Reporter's Notebook: The day the music died in Cairo

For the past five days, I was shocked and inspired by the civility of the protests, as well as the hope and optimism they represented.

Egypt Friday Tahrir 311 (photo credit: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Egypt Friday Tahrir 311
(photo credit: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
CAIRO – For some reason, the saddest part was the sidewalks.
As the violent clashes dragged on into their eighth hour in Tahrir Square on Wednesday night, both sides had exhausted the available rocks and were tearing up the sidewalk pavement for ammunition. Standing on a balcony overlooking Tahrir Square, I was watching Egyptians destroy their ancient city, block by block.
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The scene felt like warfare from a thousand years ago – angry, screaming men fighting over a small patch of land, moving forward, then backward, struggling over every inch of a public square. Everyone at the protest had his or her own job: Some kept a steady rhythm by beating on a sheet metal construction fence like a drum corps, others worked at smashing the pavement into smaller projectiles.
Some used torn canvas to carry the rocks to the front, others stood on the army tanks and directed the demonstrators, and still others brought water to the front lines or carried the wounded to the back. This is how mankind used to fight before we had guns – raw, unbridled anger, using stones and brute force.
Over the past week, I had been impressed each day anew with the kindness and warmth of the Egyptian people, many of whom took me under their wings as I attempted to navigate this complicated city in a time of crisis.
For the past five days, and especially on Tuesday during the “Million Man March,” I was shocked and inspired by the civility of the protests, as well as the hope and optimism they represented.
In Jerusalem, I live just six minutes from the Prime Minister’s Residence, and not a week goes by when I don’t cover at least one protest in front of his home, for affordable housing or the settlement freeze or Gilad Schalit. After attending so many of these similar protests, I’ve grown cynical about the power of political activism. Go on, carry some signs, shout a few clever slogans – but tomorrow, nothing will change.
Here in Egypt, the cynicism I usually bring to protests evaporated.
People were taking to the streets, and they were creating real, significant change. This was a protest that meant something – the whole world was looking on as the Egyptians created a momentum to carry them toward a new and different future.
Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in EgyptClick here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt
Watching the people hug and kiss the military, as they gathered by the hundreds of thousands and patiently waited for volunteers to check their IDs and pat them down, I felt hope. I came in at the tail-end of the “Friday of Wrath,” so the protests I witnessed were not only courteous, but also passionate and hopeful.
Not everything in Cairo was easy this week. The people in the lower classes whom I spoke to outside of the city, especially those dependent on tourism to the pyramids, were really struggling to make ends meet in a country frozen by demonstrations.
The community vigilante groups were governed by a mob mentality and sometimes went after innocent bystanders.
There was righteous anger over a man who has been in power for three decades and who refuses to leave, as well as righteous anger that any citizen could speak so hatefully about a man who has been their leader for three decades.
There was uncertainty, yes, but there was also hope that I was witnessing a country on the cusp of something wonderful.
But the scene on Wednesday was absolute chaos. As I walked around the square in the afternoon and witnessed the bloodied faces, with makeshift bandages made out of the Egyptian flag, watching the crowd surge forward and backward, I felt like something had died.
This is what happens when you strip away dignity, humanity, civility, and find raw hatred inside. These were the depths that humans can sink to when they are so angry and yet have no outlet except rage.
Throughout the night, the main confrontation point moved farther and farther from Tahrir Square, until the majority disappeared behind the Egyptian Museum. Then all that was left was the occasional explosion from the military, and the clink, clink, clink as demonstrators pulled up the pavement to throw at their countrymen.