Suzi’s McClear was Chief of Party for USAID’s Media Development Program in Egypt. Tuesday, January 25 was a state holiday, Police Day. That day a group of demonstrators gathered in Tahrir Square protesting the government. It was a large demonstration but many people thought not much would come of it. The local press tried to ignore it but Suzi got an email from our son, Kevin, who said that international media said Cairo looked like a war zone. From her perspective it was a quiet day. Two days later, Friday, prayer day, a traditional day for protests, social media activists called for more demonstrations. The government tried to calm the situation by cutting off the Internet, mobile phones and SMS messages. Suzi’s story starts on January 28.
Friday, January 28, 2011
I never thought of myself as an information junkie, though I have accused my husband of being one, but when almost all of my information sources ended simultaneously I understood what “cold turkey” really meant. The minister for the English language church joked on Friday morning “thanks to the Egyptian government, we will not be interrupted by cell phones today.” There were numerous prayers for peace and reason (and one to relieve the misery of our friends and family not in Egypt worrying about us) but conversations over after service coffee were about the novelty of being cut off.
There is no internet and, seemingly, also no cell phones (though Rich reached me earlier today, before the system was turned off.) A fellow from the Embassy said that they all had radios, but the ladies from the British Council were laughing that they’d put together this elaborate phone tree emergency system, without ever thinking that they might be without phones and internet; though the demonstrations are being organized by Facebook and twitter so it really isn’t a great surprise. As the embassy gent said, it’s what they “should” do in the situation… and, while annoying, he thinks better than bashed heads. The general consensus was concern for traffic problems (the congregation was about half the size of what it had been a week before.)
One of the ladies that I met at church (who’s kicking herself because she’s finished her project and was going to buy a plane ticket back to DC, found the seat but didn’t buy it with a credit card Thursday because she thought she’d get it Friday morning using her excess local cash) had lunch in the Marriott garden with me, where it was an absolutely gorgeous day. We compared notes on where we’re each staying, should it be needed later, and she went off shopping while I tucked in for the day with a good book.
The previous night was a very normal Thursday night (tomorrow’s a day off, I’m going to enjoy an outing with my lady or my friends sort of evening.) For the most part it was also a very quiet day Friday, perhaps a bit less traffic than on a normal Friday, but boats on the river and folks walking the corniche in twos and threes; weather’s passed 75.
About 2:30 a group marched by. They had one sign; someone carried a flag. There were no children in the group (actually fewer teens and early 20s than I would have expected) but otherwise a very mixed group… even a couple of white haired ladies. Yes I could see the hair, there was a noticeable lack of Islamic garb, but this is Zamalek. Basically it was a group having a good time marching around the outside of the Gazira Club on a lovely afternoon with their friends. Someone spotted me watching from my balcony and invited me to join them. I was half tempted because they all looked like they were having so much fun, but I didn’t. They were followed by an officer of the tourist police with three stars on each shoulder, unarmed except for a radio in his hand. I couldn’t help wondering if he was with them or watching them.
About 3:45 another group came by, with lots of loud chanting. This group looked to have upwards of a thousand, mostly young men though a serious representation of women (a high percentage of whom were veiled), a fellow in a wheel chair and a lady who probably should have been, but walked with a young man on each elbow. This group had many wearing dust masks; more often around their necks or on top of their heads than yet over their nose. They had different chants and some clever clap patterns to draw attention to themselves. I’m also beginning to hear a few booms, sort of like the Fourth of July, which I’m assuming are tear gas canisters in Tahrir Square. (Apparently “tahrir” means “independence” as in a celebration of Egyptian independence from the British.) Maybe twenty minutes later the marchers swung around the other side of the house (along the Nile) and they still seemed to be having a good time, until someone showed up with a TV camera at which point the happy young man became an angry young man and shouted at the camera. There were no police uniforms in this larger mob. As we get later in the afternoon, on toward sunset, the marchers seem to have gone home but clearly there are others on the other side of the Nile as the booms are increasing.
