I was in Egypt from Tuesday 25 January through Saturday 29 January 2011, i.e. the first five days of the people’s up rise. I witnessed a series of events, actions that have left me flabbergasted.
Cairo at 11.00 am on the day of the peaceful protests that were to start at 02.00 pm seemed busy and peaceful all at once — like it always is. It seemed that the day would develop as usual.
For the larger part of the day, I stayed tuned to Al Jazeerah and Al Arabiyah — two cable new channels — to keep track of the walkout that was about to begin. The crowds began to gather in and around Tahrir Square. They came from all social strata. Most people carried peaceful signs that pronounce five clear-stated demands: that the President steps down; that neither he nor his son run for office again; that the Government Cabinet be dissolved and new Ministers be appointed; that the Shura Council be dissolved and new fair elections take place; and that the Constitution be amended. There was a lot of security on the streets but there was no engagement between them and the protesters. Surrounding streets were closed off from vehicles to prevent needless confrontations.
For several hours, the events were developing rather peacefully. Many of my family members and friends were amongst the demonstrators and I felt envious of their strong sense of civic engagement, patriotism and willpower. A strong sense of identity dawned on each and every Egyptian, as well as anyone who has any link to Egypt.
Then as the early hours of the evening kicked in and the tone of the events was slowly shifting. Tension was building up. People did notdisperse and go home. People declared they would remain and their tone became far more hostile. The protest went on into the late hours. Outside, you could hear the sound of ad hoc gunshots and glass breaking.
Day two of the uprise seemed a mixture of patriotic youth still making the same demands in addition to hungry people demanding change to be able to feed their families. These were two distinct groups. Yesterday’s protesters had split. Additionally, one could notice the huge number of security guards on the streets, especially on the streets leading to Tahrir Square and important Government offices. However, they only stood there, anticipating problems that may arise on this second day of demonstrations.
How did this all start? A few people on Facebook and other social networks thought they could arouse the interest, the anger, the despair, the humiliation and the revolt of the Egyptian people towards the 30-year Mubarak regime. Did they not realize that Egypt has a population of 80 million of which only a small percentage would be able to grasp the ideologies they were voicing and would know how to respect the boundaries dictated by what is termed “peaceful protest”? Did they not realize that there were many angry and suppressed people who would take advantage of the situation to escalate it into the adversity it has become today? Now what???
Day three was filled with mixed feelings: people were left confused between their sense of solidarity and fear from the turn of events. Emotions led their motivation. The same three distinct groups prevailed.
People remained glued to their television screens if they were not physically present at the protest. People waited. What were we waiting for?
I suppose we waited to see the reaction of the Presidency… where was President Mubarak? Why had he not yet addressed the people of Egypt? The people of Egypt were waiting and so was the world.
Late into the night, the mobile networks and internet networks were halted. People felt angry, cut off from the world. It was the first time that we all realised that for over 10 years now, we have grown to be dependent on our mobile lines and most of us did not know anyone else’s landlines!
Day four was labelled Angry Friday. History was in the making. The afternoon progressed fairly quietly and well into the people’s newly developed routine for the past three days our eyes remained focused on television, television and more television. The events were escalating and the tension was mounting. Another caliber of people had hit the streets of Cairo: people were breaking and entering shops and companies, looting them of their goods. Banks, ATM machine, airline offices, etc… everything was being raided! What happened to the peaceful protest? Where did the Facebook community and other social networks go? They were being replaced and outnumbered by a number of street bullies who seized the opportunity to disrupt the peaceful protest and transform it into the “up rise of the thieves” as it was now being labelled. Chaos was everywhere and the only conceivable response was to instate a curfew from 6.00 pm to 7.00 am the next morning in attempt to limit the people’s movement on the streets. Did it work? Not really for protesters remained camped out in Tahrir Square and chanted “We will not leave until he (the president) leaves!”
The weight of the situation was taking its toll on everyone. Everyone sat quietly watching the live feeds on television. People’s tolerance was hitting rock bottom. People were upset at the way the protest was turning into a confrontation amongst protesters. Some newcomers who supported the Government challenged the crowd that was striving for it to be dissolved. People were being influenced by the president’s speech. Egyptians are emotional people and their position may be swayed if their emotions are triggered.
Gunshots continued well into the night… a sound that everyone had grown accustomed to for four nights straight now.
I left the next morning to the airport as soon as the curfew was lifted.
This journey seemed to take “forever”… this same route I had enjoyed four days before in the opposite direction. However this time, frantic pedestrians filled the highway. Most of them walked with nude torso swaying their arms in the air with pocket knives, and other arms. They were attacking passing cars. They banged on the hoods and trunks of the cars in attempt to scare the drivers into stopping so they could loot them. Meanwhile a”City Center” was going up in flames… that same shopping mall that stood tall and busy a few days before was slowly melting away. In the midst of this sad scene, the-hungry-people-of-Egypt-turned-thieves robbed whatever goods and food they could get hold of from the inflamed stores.
What other emotions will they feel next?
Reicher, S. D., Haslam, S. A., & Hopkins, N. (2005). Social identity and the dynamics of leadership: Leaders and followers as collaborative agents in the transformation of social reality. The Leadership Quarterly, 16, 547-568.