A demonstration opposing America’s aggression on Iraq was planned for after the Friday prayer at al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, 21 March 03. Judging from the demonstration the day before, I thought this one would last for hours, so I did not head over there on time. Then I heard a collective voice in the street, and that was my cue. From my balcony in central Cairo, I saw a crowd of people flooding between cars in traffic, more spontaneous than organized, calling out loudly, and surprisingly carrying very few signs. I made my way to the street and inquired if they had started at al-Azhar. Yes. Then suddenly they all began to turn back and run into a side street. Call me innocent, but I didn’t know why!
The Security Forces were a moving wall of black-clad legs and arms wielding truncheons. But before I saw them, I ran a few steps also. One young man said, “Don’t run. Just stop.” I agreed, and told him I am used to being chased by Zionist tanks, and I stand up to them. Even so, this section of the parade dispersed into an even smaller side street. Some shopkeepers recognized me: “Aren’t you the one who said that Palestine’s liberation is America’s liberation at the demonstration yesterday?” Then he described my giant AMERICAN AGAINST THE WAR sign, so they invited me for a cup of tea and we discussed current events.
When I went to find the demonstration, I passed a small group of men who asked me what I was looking for. When I stopped to talk with them, one made a sudden motion pretending to kick me é presumably since I look foreign é but then laughed, and another stood up for me, remembering my sign. The flood of shouting demonstrators had by now melted into the alleys and doorways of the winding network of streets.
I walked a short distance up the emptied main street to face another line of close-knit black uniforms, the Security Forces blocking the entrance into Tahrir Square. The Square looked quite empty but I felt I should investigate, so in tourist English, I asked if I could pass. I remembered how I had done the same yesterday, and as they let me through I had heard one say, “Now she will participate.” Their mandate is to isolate demonstrators and keep new ones from joining. Now they let me through, and I found a small cluster of journalists. One told me that my photo is in al-Ahram, the main government-supported newspaper. A Turkish photojournalist lamented his loss: From a perfect vantage point on a top floor, he had video’d the demonstration at al-Azhar, which had more of a raw energy than yesterday’s protest, but the police grabbed his arms, beat him briefly, and confiscated his film. Another journalist said he should file a complaint with the Turkish Embassy.
We proceeded up Qasr an-Nil Street, which was not blocked by Security Forces. In one section, a small group had gathered in the middle of the empty street and was calling slogans. It was like qawali music, with a call and response with another contingent on a second-floor balcony. A few of them had small posters of Nasser. The Nasserist party is the opposition, and may still be outlawed. I picked up a wet poster that said simply, NO WAR ON IRAQ, and did not reflect on how it had gotten soaked. Some pedestrians were coming and going on the sidewalk.
Suddenly the black line was advancing, shouting, and wildly waving sticks. There was no warning. One moment the atmosphere was calm, and the next the Security Forces were swarming the street and wildly waving sticks with a startling clamor.
I stood on the sidewalk and held up my arms in an unarmed no-contest gesture as they passed by. As always, someone nearby became my protector, and guided me into a doorway out of the way of the waving sticks. The sticks were rather alarming. Then I was ushered inside the glass door of a very modern sandwich shop. I felt I should be outside facing them just as I face Israeli soldiers. I should stand between them and their prey, and try to minimize violence. But the sandwich people felt it would be better if Security didn’t see me. The most surprising thing was that the Security Forces picked up rocks or debris in the street, and began throwing these instant munitions at the group on the balcony. They looked just like the Palestinian children throwing similar munitions at Israeli tanks. When worlds collide. I am accustomed to seeing the armed governmental authorities with snipers and tanks, while the unarmed and un-uniformed youngsters throw stones. Something seemed backwards, and almost innocent in seeing the uniformed governmental soldier-types throwing rocks just like the children. Somehow it seemed amateur and non-deadly.
Then I became aware of a young woman quietly crying near the sandwich counter. Fortunately, one of the employees was an on-the-spot medic, and he was tending to her upper arm with ice. I tried to provide the warmth of comfort and moral support. She had just left her office at a travel agency, and had turned into this quiet, peaceful street, unaware there was a mini-demonstration taking place. This is evidence that the protest was non-disruptive and almost unnoticeable. She was walking, and before she knew anything was amiss, and before she heard anything unusual, the black-clad Security Forces were battering their way forward, striking her back and arm with shocking force. I think she was upset by the thought of the undeserved attack, as much as from the pain in her arm. Dr. Sandwich insisted that she move her arm, and applied more ice.
I wanted to go into the street, but the shop people said I would stay drier inside, as the big square green trucks that had just arrived were water cannons. They drove in front of the shop, and aimed at the balcony with one jet of water. It seemed silly. I remarked that at least they would clean the building exterior. Then they aimed two jets at the balcony. We watched the street through a wall of rain on the glass window. In situ conceptual art. My fellow refuge-seekers explained that the Security Forces are not allowed to enter a building to go after the protesters on the balcony. Sure enough, a few moments later, the protesters had emerged and were passing by on the sidewalk unscathed and unfettered. This is definitely more benign than Israeli home invasions and explosions. Here you can count on standards of things which are allowed!
I accompanied the injured woman to her office nearby, where she explained how the Security Forces were stupid, like animals in the wild. Of course they didn’t ask questions first; they just plowed through flailing their long sticks. Her next challenge was to get home, as the Metro had been closed to prevent protesters from using the underground space. Her co-worker and I surveyed the street from this lovely upper story. A black line of Security were guarding the entrance to Tahrir Square, letting only Army vehicles pass, with a line of ten troop transport trucks parked there. They turned back some pedestrians. As we surveyed the scene, this young woman said it was wrong for them to attack peaceful protesters, and she kept emphasizing that people should be allowed to express what they are feeling inside, as long as they do it peacefully as they were in this instance. Our heroine wound up taking a taxi with her colleagues from the next street where traffic w! as moving normally. Pedestrians also were returning to the streets, though many shops were closed.
After a visit to an outlying neighborhood, I returned in the evening to find Tahrir Square open to traffic, but with groups of Security positioned in various spots. At one point, I confronted a running bloc of them, but they were not in battle mode. On another street, they were at ease sitting on the sidewalk waiting for their next duty.
I heard there were about ten thousand protesting today.
In a nearby neighborhood, some children recognized me from the previous day’s demonstration. One boy asked, “Are you Tahani?” Word is out. They told me about today’s activities at al-Azhar, and asked if I would be attending tomorrow’s demonstration in Tahrir Square. I told them we need to make it a calm occasion. “Like yesterday’s!” said Muhammad. They all shook my hand, and more friends joined as they escorted me down the street with its lively lit-up shops and swirling mix of pedestrian and vehicle traffic. One, about eight years old, asked me why America wants to hurt Iraqi and Palestinian children. I said I don’t know, but told him I am so glad that he cares about children in Palestine and Iraq. And I told them that they remind me of my young friends in Jenin. They insisted on liberating my copy of al-Ahali newspaper so they could pass around my front-page photo. I felt as if I were back in Jenin Refugee Camp, with the cadres of children providing a friendly following. I too wonder why my country insists on hurting and murdering Palestinian and Iraqi children.
Dr. Annie C. Higgins specializes in Arabic and Islamic studies, and is currently doing research in Jenin.