I’m in for the night but see no reason to be house-bound tomorrow based on what I see at the moment. My conference call yesterday ended with a rumor (that proved to be false) of a curfew. An American friend just stopped by with an invitation to dinner, and the comment that I needed to make up my mind immediately and stay the night because they’d heard that there was to be a curfew starting in about ten minutes. I doubt it, as even the “everything’s fine” Radio Cairo (the ERTU has an English service I’ve been listening to today) would have mentioned it if there really were a curfew, and half an hour later (indeed, throughout the evening) the locals are still ambling by in twos and threes, but one thing we agreed to with the group at church is that we’re breaking ground here and “all bets are off” and even the most experienced among us weren’t willing to try predictions.
I’ll have to admit that the lack of communications is a little weird. I have Radio Cairo (music’s ok, but not so useful for news) but I’d thought that I’d spend the day with several catch-up projects that need the web, so when the embassy fellow joked about going back to carrier pigeons it sort of resonates.
7 PM Friday evening and I’m now greatly worried about what my family is likely to be hearing. Life continues to be calm and peaceful on the island of Zamalek, but it’s clearly not at Tahrir Square. I can hear the shouts and whistles (it sounds like football in the Humphrey-dome) as well as the booms and, while I’m not hearing any ambulance sirens, I’m pretty sure that there are a number of heads being bashed. I forgot to pack my carrier pigeons, but it doesn’t take much of a crystal ball to realize that things are not good across the river. Fortunately I can get the BBC at 11 and will know more then about what news is sneaking out to the greater world. The wind has picked up so it’s not a pleasant evening to be outside.
9PM ERTU (the Egyptian Radio and Television Union) is right across the river from the flat, though mostly invisible because of the trees along the shore. It’s clear that it’s now the target of the demonstrators both from the noise level and the booms– now with flashes as it’s dark. The only surprising thing about this is that it didn’t happen earlier.
11PM—no NewsHour. I wonder if the ERTU is cut-off and CAN’T bring us the BBC or if they WON’T? Tonight they have music fill. It’s a good thing that there’s a shortwave band on the radio Rich left here after Christmas.
Saturday, January 29, 2011:
Come morning I can see no damage to the ERTU, but the building is now surrounded by military tanks. I had breakfast at the Marriott (where tourists are coming and going at a “normal” rate) and found a newspaper that tells me that the curfew is, indeed, now real… from 6PM-7AM (and I guess it’s creating a bit of a disruption at the airport as Egypt Air is abiding by it.) The phones are back intermittently and a couple of my staff have called to check on me, one reporting that two of the newspapers that we’ve had as partners were attacked yesterday and the Supreme Press Council, which is part of the Judiciary Council building, sustained serious fire damage when the Judiciary was attacked. It remains to be seen if it will affect the training center that we’ve equipped on one of the upper floors. (Later note, it was destroyed.) The newspaper that I had access to said that one person was killed as “thousands of Egyptian young people defied a draconian security measures [sic] and took to the streets to push for drastic economic and political reform.” It also reports that 20 Muslim Brotherhood members were rounded up (mostly from their homes) so apparently the government is still hoping to sell the idea of the boogy-man.
Rumor has it that about 7 last night the government sent all the policemen home, replacing them with military in recognition of the extreme hatred held by the locals for the police who treat me with great courtesy but are notorious for their mis-treatment of Egyptians. It might be a true rumor as I see none of the tourist police on the streets this morning. Demonstrators are gathering again in front of ERTU, and there are a group of men sitting on the dock on our side of the river in lawn chairs watching as if it were a cricket match. Other people are washing cars and promenading as if it were a normal Saturday.
