Cairo From The Streets


As my classmates and I watched live coverage of the Egyptian protests after curfew on Monday, we became angrier and angrier.

What we were seeing on international news channels was nothing like what we had seen on the ground that morning. Al Jazeera English broadcast the best coverage by far, especially when they were streaming live footage of Tahrir Square and speaking over the phone with their reporters in the crowd.

On the other hand they kept showing stock footage of looting and rioting and violent clashes with police that were four days old, talking about them as if they were today’s news. This might have something to do with the fact that Al Jazeera’s Cairo office was shut down not long after the protests started.

Our parents would call with the latest headlines from CNN — which were exactly the same stories they’d called with days ago.

It’s true that there was rioting, looting, vandalism and violence in Cairo last Friday.
An acquaintance saw men shot by the military with live ammunition right in front of her apartment building on Saturday night when protesters tried to storm the Interior Ministry. My roommate watched from a rooftop near Tahrir Square on Friday as looting and vandalism of shops took place right below — but he reported details that never made it on television.

It’s true that some protesters did break into Hardees, McDonalds, Costa Coffee and other major international chains and steal food. But up the street, uniformed police officers, who also hadn’t eaten all day, were not only stealing food from kiosks, they were completely destroying the basic structures. Such kiosks are the most tenuous of legal small businesses in Egypt. They operate on slim profit margins on their best days, unlike international chains like McDonalds, which is an expensive place to eat in Egypt.

That was on Friday and Saturday, before the police were withdrawn from the streets and the military took over.

On Sunday and Monday, as Al Jazeera was still airing pictures of violence, the mood on the streets had changed completely. We walked all over downtown Cairo, and spent hours on Tahrir Square, taking pictures and making notes so we’d be prepared to tell the real story of the 25 January Movement, now known as the "Lotus Revolution" — just as soon as internet access was restored.

We didn’t see any violence or vandalism. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Protestors were going around Tahrir Square with plastic bags collecting rubbish — and this in a country where the streets are usually strewn with litter. By Tuesday morning they had organised their own security system, a dozen yards inside the military cordon. They were patting down everyone who came into Tahrir Square as thoroughly as any airport security agent, looking through everyone’s bags, and reading everyone’s placards. My nail clippers were even confiscated, which I’ve taken through airport security a dozen times.

By Tuesday afternoon they were organising the delivery of food, water and shelter to the Million Man March, determined not to leave the square until Hosni Mubarak leaves the presidency.

What I saw was was an incredible sense of brotherhood, self realisation and pride of ownership. According to our professors, this is something that has been sorely lacking in Egypt for a long time. There was a time, one of them told us last summer, when two men arguing in the street would have drawn a crowd of their neighbours, who would have helped resolve the argument peacefully. Under Mubarak, people became so afraid of getting arrested along with the men who were arguing that they would simply look away. That’s not true anymore.

Bored young men who used to loiter on bridges and street corners to pick fights and harass passing women now have a cause, a plan and a hope that they might achieving it. Now when men stop us on the street, it’s to shout "Down with Mubarak!" or get their pictures taken with their placards. "You’ll send your pictures to America so they can see what’s really happening here, right?" they ask us. "Tell your people about us, and tell your government to stand with us!"

Al Jazeera and the BBC had been reporting on anti-Americanism and rumours that the press was inciting the revolution — but none of that was evident on the streets of Cairo, either. Sure, plenty of people stopped us to deliver loud harangues on the Obama Administration’s hypocrisy in taking the side of a dictator when real democracy was happening in the streets. To those who don’t speak Arabic, impassioned Egyptians may look and sound very angry and threatening, but to us they were inspiring.

In our six months living in Egypt and studying intensely its politics, economy and society, we never guessed that this was coming. Tension was building, sure, and economic conditions were critical during Ramadan in September, but things have been bad in Egypt for years. We didn’t see an end in sight. Now we do, and we are immensely proud of our Egyptian brothers and sisters for standing up for what’s right and just.

On the news they’re reporting that foreigners are frightened and fleeing Egypt, but not us. I didn’t want to come to Egypt in June, but now I have a love for these people that I never could have imagined. Even as pro-government factions renew the violence on Tahrir Square Wednesday night, I still feel a pervasive optimism and excitement that Egyptians may finally get a government of their choosing.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.