Egypt - There Are No Words - February 2011 'Thought for the month'

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I shall do no more than show you four letters sent from Egypt in the last few days in reverse order. There are no words…

Letter Number 4

Crush the serpent with his heel.
2 February 2011

From yesterday’s uplifting, peaceful and joyful protest to today’s cynical atrocities in Tahrir Square, there’s not much to report that’s different from what you see on the news.

Last night we stayed up late to listen to Mubarak’s message and to Obama’s address. Too little, too late was the consensus after Mubarak had finished speaking. I thought Obama got the US message about right. It is not for the US to say directly what another country’s leader should do. (I realize this may sound naive, but I am not a political scientist). My Egyptian friends expected something stronger… In the end it all comes down to what Obama means by now, as in "change must start now."

Having stayed up late, we rose late too. At breakfast, which was before noon, we realized the Internet was back on. Euphoria. Jubilation. And not just from the children who left their full (beans) and cheese to post on Facebook. We are connected again… And I don’t have to type these messages with two thumbs on an iphone. I telephoned Antony to tell him to book his flight back.

I then rang round to my colleagues — What did they think about the events of Tuesday? Of Mubarak’s speech? It was evenly split — some were prepared to wait until Mubarak’s orderly departure in September. Others felt things had progressed too far and that he had to leave right away. Apparently within families there is disagreement about what is best for Egypt.

Egyptians are fiercely proud of their country and even more of being Egyptian. In this way they resemble Americans — and differ from Europeans who are much more circumspect about patriotism and nationalism. The sentiment I carried on the placard at the Tahrir protest, "We love Egypt" was met with sincere appreciation — Egyptians love Egypt and they want others to appreciate their country.

The afternoon television brought terrible images of violence where we had walked so happily yesterday. It is clear that the pro-government activists are hired thugs. Until their appearance (which reports indicate they were paid for), the demonstrations had been relatively peaceful.

My feelings swung the other way — perhaps it is time to go as it is difficult to predict what the coming days will bring.
Everyone is worried. No one knows what will happen. The return of the internet and the pushing back of the curfew brings more normalcy – but still the economy is at a standstill.

The rest of the day passed with normal activities — preparations for lunch, games of Monopoly, and email catch up. A communication holds hope that work will resume as normal on Sunday. But it doesn’t feel normal. The psychological strain is evident in shortened tempers.

My friends are discussing going to the protests tomorrow to show solidarity with the protesters. My daughter and I won’t go. There were attacks on foreigners today and while my presence yesterday may have been seen as supportive, after today’s clashes, it would only be interference.

Letter number 3

Today we organised ourselves to go to Tahrir Square for the million person march. We made signs on bright yellow card "We love Egypt" and "Egyptians together" in English and Arabic. Miranda suffering from a bad cold elected to stay home with the grandparents - they had already had their protests in the 50s and 60s.

Leaving the pyramids area at about noon, we drove into town on almost traffic free roads. In the neighbourhood of Mohandeseen we saw many neighbourhood watch setups, guarding streets and avenues. Potted plants, oil barrels, traffic cones, rocks, anything available has been used as a barricade at the checkpoints. We were stopped, others had their car searched. Some guards brandished knives.

Eventually we parked on Gezirah island near the Opera and the Ahly football club. We walked across Kasr el Nil bridge, joining throngs of others, striding purposefully towards Tahrir Square.

The security at the square was controlled by volunteers -- women and children to one side, men to another. Bags checked. Tanks with friendly guards provided the military presence. There is enormous respect for the military and much hope rests in them for providing security in whatever transition will come. We were asked to show IDs to ensure we were not the police. The disappearance of the police and other security forces last Friday has lost them all respect and they, and the government, are viewed with even more suspicion and derision than a week ago.

The Friday the 28th protests were not connected to the broad Egyptian population. They were led by the disaffected youth. Those who can't find a job, who can't afford a flat and who cannot be married.

But this has changed since Friday. The disappearance of the police and the resulting responsibility foisted on the people together with their successful defense of their streets has empowered both the rich and the poor. The government cynicism has been exposed and Egyptians have a new sense of ownership of their political destiny.

We arrived at tahrir square as prayers were finishing. The mood was friendly. You could see people from all walks of life-- elegant matrons, sheikhs, families veiled women, youth, everyone was out. The protest is gaining momentum across the entire country.

We lifted our signs and immediately attracted attention. I am obviously not Egyptian and my support demonstrated by holding a sign was seen very positively. Lots of thumbs up, many questions about my nationality "today we are all Egyptian." I posed for numerous pictures and had my photo taken with all sorts of protesters. I was interviewed by Brazilian and Turkish TV. Why are you staying when others are leaving? All day there was not a frown to be seen anywhere. Chants would catch on and then ebb away. Antiphonal messaging across the square captured the spirit of cooperation.

My friends had never seen such a gathering of Egyptians from such disparate backgrounds. You could not help but be moved by the emotion shown.

Our signs received nods and smiles. In a country known for biting political wit there were many other more pointed signs.

  • Mubarak shift delete
  • The plane is waiting
  • Step down my arms are tired of holding this sign
  • Game over
  • Munarak I hate you
  • You are fired
  • Our blood is not so cheap
  • You are out of credit
  • People demand the removal of the regime

There was an expectation, an anticipation, that the only way this can end is with Mubarak's departure. Effigies hung from the traffic lights. Paper hot airballoons lifted up as did our hopes. It was completely peaceful and respectful. Everyone was united in one thing. Mubarak has become a focal point and no one supports him.