Mubarek gave a “speech to the nation” Saturday night (scheduled for 6 and delivered shortly after midnight so not covered in Sunday’s paper) promising that the government would resign and, apparently, the cabinet did on Sunday. Of course, HE has not done so yet, so the masses are gathering and I expect it will be another noisy evening. The curfew has been expanded to 4PM- 8AM but the residents of the Marriott seem not to have noticed, nor do I see any way that they’d have been informed unless they had some local contacts. They’re still heading out with their crazy sun hats and cameras at 3:30. The normally open gift shops have closed (no chance at an afternoon copy of the IHT or other English language newspaper) and the bakery staff are calling home to report that they’re “spending the night at the office.” Life feels VERY much better now that the phones are working again, however intermittently. I hadn’t realized just how addicted I’ve become to communications.
Well the next phase has arrived… no tear gas (within my hearing anyway) but apparently the looting has started. That’s not happening here either, but it is reported elsewhere in Cairo. The feeling is that the army doesn’t have the numbers to deal with both the demonstrators and the vandals. Apparently some folks are taking advantage of the police having been sent home and the army being kept busy with demonstrators to help themselves to whatever they want and, for reasons I have never understood, to break windows for the shear “joy” of it. Tarek tells me that in his gated community of about 150 families there was a sort of vigilante protection committee with sticks and (heaven forbid) guns (which he insists are necessary and I fear the wrong folks will be hurt) until one of the tanks could be brought into position in that community. That’s not an option here, but the local men have found police traffic barricades and have closed the street. There are 12-15 of them, suits, jeans, or the long “garb” of the working class; ranging in age from a couple of youngsters (12-14?) helping their dad to maybe 50. I don’t know if they’re really going to be there all night, but I sure get the impression that no-one inappropriate is going to get by them! Several have 3-4 foot chunks of re-bar or pipe, but I don’t see any guns. They’ve brought out the lawn chairs the porters use all day and someone’s brought the “campfire” (that turns out to be in some sort of a brassier) up from the dock and they’ve set up camp for the evening. Looking out the back window I see that this is actually the second tier of roadblocks, most cars are stopped about a block further south, before the street divides to go around this block of houses.
The news says that the armed forces are calling upon the people to protect themselves and their country. Apparently there has been lots of trouble, focusing on government offices but also generalized thievery, particularly in the area of Maadi, which is largely populated by foreigners (including the American School and a very large USAID compound.) The men reportedly have responded by protecting their neighborhoods with “kitchen knives and broom sticks.”
Sunday, January 30, 2011:
And then it was a beautiful dawn of a new week. My guardians were still there at the morning call to prayer, but by sunrise it was quiet, except for the birds, those few people visible silently going about their business.
Sunday morning was quiet in all ways and I was quite hopeful that things were improving. (Yes, I’m a bit of an optimist.) I was off to the office, Marion also lives on Zamalek (though on the other side of the island) and was in, working her mobile phone (and the land lines that function there) for all they were worth. I’d rummaged through my stuff and collected a handful of USB storage pens. The idea was that I could then work at home during the curfew. We have a lot of report writing to do and some of it I can do off-site while waiting for other stuff to come in on the internet… eventually.
We’ve checked in with the staff and all are doing well under the circumstances, at least one has participated in the afternoon protest march. Hala lives near the pyramids and near the prison and is in great fear of the prisoners that have freed themselves (or been let loose.) Some are political, others sound quite dangerous, so she’s become active in community support: men guard the neighborhood, women watch the children sort of thing.
Marion and I walked out together. It’s a beautiful day and everything looks peaceful, but far from unaffected. The government declared a bank holiday, so all banks are closed… and, of course, the ATMs don’t function without internet. Almost all of the stores were closed, some shuttered but most with paper or opaque trash bags taped inside the windows; one dress store had completely removed all of its inventory but left the windows clear so that we could see that and, hopefully, would then leave the plate glass alone.
The local vegetable venders were still on the streets, doing a big business (Marion suggested at triple the normal price) but the bread man was noticeably missing. There’s a little 7-11 type store in the gas station that appeared to be open, but the other “grocery stores” that we passed were closed. (Wash said that he’d taken his wife shopping Sunday, so not everything was closed then.) Egyptians have very small kitchens, shopping regularly, so there isn’t a whole lot of stocking up in advance. The problem seems to be that the wholesalers are not willing/able to make deliveries with problems caused both by the curfew and increasing gas shortages. (They had gone to a 20 liter ration on Monday, I understand by Tuesday some stations were completely out so they closed.)
