.

Police filled Cairo’s skies with tear gas as protesters confronted officers who blocked then from reaching Tahrir Square. The square remained entirely occupied by thousands of riot police. They used it as a base for sending reinforcements to other riot police stationed in key areas on the main thoroughfares leading to Tahrir and around the city.

Dark smoke could be observed rising from behind the Egyptian Museum. On Qasr al- Nil Bridge, riot police confronted protesters with tear gas, rubber bullets and concussion grenades as they tried to push them back over the bridge. Meanwhile, protesters picked up the canisters of tear gas and threw them into the Nile, where they continued to float, emitting gas, but the wind made them harmless to those on the bridge.

A hotel guest, seemingly impervious to the battle being waged a few hundred meters away, enjoyed a casual swim in the pool. The hotel staff near the pool area turned their backs to the swimmer as they watched the scene on the bridge.

Meantime, a middle aged man on the Nile Corniche below joined a growing number of people lined along the promenade.

They stopped to see the fight as injured riot police were taken from the bridge in ambulances, and reinforcements from Tahrir came to replace police exhausted from hours of brawling with the protesters.

Then, white tear gas began to rise from the center of the riot policemen, as a protester had thrown a canister of gas in the middle of the formation. Amid a cacophony of concussion grenades, rubber bullets and shooting canisters, standersby on the Corniche began to clap and cheer, along with the hotel staff watching from the pool area.

The police began to withdraw as reinforcements, including water cannons mounted on vehicles, approached from Tahrir. The retreating police regrouped as they joined with reinforcements further down the bridge. They evacuated the injured among them, and the protesters’ advance gradually came to a halt.

Then the call to prayer was heard across Cairo, and the protesters stopped to pray.

Dramatic scenes, broadcasted across the world, showed water cannons pounding protesters as they kneeled in prayer at the feet of riot policemen. An imam dressed in white and positioned at the front of the demonstrators led the prayers as the water’s stream moved from right to left and left to right on the kneeling protesters.

Soon after the prayer finished, about two dozen riot police charged the men standing on the Corniche who had been cheering on the protesters, beating them with clubs.

One of the men, who had fallen, threw up his arms, pleading with the riot police to stop hitting them as they ran by, screaming and chasing onlookers who dispersed rapidly in the opposition direction.

The police retreated to their position behind the bridge, and the onlookers gradually trickled back to their position overlooking to bridge, but this time in smaller numbers and further back from the officers.

Finally, the police pushed protesters off the bridge and occupied the adjacent Opera Square. Tear gas and black smoke appeared as the protesters vanished. It was mid-afternoon, and Al-Jazeera reported that Egyptian authorities, speaking on behalf of the security forces, had succeeded in securing all of the city’s “areas of engagement.”

The mood soured at Al-Masry Al-Youm’s ninth-floor suite. It seemed that the government now had the upper hand, having decisively defeated the protesters as the fighting continued to retreat into the distance.

Yet suddenly toward late afternoon, the security forces retreated once again as the protesters reemerged into Opera Square and onto the bridge. Armored vehicles, unable to retreat fast enough, could be seen running over demonstrators, who began to overtake them, as they drove in reverse toward retreating riot police officers.

Meantime, tear gas began to waff up to the balcony on the ninth floor. The Al- Masry Al-Youm team covered their noses with tissues or jackets and continued to watch events below.

Protesters flooded the bridge, raising banners and chanting slogans as they filled every square meter of the area and scrambled to reach Tahrir.

“We need an update!” Saif Nasrawi, 29, managing editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm’s online English-language edition, called out.

“Let’s make the headline: ‘Egyptians capture Cairo.’” A reporter objected: The team had no way of knowing the status of clashes in other parts of the city; it was too early to declare a victor. The journalists settled on a more mundane headline: “Egyptian protesters penetrate to Tahrir Square.”

Meanwhile, police trucks and jeeps spun swiftly along the Corniche, trying to escape the tightening cordon formed by growing crowds. Men tore out railings from the promenade and equipment from nearby buildings to build roadblocks, in an effort to keep police vehicles from escaping.

Demonstrators took control of police vehicles along the Corniche. Each time, the same pathetic scene occurred: Terrified policemen gestured for protesters not to harm them as they surrendered their vehicles, watching passively as protesters set their vehicles ablaze with lighter fluid or gasoline.

It was not long before the ruling National Democratic Party’s headquarters was also set on fire. From the newspaper’s balcony, dark plumes of smoke could be seen coming from the structure. Al-Jazeera confirmed suspicions: NDP headquarters was indeed in flames.

Eyewitnesses say that a firetruck came to the site, but stood idly in front of the burning structure, for reasons that remained unclear. Perhaps, one eyewitness suggested, the firemen feared for their personal safety in the face of the protesters’ potential reactions. The firemen eventually intervened, later that night, but two days later smoke was still rising from the building.

A 28-year mine worker recalled participating in the looting that followed. After entering the structure’s basement when its upper stories started to burn, he saw someone emerging with fistfuls of cash from the building’s safes. Someone wobbled out the front gate hauling six laptops stacked in his arms. When the mine worker first entered the building, he saw someone take the last few laptops from a storage area. Disappointed, he lingered to scavenge with other looters. Someone opened up a storage room, and there were brand new laptops. “So many were stacked up that there wouldn’t have been space to fit another one,” he said.

The mine worker grabbed two computers, thinking he would keep one for himself and give the other to a friend. When he was leaving the gate, however, a fellow looter demanded one for himself. The mine worker reluctantly gave him a laptop, and on his way home, he was stopped once more, this time by five thugs who demanded he surrender the remaining computer. He refused, at first, before he realized the futility of resisting the five men.

“I said, ‘Here it is,’ and then I smashed it on the ground,” he gleefully recalled, making a downward motion with his arms. He laughed, “Did I do the right thing? They would have taken it... I figured this way neither of us would have it,” he said, with a hint of satisfaction for having made what he considered to be the best decision.

The general looting that followed was not confined to government or NDP property.

Looting has taken place at banks and stores across Egypt as some exploit the police’s withdrawal from major cities that took place on Friday, to take as much as they can.

He lightheartedly defended his decision to steal the laptops. “The government stole from us for 30 years,” he complained.

“This is our one opportunity to steal.

Aren’t we allowed?”


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