I spent my childhood and youth in Nigeria, where my father worked as part of a medical mission to Africa. During my stay there, I witnessed many political and ethnic conflicts. The last of which led to our departure from the country. During these conflicts, people would riot in the streets, burn property and loot shops. As we lived through those times, we always used to compare the unsafe conditions of Nigeria with the safety of our home country, Egypt. Given the events that are currently unrolling in Egypt, perhaps we were a little hasty in making that comparison.
Egypt has been relatively stable for a very long time. After the upheaval of the military coup against the monarchy, known in certain circles as the “Egyptian Revolution”, and the many wars we engaged in against Israel, we went through several decades of calm.
This calm was intermittently interrupted by Islamist violence, where armed extremist groups attacked foreigners, Copts and people they perceived as not “Islamic enough”. The wave of Islamist unrest culminated in the Luxor attacks, which caused the loss of lives of many tourists and threatened to destabilize our tourism based economy.
Following these attacks, the government cracked down on Islamist groups with an iron fist, and the country lived in relative peace, punctuated by sectarian attacks once in a while, until January 25, 2011. On that date, the restive stability that was maintained in Egypt for over 30 years was completely shattered.
But the events that occurred on January 25 did not come out of thin air — they were the result of grievances that built up over time. While the government clamped down on Islamists to improve security, and embarked on economic reforms that brought major economic benefits to the country, it completely neglected the political arena. Only token concessions were made in the arena of political freedoms, and Egypt remained, for all practical purposes, a one party system that offered very little room for political self-expression.
However, the very stability and economic prosperity that the regime brought to most Egyptians left us clamoring for more engagement in our governance. A generation of highly educated youths who are politically conscious developed. This generation could not accept the total disdain with which the powers that be treated the political aspirations of the people.
We watched as several countries that had authoritarian governments opened up and embraced democracy at the same time that our own government seemed dismissive of any change that would bring about the fall of the ruling elite. We saw elections being forged to give the ruling party a virtual monopoly on power and saw signs that we interpreted as leading to the inheritance of the presidency — leading some to compare the country to the mafia or an absolute monarchy.
We watched all this in silence. Egyptians are a patient people, we have endured many centuries of authoritarian rule, starting from the Pharaohs and culminating in the military junta turned “civil” dictators that ruled the country after the military coup that overthrew the monarchy.
But there is a breaking point for everything, and the accumulating injustices suffered by the people reached a boiling point this year as we watched the Tunisians successfully overthrow their authoritarian government through peaceful popular protests. When this happened, the Egyptian youths began to reach their boiling point. Well educated people, some of them graduates of major international universities, began to call for a similar overthrow of the authoritarian regime in Egypt.
They expressed their intent to protest against the government on twitter and Facebook, social networking sites that enabled the voiceless youths to express their anger at a system that completely ignored their political aspirations and desire to live in a free country with all the political rights accorded to their foreign peers.
And so was born the January 25 day of rage. A rage directed at the authoritarian regime that rules with an iron fist and its police apparatus that violates all notions of human rights in order to ensure that the regime stays in power. On January 25, highly educated Egyptian youths took to the streets to express their grievances. The protest started with people peacefully assembling in the streets and calling for the downfall of the government they saw as corrupt. Protesters gave flowers to police officers and did not engage in any kind of violent activity — although there were reports of tear gas, rubber bullets and water hoses being used against the protesters.
This continued throughout the day until the police decided to break up the protests that had continued into the early hours of the following morning. At that point, the police used tear gas, fired at near horizontal angles, a volley of rubber bullets, stones and high pressure hoses to break up the protests. The day ended with 4 people dead, among them a police officer killed by a stone thrown at him by protesters.
This day of rage was met by absolute silence from the ruling elite. Not a single person said a single word about what happened. During the protests, the government placed a block on twitter. Of course, this did not prevent the protesters from organizing and telling the world what was happening. People with WiFi networks in the area where protests were occurring, opened up their networks and installed proxies to allow protesters to access social networking websites, despite the block, to organize and inform the world what was going on. Protesters also used BBM, a chatting service on Blackberry phones and WhatsApp a similar service that runs on nearly all smartphones, to communicate with one another.
Angered by the total silence of the government and determined to make their grievances known, the protesters continued protesting the second day. At this point, the government seemed to be panicking, their panic made them do an extremely stupid thing — they shut down, again, social networking sites like twitter and Facebook and stopped SMS services in Cairo and other provinces in Egypt where protests were planned. This was stupid on two fronts; first it showed the youths that the government was scared enough of their organizing powers to shut their major communication outlets and, second, it showed to the world that the government had no respect for freedom of expression.
Despite these concrete steps taken by the government, which shows that they were aware of the grievances and how they were being expressed, not a single official statement was made to address the political grievances of the protesters.
Unfortunately, during the second day of protests, their nature began to change. There were reports of violence in Suez, a hotbed of Muslim Brotherhood activity, and armed confrontation between the Bedouin Arabs in Sinai and the police. In the latter, reports of RPGs and automatic weapons being used by the protesters emerged.