That said, at that point in the week Marion was very optimistic. She saw in the neighborhood watch committees, and in the random “volunteer” who was directing traffic, etc. the beginnings of the rebirth of civil society. She likened it to thirty years ago when people smiled at each other. (I surely hope that she’s right in that one!) We parted ways, acknowledging that the curfew had been tightened to 4 PM to 8AM and she had a number of other errands. Listening to newscasts over the years I’ve wondered how people cope with such curfews: I’m learning that at least a part of the answer is that the schools are closed for the next three days and not many of the people seem to be going to work anywhere. Car traffic is WAY down.
Shortly before leaving the office Tarek had reported in that two TV stations were reporting that Dept. of State was “strongly encouraging” all US citizens to leave. I actually called them, in DC since many efforts to call the Cairo Embassy accomplished nothing… if someone answered the switchboard they forwarded the call to a recorded extension that said to check an Internet page… but there is no Internet in Egypt at the moment. The gal I spoke with in DC said that the answer at that moment was that if I was in a place that I considered to be safe I should stay there, they were not encouraging evacuation (this was noonish on Sunday.)
I stopped at the Marriott for lunch in hopes of learning a bit more about what was happening in the greater world, first eavesdropping on and then joining a group that includes a relatively high ranking woman visiting from another US Embassy outside Egypt and someone from USAID also not based in Egypt. They were less than positively impressed by the assistance that the Cairo Embassy was providing and had come to the conclusion that they were in complete psychic disarray. (Their opinion, not mine.) Apparently there is a new computer program (web based, stored elsewhere) that provides a step by step instruction for every conceivable emergency. The Embassy woman said she’d been teased by her RSO (regional security officer) because she’s made a hard copy, which is quite massive. No-one conceived of an internet turn-off and so having the security manual in the “cloud” was not thought of as a problem.
Several in their group had left for the airport, checking on the flight just before departure, and found that by the time they got there the flight had been cancelled and they were heading back to the hotel. These ladies were very unhappy with the information (not) available and wanted me to agree with them that in such a situation a representative of the RSO should have been at the airport… probably not a bad idea, but I can’t see how it would have helped this time. They were planning on taking a van or convoy of taxis to the airport at 6AM and invited me to join them. I wasn’t willing to do that until I had confirmation of a flight. At this point the Marriott staff were all telling me “yesterday bad, today is better.”
Living with Rich for so many years, I’d thought it was him. Now I have to face up to just how much of an “information junkie” that I’ve become. Being cut off from all informative communications certainly prompted “withdrawal” symptoms. Had it not been for Rich’s persistence (and it took a lot because I was usually not able to call out, and he often had to hit re-dial several time before reaching me) in letting me know what he’d learned from BBC/NY Times/et al. it would have been a long week indeed! I joke about being “language impaired” not speaking the local language, but in this type of situation it is a serious impairment, and when you become as close to the local team as I usually do, it becomes a serious liability as they work to help me (and are frustrated when they can’t… Hala wanted me to come stay with her, but there’s no way that I could have safely gotten there in her opinion as she lives out closer to the prison escapees.)
Once I got home, Rich called and reported that he’d now heard that State had indeed changed it’s direction and was evacuating Embassy families and encouraging others to do so as well. The NY Times has come up with the number of 90,000 Americans living and working or attending school in Egypt. US State Dept. is sending in planes and will take folks on their list (created by registering on the internet.) IREX Washington got my name on that list, though it meant a collective on-hold time of over three hours. I went back to the Marriott to see if anyone had heard anything about timing, or even an inkling if it’s a Sunday or Monday flight. No. They’d heard rumors of planes but did not know anything factual. The rumor that the Marriott was a “gather” point and there would be a bus; far from confirmed. (Generally the US sends in a plane when possible, but unless you live in the Embassy compound, you’re on your own to get to the airport.)