We left after curfew had begun, as more and more came into the square.

For kids it was a great political lesson.

The kids ask is Ayman Noor good? Is el Baradei good? The putative leaders have no experience, the population has no training as political citizens. There questions hang unanswered.

Mubarak's lacklustre speech is over. Too little too late. Big questions await.

The hope of the afternoon is deflated. What will the protesters do? How will the army, funded by $1.3 billion of our tax payers money, respond?

I am very thankful for all your comments and good thoughts. Apologies for the impersonal nature of this message. Please forward on, to others who might be interested.

Long live Egypt. Tahia Masr.

Letter number 2

In my last message I wrote of our happiness and increased feeling of security now that we have moved to our friends near the pyramids.

When it was properly dark the men -- Tarek, Adham, and Yasser -- and the young men -- Karim, Ziad and Omar -- went to the bottom of the garden to stand guard. The Nadims live in a communal family compound of three houses with the grandparents in one, Hend, Tarek and their two children in another, and Adham, Hind and their daughter in the third. Next door in another plot live Hind's brother Yasser and his family and their parents. The property has two entrances which now presents a bit of a problem. However one entrance is at the end of a cul de sac and we rely on the neighbours who maintain a vigil at the top of the street. The garden entrance is on an unlit, unpaved and unpatrolled road. This is where the perceived threat is and this is where the watchfire is.

The women and girls stayed in watching TV for a couple of hours and then went out to join the men. A small fire burned in the street creating a barrier to any passing car. The men and the gardeners were armed with big sticks, trimmed and shaped over the past nights. The sticks are physically beautiful and redolent with meaning. Passing cars are stopped and the password requested. Yesterday it was bowaba - gate. Today it is shagaa - courage.

A couple of cars passed, one with a man carrying a machine gun. A neighbour paid $2500 a night for armed guards. Periodically gunshots are fired as warnings. One two or many. We listen for three, which might mean the shots come from an intruder.

After a couple of hours we went in for a fix if talk shows. The men did another shift but women were sent inside.

At night we turn off all lights except in the one room where the TV is and like the rest of world are glued to BBC CNN and al Jazeera.

The neighbourhood watch , militias, or what ever you want to call them are amazing. Good humor, comraderie, and respect characterise the interactions. Everyone is greeted with the normal peace be with you. And the incomer responds and also with you. The temperature is taken, information exchanged and the car drives on. The dignity and respect accorded others is one the most impressive qualities in the Arab world.

I mused on communications during the American war of independence and of how neighbors worked together both for something bigger than themselves while taking responsibility for their own security.

I am honored to be witnessing these transformational events.

Letter number 1

Today Miranda and I moved location. We had felt somewhat exposed in our flat as there were only two or three other families in the building and only one was Egyptian. This means that except for the Egyptians no one has a wide network of friends and compatriots to lend support. We paid our bowab (doorman and super) for January and gave him about $100 extra to keep an eye on our place. The banks are closed ; ATMs aren't working so he was very appreciative. I hope I don't need any dosh.

We have packed up clothes, important papers, silver and jewelry and the technology -- chargers adapters phones and computers. We don't know when we'll be back.

Remember we have had no TV since Friday morning and no Internet except on this UK phone. Texting doesn't work on Egyptian lines at present. Chris is in London monitoring accounts and communicating on our behalf.

Things seemed calm overnight and we thought we would come to our friends for awhile. The drive was shocking. Tanks with friendly troops, some special forces dressed for all the world like ninja turtles, a few signs of destruction and rioting. No traffic at all. No pollution either. Barricades had been set up along the way; one impediment was a large sewer pipe three meters in diameter plonked in the middle of the road. One of our concerns was that we were very near a jail from which prisoners had killed the officer in charge and escaped.

It is a welcome relief being with friends in their beautiful garden. We passed a pleasant afternoon in the garden then ate lunch al fresco. The announcement of the new parliament disappoints. Same old, same old. There is widespread disbelief that Mubarak is persisting. These will be ministers for a week or two. A number of talented former ministers have turned down appointments.

There is an expectation that Obama will be needed to send a direct message that Mubarak needs to go. That this is not happening is explained by Israel's desire to live with the devil they know. Unless the US speaks clearly and soon, they will miss this opportunity to redeem themselves.

There is widespread concern about the economic consequences of a protracted disturbance. "How will we make payroll?" "this has set us back 10 years. " Two of our friends returned after visiting Tahrir square. They were very moved. Rich and poor. Religious and not. All were there to express their dissatisfaction with the government and the conditions.

We are on both the UK and US lists. The prospect of spending days at the airport , cut off from information again, and taking us away from our friends and this country we love us--at this historic moment -- is incentive enough to stay a bit longer. If things get significantly worse, we will leave of course. But for now we are happy to be with friends and watching an important period in Egypt's history.

It is evening now. Gunshots from homeowners stake their territory and discourage the chancer. Men and youth take turns standing guard. A campfire with marshmallows will provide cheer and warmth during the cold night.

Thanks again for your message and concern. I am sending this to those who have written, please feel free it pass it on. As the Internet is so limited, I hope you will excuse the impersonality of this missive.

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