Stories from Afar & Up Close

To protest or not to protest

It struck me when I got here: how tired people are. Tired of ‘the situation’, tired of protesting, of deciding who to protest against or what for, of not being sure if all that protesting would actually lead anywhere or change anything. Weary, they seemed, with their vision of a better Egypt somewhere hidden among the exhaustion of trying to get to it and no longer knowing where to find the motivation and the strength to overcome differences and once (or twice, or so many times) charge ahead and fight for what they’ve been fighting for since January 2011 – almost 3 year now.

On a wall between AUC Downtown and Garden City.

Last Sunday evening, as I left my Arabic class in Downtown, I realized that the streets were rather empty.  While I slowly walked towards Tahrir Square to cross the bridge behind it on my way home, I noticed a strange smell, something in the air that stung my eyes and nose. Tear gas. Most shops along the road were either closed or closing, with a few people still sitting on chairs in front of their doors.

From a street to my right I heard people chanting, but as the road towards Tahrir was more or less empty, I kept going to see if it was still possible to cross the square or if the army had blocked it off completely. I ended up behind the tanks with a few fire engines, ambulances and about seven people. By now I could see the protestors on the other side of the tanks and the police trucks in the next street off the square. I asked one of the seven people who was who. They are Muslim Brotherhood, he said, and we are with Sisi.

Protesting behind the book stalls, Downtown Cairo.

The police trucks advanced on the protestors, aided by a water-spraying fire engine. Then more tear gas. The protestors retreated to the next side streets, chanting slogans and holding up four fingers. A guy who was standing next to me behind the army vehicles rolled some perfume on my hand to counter the burn of the tear gas. We talked and he invited me to come see the other side – so we turned into yet another street and found our way towards the demonstration a bit further into Downtown. These are not just Muslim Brotherhood, he told me, a lot of them are university students. They are angry because a few days ago the army killed a student on a campus. The protestors had assembled on a crossroad of two of the wider avenues, and were standing there, chanting slogans led by two teenage boys on top of their friends’ shoulders. The little stalls selling corn and fries were having a good evening, serving those in the demonstration as well as the people who were shopping in the streets around it.

At some point, there was talk of moving. The mass of people turned towards what my newly-made friend said was the courthouse, but stopped as the police trucks and army tanks had blocked the road next to it. People slowly moved forward, in small groups, while the street vendors started packing up their wares. The police fired a few tear gas canisters, moving the protestors back to the crossroads. Some people from the demonstration tried to tear of some tree branches to make a fire, but others came to extinguish it. A young guy who picked up a stone was told to put it back down. From a small alley a woman came running, screaming Get lost! Go away! We don’t want you here, you are not Egypt! WE are Egypt! You aren’t! Angry people tried to argue with her, but then the police started firing tear gas again and everybody just ran, ran, ran in all directions. We hid in a little alley where a pissed-off waiter was stacking chairs as his business for the evening had come to an end.

Protesting on the intersection of two avenues.

Just as I came out of the alley again, the police truck passed, a few young boys in front of it running towards the protestors with stones and empty bottles. Instead of ducking and running back into the alley, the few people around me told me to stand still – to quietly wait until the trucks had passed. They yelled encouraging remarks at the police trucks, thanking them for dispersing the demonstrations.

By that time, the protestors had run off in so many directions, it was hard to know if there was anything left of the demonstration. Life returned on the avenues, the shops reopened and the vendors uncovered their stalls again. My new-found friend asked me if I had enjoyed the action. I demonstrate every Friday, he said. I asked if he thought the government was listening. He said it’s not for the government, but because we need to send a message to the Egyptian people that we don’t think it’s right, what is happening now.

I admire their stamina. I do not yet have a deep enough knowledge of Egyptian politics to agree with one side or another, but I believe that with a new (draft) constitution that allows for citizens to be tried in military courts and that severely restricts the right to protest, it is important to keep standing up against the system  – because it oppresses you, or because it oppresses those around you, because once those are down, who knows who will be next. Beautifully said by Omar Robert Hamilton: … tyranny is upon us again. We do not need to agree on the details or what exactly comes next. We just need to say no.

Tanks and soldiers blocking off Tahrir Square, Downtown Cairo.

To protest or not to protest, that is not the question.