Home again and I’m blessing the fact that the phones have come back, though there’s enough pressure on the system that it’s pretty intermittent. For awhile I couldn’t call the States as the wires were crossed and I’d get anyone other than who I wanted, a couple of times I was able to listen in to conversations at State (but not be heard by them) which would have been better if I hadn’t been trying to reach IREX. The scariest point of the week for Rich was when he called me and a man answered… fortunately one who spoke some English so they determined he’d gotten a wrong number (though had dialed correctly… auto dial normally stays at the same number.) I was able to reach him about five minutes later and THEN he could laugh at it.
Rich called regularly with reports of what Scott (from the field ops office) or Mark (a program officer when we started with IREX, now one of the Vice Presidents) and Dru (current program officer for Egypt) and others had discovered and what they were doing to get me out. I’m guessing that the phone bills are going to equal the first class ticket that Mark finally managed to get for me with a confirmation and e-ticket number about 1AM.
I heard more gunshots throughout the evening (though not from MY block protectors, these were further a field) and I worry about excess firepower in the hands of highly emotional, poorly trained Egyptians. One argument is that these are the police, now off duty, protecting their homes and neighborhoods so a good thing; the other is that rioters have broken into police headquarters weapons stores and so not so good. (Tuesday morning’s CNN was repeatedly showing a young man in army camouflage [don’t know if it’s a proper uniform or youth “fashion”] brandishing a hand gun and clearly terrified of whatever the situation was, not in control of himself or his gun.
Monday, January 31, 2011:
Monday Wahsh (one of our program’s drivers) collects me and we head for the airport. Wash has developed quite a skill for avoiding traffic problems. Going across the bridge from Zamalek downtown it’s clear that the building of the Mubarak party is standing but useless… a seriously burned shell. There’s no getting off the flyway for Tahrir Square as one of the police paddy-wagon’s been burned out and tipped on its side at the exit. Beyond that I saw no damage… limited traffic most of the way, horrendous traffic jams near the airport. We saw three policemen in uniform, armed only with radios, but they’re beginning to move back into operations. There were another dozen or so at the airport, but in no way were there enough of them to manage THAT crowd!!
It took me an hour from the first security check (suitcase x-ray) to the desk to check in my baggage. Part of that was due to no signage as to where to find what airline, part of it was simple press of people. On the way back past the worst of the masses to get to passport control it became such a tight press of people that no-one was moving and the small gal that was attempting to follow me as I “broke trail” said that she was actually afraid for her life, and while I didn’t get to that point, I now understand how people can be trampled to death in a mob. It was another hour to get through the passport lines… with everyone pushing and shoving, pretty much all in fear of missing their plane. I gathered that some were truly concerned not about inconveniences but worse should they miss their plane. I am SO thankful I wasn’t traveling with an 8-10 year old… too short to be seen and too big to be carried. Some folks were really trying to be considerate, others were stretched out on blankets sleeping or praying and just didn’t care they were taking up way more than their share of room. But I made my plane, and then sat for another hour and a half. They knew they had a full plane checked in, just not through customs yet, and I was in a comfortable seat and quite happy to wait for them. Apparently other airlines were following the same policy… probably a good thing or they would have had a riot on their hands.
So… the rest of the story is very un-dramatic. Fly Qatar Airlines to Doha, 7 hours in the airport, a 3 hour flight to Istanbul, another 6 hours in the airport, and then home to Belgrade… about 31 hours. The fellow next to me out of Cairo had the last seat on the plane, also arranged by a friend on the outside with Internet, after he’d been in the airport for 24 hours. He’d spent the night on the floor with 4,000 of his closest friends. I have nothing to complain about and much to be thankful for.
I didn’t really want to leave, felt in no danger except when trying to get through the airport. On the other hand, conditions were such that I could accomplish very little by staying other than distracting friends and associates from what they should be doing because of their concern for my safety and need to protect me. Time to leave.
Note, Suzi was back working in Cairo within a month.