Rumors, Shortages, and Stress

A dispatch from the streets of Cairo.

Protests in Cairo

CAIRO, Egypt—When I first met Tarek Nowar, an activist leader, he was depressed. Working day and night for five months to convince Egyptians to sign a petition and join him in protesting President Hosni Mubarak’s government had not had much effect. Most people he approached on the streets asked him: “What’s the use? Nothing will change.” And when we spoke in October 2010, Tarek admitted that even he wasn’t sure anything would change. And then everything did.

Today, I met the young architect in downtown Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where, for the seventh day in a row, tens of thousands of peaceful protesters have united in demanding an end to Mubarak’s nearly 30-year reign. Tarek was beaming.

“I’m overwhelmed. I never really believed we would do this,” says the man who had been agitating for this kind of change for almost a year. “It’s making me believe things I never believed before.” Tarek was so excited that he couldn’t concentrate as we talked. Every few minutes, one of his friends came by and hugged him.

But the jovial atmosphere of peaceful demonstrators in the main square is a far cry from the mood in other parts of Cairo. The city is tense, bracing for the uncertainty every night of this new chapter of Egypt’s history brings.

After the country’s police force melted away on Friday and military tanks rolled into the city, rumors floated that armed gangs of thugs—either escaped convicts or regime-sponsored hooligans—would wreak chaos on the city. Neighborhoods formed community-watch groups as young men took to the streets to protect their homes. The sounds of gunfire rippled through the city at night.

My neighborhood was no different. On Saturday night, the repeated sounds of gunshots kept me awake until 4 a.m. Tarek, who has been protesting during the day, has also been keeping watch in his neighborhood at night. “I was scared as hell the first night,” he admitted to me, “I mean, I was carrying a metal stick. I’ve never carried anything like that. I didn’t even know what to do with it.”

Tarek didn’t see looters on his patrols, and we joked that the gunfire was probably young people celebrating Mubarak’s demise with sound grenades. With the Internet shut off for most of the country and text messages still blocked, it’s hard to know what’s really going on.

It’s only been days since protesters were killed trying to storm the Ministry of the Interior, but somehow it’s easy to jest in the jubilant square among thousands of protesters from all walks of life. Yet there are downsides to the protests as well; shops are running short of supplies as distributors are unable to replenish their stock due to the civil unrest. In a pharmacy in central Cairo, they are running out of pills for chronic diseases, and the distributor hasn’t said when the next round of medical supplies will arrive.

And a regime struggling for survival has been doing its part to stir up unrest and distrust. The government revoked Al Jazeera’s license and closed the network’s offices Sunday. State-run television has repeatedly accused Al Jazeera of portraying Egypt in a poor light. Today, as I headed out to a low-income neighborhood on the outskirts of Cairo to see how Egyptians are making do now that much of the city is shut down, the ugly side of the regime’s new survival tactics reared its head.

A frenzied crowd that accused us of being “informants” and “devil agents from Al Jazeera” mobbed a photographer, an Arab journalist, and me. “Didn’t you see what they said about Al Jazeera journalists on TV?” one hysterical woman shouted. It wasn’t until the uniformed police, who had returned to the streets only this morning, came to our aid that we were able to leave.

After taking us to the remnants of a burnt and looted police station, the police chief calmed the angry crowd. He pretended to arrest us and take us to a booking center to quell their anger, but instead he drove us back into central Cairo and dropped us off. On his first day back on the job, the same people who torched the station had been greeting him warmly, kissing his face, and welcoming him back after the unrest.

Back on the streets of the square, Tarek shook his head when I told him what had happened to me. His activist friends couldn’t believe that a crowd had turned violent. There must have been plain-clothes police in the group, they decided, fomenting unrest.

“I thought you were really beaten up,” Tarek said as he inspected my face. I felt a little embarrassed telling him and his friends the story. In the last two years, I had seen many like them go through far worse at the hands of the country’s reviled riot police.

I had stood on the sidelines as riot police charged at demonstrators, wielding batons. I had written about their plight, but today they did me one better: The group of young men offered to make sure I was never out on Cairo’s streets alone again.

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