Catherine, the writer of this account and a resident of Egypt for the last several years, is a graduate of Flagler Palm Coast High School and the daughter of two prominent members of the community here–one a former sheriff now in private practice as a lawyer, the other a commercial real estate broker. Catherine was able to leave Egypt a few days ago, as her account relates. But she requested that her last name not be used as a precaution to guard against reprisals against her fiancé, an Egyptian who remains in Egypt (their wedding day is scheduled for March locally.)
A great joke that I heard shortly before the protests in Egypt began went:
President Obama: Mr. Mubarak, I think it’s time to say goodbye to the Egyptian people.
President Mubarak: Why, where are they going?
A few weeks ago, a few colleagues and I were discussing the fall of Tunisia’s president Ben Ali and what this could mean for Egypt. The day following his departure, many news outlets cited Egypt as one of the potential countries to follow Tunisia’s lead. Many of my Egyptian colleagues, while wanting democracy and change, doubted the ability of their fellow citizens to rise up and come together in the same way. Egyptians are known for their self-deprecating humor. They’d joke about their country before they would fight for it.
January 24 was the eve of the first day of Egypt’s uprising. There were calls for protests the following day. Talking among my Egyptian friends, many did not believe that the calls would amount to anything. Riot police preempted previous attempts at protests long before they began.
January 25 will probably go down in Egyptian history as the day Egypt found its voice, the date that will most likely be a public holiday if the the country succeeds in bringing about democracy.
That day I was working from home. It was eerily quiet. From outside my window I could hear the cries of the demonstrators as they marched to Tahrir Square, converging in a group too large for the riot police to disperse. The mood around the city was euphoric—a sense of hope that perhaps the people really could voice their demands without the police stopping them.
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The next day, the road to work was filled with the dreaded police trucks that appear whenever there is a hint of opposition. Those trucks are a symbol of the dictatorial government. The trucks mean trouble, they mean arrests, and for the unlucky many, they mean torture. (The New York Times on Sunday is publishing the account of two of its employees who heard and witnessed the police’s beatings dungeons as they were detained overnight.)
January 26 and 27 – a Wednesday and Thursday – unfolded with more people taking to the streets. Fear of the police diminished, but hundreds were reported arrested, which undoubtedly meant there were many new victims of secret police torture. and so the movement began.
A colleague and I had been training for months to run in a half-marathon in Luxor, in southern Egypt. We left on January 27 planning to be out of Cairo for only two days. After Friday prayers on the 28th, the opposition movement was calling for a million-man march. My colleague and I went to our race (which went really well). We were anxious to get back and turn on the news to see if the protesters were really starting a new movement. That was the day everything changed.
By mid-afternoon it became apparent that if they hadn’t reached the million mark, they were close. We decided to go the Egypt Air office to change our tickets to early Saturday morning instead of the evening to get back before dark. We had already realized the internet had been cut in the whole country, and the mobile communication networks in Cairo shut down. We were unable to change or even book a new plane ticket since the Egypt Air system was down. Our only hope was to go to the airport and buy new tickets. Walking back to our hotel, I could feel the air around us change. Something was happening. People were acting nervous.
I asked someone what was going on. He said protesters were coming. A few minutes later, hundreds of protesters came down one of the main roads in Luxor chanting for Mubarak to leave. It was a very surreal moment. When the crowd passed, everything seemed to go back to normal.
In early evening we heard what sounded like gunfire. We told ourselves it was tear gas. A few riot police trucks passed in front of our window. Then it was quiet. We went downstairs to go to dinner and a tourist policeman told us we couldn’t go outside of the hotel. But everything was fine, he said. Just a precaution.
After dinner just across the street, we returned to our rooms and found that the protesters had set fire to the National Democratic Party headquarters in Cairo. That was the moment I think I realized I would not be returning to Cairo the next day.
The NDP is the country, it is the government. It is Big Brother. Think Orwell’s 1984 (Mubarak, incidentally, had been president three years already in 1984). For that building to have been set on fire was a huge turning point. It represented a fearlessness on the part of the protesters and an inability by the government to stop it from happening.
We started hearing that no one was putting out the blaze, that the police had disappeared from the streets. Our colleagues back in Cairo were telling us the same thing. The police were simply nowhere to be found.
The next two days brought more news of looting, gunfire in the streets, the collapse of law and order. Neighborhood watch groups were on the streets to protect people from looters driving around on scooters. The building I work in was vandalized, a nearby mall was looted and torched, and Tahrir was still full of people protesting the government.
Perhaps we’ll never know for sure who the looters were. Personally I believe it was a tactic by the government to scare those protesting into going home. I believe that the police replaced uniforms simultaneously with plainclothes and were told to wreck havoc on the city. The looting began too suddenly and too coordinated with the disappearance of police around the city.
We were advised not to come back to Cairo. We heard of people being pulled over in cabs. Cairo airport was overcrowded, and we were unsure about our safety getting from the airport to our homes in central Cairo.
Thankfully, we were able to have someone outside of Egypt book us a ticket online and fax us the confirmation on one of the few flights not transiting through Cairo to Doha, in Qatar, and then Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
While I am safe now in Dubai, many of my colleagues and my fiancé remain in Cairo. I have felt conflicted emotions about leaving Egypt. I am thankful that I am safe but feel that I have abandoned the country I call my home.