As previously mentioned, the government responded to this second day of protests by shutting down social networking websites and SMS services in most provinces in Egypt. However, before this communications blanket was put in place, protesters issued a general call for protests on Friday after prayers.
In anticipation of the protests on Friday, the government shut down all Internet services and cell phone coverage early in the morning. It appears that they had hoped that this total disruption of communications in the country would destroy the ability of protesters to organize and would prevent them from informing the world of the events as they unfold.
However, the call for action had already been issued to the public. Thousands of people streamed into the streets after prayers in most major provinces in Egypt. But the makeup of the protesters had changed. While the first wave of protests comprised mainly highly educated white-collar workers and university students, the protests on Friday included a broader segment of society. This broader segment included, unfortunately, some criminal elements and members of extremist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Friday protests quickly turned violent, with confrontations between security services and protesters being the norm rather than the exception. The protests that had started as a peaceful expression of opposition to the ruling party turned to violent confrontation between the security services and protesters.
During this sad day in Egyptian history, buildings were burned, shops were looted and, deplorably, there were reports of women being raped. The protests had now begun to include criminal elements who wanted to take advantage of the chaos to further their nefarious aims.
With the escalating violence, the military moved in and the police moved out. The police vanished from the scene, and their presence was reduced in prisons, leading to several successful escape attempts by violent inmates. In some cases, there were reports that the escapes were aided by outside elements.
We began hearing more reports of theft, looting and rapes. There are conspiracy theorists who claim that this occurred because the police, angry that they were being demonized, released prisoners into the country to show the population that they were needed to ensure security. Others claim that the government instructed the police to release these prisoners in order to show that the alternative to the current regime was chaos and to divert attention from the protests.
However, I think that the most likely explanation of what happened is that the security apparatus, exhausted by several days of opposing the protests, was too fatigued to secure the prisons. I may be wrong here since I do not know the structure of the police force and whether or not the people entrusted with guarding the prisons would also be asked to participate in riot control, but it seems like an educated guess. I generally disapprove of conspiracy theories. I have had my fill of stories of Mossad trained sharks and spy vultures.
On Friday, some of the worst events of the protests in Egypt occurred. There were increased reports of looting, destruction of property and rapes. On Friday night, most buildings belonging to the ruling National Democratic Party were burned, people tried to rob the Egyptian Museum in Central Cairo and a large number of police stations were torched. To restore some sort of order, a curfew was put in place. This curfew is still in place and has been tightened in Cairo. However, nobody seems to obey the curfew and, apparently, nobody, including the military, is ready to enforce it.
That night, there were reports of hooligans terrorizing citizens and breaking into homes to steal and terrorize. As a response, groups of youths in each neighborhoods formed militias to protect their neighborhoods. These youths used pipes, tree trunks and baseball bats to protect their neighborhood. They constructed makeshift road blocks of bricks, broken glass and tree trunks to prevent cars from entering the neighborhood.
Late Friday night, actually the early hours of Saturday morning, the president finally appeared on TV and announced his solution to the unrest — dissolving the current cabinet and appointing a new one and appointing a vice-president. Somehow, I don’t think that is going to satisfy the people.
The protests still continue. While they continue, there are reports of more escapees from prisons roaming the streets and the youths in each neighborhood try to protect their homes from these thugs. Unfortunately, given human nature, it is probably not too long before these youths themselves begin to turn thuggish and ask for protection money — I have seen some signs of this in a small number of youths protecting less affluent areas as I roamed over Cairo in my car to see what was going on.
The power vacuum left by the departure of the police was filled by these people. But if this vacuum is not eliminated soon, there is a significant risk of a vigilante culture developing in the country. I really hope this doesn’t happen.
Here is the result of this unrest: –
The total number of lives lost as a result of the protests and following violence — 140 people at the time of writing this blog. The total number of injured — several thousands.
On the economic side, the Egyptian stock exchange suffered a huge loss, about 10% of its value, when it opened for trading. The government quickly shut it down to prevent more losses. Also, tourism has been significantly affected, with a large number of foreign countries providing airlifts to evacuate their citizens from Egypt.
On a more personal level, it is now very difficult to buy basic groceries and bread. Large queues of people line up in front of stores to buy products in the fear that further unrest would result in closing of these stores and leave them without a source of food. I have personally queued for more than an hour to buy bread, even though the bakery I frequent offers high-priced bread that is usually always available and not subject to queues, unlike the government subsidized bread which is always in short supply and subject to long queues.
I really hope that the power vacuum is filled soon. My personal wish is that either the military or the secular liberal parties in Egypt are able to grab power. I fear a future in which the Muslim Brotherhood or the Socialist parties take over the country.
We lost hundreds of lives and suffered large economic losses all for the sake of freedom. Let us hope that whatever form of government that emerges from this chaos is worthy of the sacrifices suffered by the Egyptian people. God bless Egypt.