On January 7, Coptic Christmas, I arrived in Cairo and settled into my room. Anticipating a three-month stay, lunchtime was spent with the school principal. Then I wandered over to the refugee school where I would teach music. The next few days were spent connecting with old friends and re-entering Cairo life. The following Saturday, my friend Barbara arrived from Canada. She, too, planned to volunteer at the school. We spent the week planning. On January 24th Barbara taught her first class.
The school closed on Tuesday, January 25. Police Day was a new holiday not usually observed. Since there were rumours that there would be protests, schools were closed. While there are often small protests in Cairo, some people expected trouble. By mid-afternoon, a larger, very noisy crowd had gathered in Tahrir Square, which is very close to our hotel. However, a half block away, everything was normal.
The following day, when taking the subway back to our hotel, the train zooms through our station (Tahrir) without stopping. The station is 100% empty! We disembark at the next stop. As we walk back to our hotel, it is obvious that the crowd demonstrating in the square is much larger. Undercover police are intently watching Aljazeera on television in the lobby of the hotel.
As Friday mornings are usually quiet, we decide to go shopping in an affluent suburb. In early afternoon, a loud buzz informs us that something is up. Our driver comes running to tell us to get in the car. As we drive back downtown we see many riot police. The road to our hotel is closed so Barbara and I walk the last few blocks through empty streets littered with stones and smelling of tear gas. This time there are many more security police in our hotel lobby.
We spend the evening watching protestors run up and down the street being chased by police. It is a cat-and-mouse game. Protestors are trying to take control of the square. At midnight, 30 minutes of continuous firing and explosive sounds are heard. I decide to sleep in street clothes in case I have to make a fast departure. The Mubarek government has shut down the Internet to stop protestors using Facebook and Twitter. Mobile phones no longer work.
Barbara received a plane ticket by fax from her husband and decides to go home. On Saturday, I pack my bag and move in with a friend who lives several kilometres away. We spend our days walking the streets, stocking up on food, searching for phone cards. As there is no security, civilians organize themselves to protect neighbourhoods. They arrest looters and check identities at every intersection. They do a very good job.
The protestors are well organized, having studied for years how to run a successful protest. As a result, glass windows in the buildings around the square remain intact. Protestors don’t break anything. They protect the Egyptian museum, chanting, “This is our heritage”. With the exception of a couple of days, life in Tahrir Square is organized and peaceful. When Muslims pray, Christians guard them. When Christians pray, Muslims watch their back. The protest often seems like a large family gathering.
After a few days Mubarek supporters appear to be on the street for the first time. Why were they not seen before? That same day, the military is nowhere to be seen. Mubarek supporters are allowed to enter the same area as the anti-Mubarek protestors. Men on horses and camels charge through the square causing chaos. Shots are fired. Molotov cocktails are thrown from roofs. There are many casualties but the demonstrators stay. If it wasn’t before, it is now a revolution.
Many days pass. On Thursday evening, February 10, parents bring their children to the square to witness history-in-the-making as everyone expects President Mubarak will resign. When Mubarek finally speaks, he says he will remain in office. The crowd becomes furious and shake their shoes at him!!! This is a terrible insult. The evening became known as the “Night of Disappointment”
On Friday, February 11, millions of people throng to the square. When Mubarak announces he will step down we are at a dinner party at the home of an Egyptian family. Everyone is glued to the TV. When they hear the news they all cheer. With all the excitement we forget about the curfew. This day became known as “Farewell Friday”.
On Sunday we go to the square and join the celebrations. It is a joyous crowd. We take pictures of tanks, soldiers, people, banners and signs. Protesters are cleaning up the area—sweeping, scrubbing and filling garbage bags.
The next day I hibernate and catch up on life with Internet, Facebook and Skype. During the 18 days that the revolution lasted the schools were closed. I had thought about returning to Canada. Egyptians told me they are glad I stayed.
Hopefully Egypt will have a peaceful and successful transition.
Photo credits Janice Gray
© Riding the buses 2011