Demonstrations & Death in Tahrir - Egypt's Revolution
Exodus from Egypt
By Stuart Greer, Global National’s Foreign Editor
Feb 11, 2011
CAIRO - As we passed the last military check-point, I could see Cairo International Airport looming on the horizon. I savoured the wave of relief that washed over me knowing we had avoided Mubarak’s thugs and we would soon be on our way home.
Eight days earlier me and Dan Hodgson, our cameraman, flew into Cairo posing as tourists. We had hastily concocted a story that we were a couple of Canadians visiting London who spontaneously decided to go for a quick backpacking weekend to see the pyramids at Giza. It was a pathetic lie. But thankfully our ruse was never put to the test by Egyptian border guards. We were never questioned or searched at the airport. Perhaps because we – well mostly Dan - looked the part. I had bought a Cairo tourist book and we took some fake tourist pictures of ourselves the night before outside a British pub. But most of all we travelled light – no video camera and just a few clothes. We were afraid of having our gear seized so we decided we’d cover the revolution with a still camera that could shoot some video, our iPhones and a laptop.
For the first few days the mood was rather peaceful and at times even festive. We wandered effortlessly into the swelling anti-government crowds in Tahrir Square. Me playing the bumbling naive tourist with my trusty tour book and Dan with his still camera – that of course could shoot video. We were welcomed with smiles and enthusiasm. They offered us food – Twinkies! - and people apologized for the chaotic state of their country. « Where did we come from? » they asked. And when we answered Canada. Almost everyone smiled and shot-back ‘Canada Dry!!’ in that voice Borat uses when he says ‘High Five!’. Everyone’s a comedian – even in an uprising. Or maybe Egyptians just really love ginger ale.
What was remarkable was that the protesters seemed to have no sense that the world was watching. How could they? With the Internet down, cellphone service patchy and state TV broadcasting cooking shows, they were oblivious to the fact their struggle had captured the world’s attention. They told me to tell Canadians about their yearning for freedom and I assured them Canada and the world was watching intently. Most saw past our charade and understood we were reporters. But to be safe I was purposely vague and coined the lame term « tournalist » - a not-so cunning hybrid of tourist-journalist saying I was collecting interviews for a website inspired by their cause. And it wasn’t an empty compliment after witnessing their courage and solidarity on Wednesday - the day everything changed.
Until then the military was letting us take a few shots before shoeing us away like annoying flies. But on Wednesday we found ourselves in a pro-Mubarak rally and the mood turned aggressive and volatile. An Army officer harassed us and demanded to inspect Dan’s camera forcing him to delete several photos. I caught the exchange on my iPhone and the pro-Mubarak mob turned on me. We left immediately sensing the situation had the potential of getting nasty.
We headed to Tahrir Square. The anti-government protesters were still basking in the glow of the huge rally they mustered the day before. We wanted their reaction to President Mubarak’s promise he’d step down in 7 months at the end of his term.
But his supporters – or should I say thugs - were not far behind. Some were already there roughing up the protesters. When we filmed the scuffles the gangs turned on us again. We ran and were lucky to get out just before the square exploded into a medieval battlefield.
From our hotel balcony we watched the bloody fight rage and I was haunted by one question : what happened to the father I just spoke to and his 2 daughters that he brought down to the square? Both sides waged war for the next 48 hours. There were rocks, Molotov cocktails and gunshots. At least 5 people died that night and hundreds were injured. But the protesters held the square - the symbolic heart of their cause.
In that small besieged patch of Cairo they were building the new Egypt – the kind of country they yearn for. A place of decency and dignity. A place of courage and civic pride.
Food donations flooded-in. Doctors volunteered setting-up make shift clinics for the wounded. People collected rocks in preparation for the next assault. Shifts were organised to protect the front line. And those unable to fight cleaned-up the debris. Not one shop was looted.
But by far the most moving scene was a ring of Christians holding hands in a protective circle around hundreds of praying Muslims. They were all Egyptians.
Outside of Tahrir Square they were surrounded by the old Egypt. Mubarak’s goons attacked anyone they deemed a traitor. Foreign journalists were prized targets and the irony was striking. For three decades the West had propped-up Mubarak’s police state for the sake of regional stability. But this week we became the target of the regime’s rage. It was a massive miscalculation by Mubarak that exposed the naked brutality of his rule to his allies.
In an interview with ABC News Mubarak played his trump card. He said he was ready to go but feared radical Islamists would take over Egypt and turn it into a fundamentalist state like Iran. He was referring to the Muslim Brotherhood – the country’s largest opposition group which is banned. They are the menacing boogeyman with which Mubarak blackmails the West.
« Mubarak is always telling the world : If I go. They come, » says Hisham Kassem, the publisher of the Cairo Times and head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.
We spoke earlier in the week and he - like most secular Egyptians I met – believe Israeli and Western fears are unfounded.
« I never believed that was possible, » says Kassem about Egypt turning into a theocracy. « The Brotherhood’s power was always inflated by Mubarak. »
« The Brotherhood had the advantage of operating from mosques. Mubarak couldn’t close down the mosques. »
« Politically they have been trying to get power for 82 years but have never succeeded because Egyptian identity comes not from religion but from an ancient history. This was a menace used by the regime to block democracy. »
The Muslim Brotherhood of course has many unsavoury positions. It is hostile to Israel and helped spawn Hamas. But it was also been condemned by al-Qaeda for being too moderate because it renounced violence and participated in elections.
And the Brotherhood is not leading this revolution. In fact it sat on the sidelines until last week. Spearheading this movement are the young, educated, secular Egyptians who want what we have – the chance to live in a country that gives them freedom, dignity and opportunity to build a decent life.
I’m on the plane now on my way home to Prague. I savour these quiet moments to myself after a week of adrenaline and deadlines. It’s time to reflect on the extraordinary events I have witnessed. Sitting behind me on the flight out of Cairo is a young Egyptian who has fainted. As he is carried to the front of the plane by the cabin crew and I see his shirt is stained with blood. He has a head injury he was stoically hiding.
I’m humbled by the realisation that I only have a vague grasp of the cost of liberty. But I know it’s value. And I’m consumed with thoughts of getting home so I can give my little daughter an endless hug.
Landing in Cairo
Anti-Mubarak protestors speak out