The most striking fact about Cairo is the popular control of the streets. As the mass demonstrations enter their sixth day, the old police have simply disappeared, creating a power vacuum at street level.
As you drive across downtown, the equivalent of Oxford Street and Regent Street in London, every intersection is controlled by men (almost exclusively) with iron bars and wooden staves who direct traffic around Tahrir Square, occupied of course by a mass of protesters. At night they sit around fires, form groups that patrol the streets and organise to have them swept.
It was the same across the Nile in Dokki. At the end of the road where I am staying there was a mass of army in three trucks who set up their own checkpoint on the main road that runs down this east bank of the river. And there is a tank at the entrance to the bridge across the Nile up the road. As I took a picture my Egyptian friend said ‘go on climb up on it, they don’t mind at all’.
But the side streets are all controlled by militia. Twenty men were in the street outside last night armed with baseball bats and sticks. They discuss and debate and set up groups at the cross roads. Two waiters from the hotel and a concierge, still in their uniforms, were on patrol. ‘What choice do I have’, Abdel the doorman told me, ‘it’s my job I have to protect it and the police have vanished’.
The looters are widely believed to be former police and in some cases they are. Mohammed Shafique, a young doctor who I met a few years back at the Cairo conference, told me he was on militia patrol in his area when they stopped and searched a car whose boot was stuffed with cash. The driver was a policeman. The ‘arrested’ him and kept him locked up in the local community hall.
But some looters may just be looters... hardly surprising in a desperately poor country where the police have disappeared. But if the whole ‘looting’ issue, including the much publicised vandalism in the Egyptian Museum, is a Mubarak ploy to create a ‘strategy of tension’ and discredit the revolution, it has backfired spectacularly. Instead it has spread popular power across the society. As the air force jets boomed across Tahrir Square yesterday afternoon, my Egyptian friend and I agreed that ‘they control the air but we control the streets’.
The curfew itself has done the same thing in another way. The main effect is that virtually no traffic is moving (apart from the Cairo Vespas which are unstoppable)... now that is a revolution in itself: Cairo without traffic! Most Cairenes thought that was less likely than Mubarak going. But it’s happened and it’s turned Cairo into a giant pedestrian precinct! Now crowds just amble down the dual carriage ways like a regular Italian passagiata.
It might be different further out in this giant city of 18 million. I hear that it is in well-off Mahdi for instance... but in the city centre the crowds are out. The few cars and taxis that there are will, if you wave them down, just pick you up and take you on your way. That’s the way I got to Tahrir Square last night - a car full of perfect strangers just stopped, I said the magic word ‘Tahrir’ and they took me across Zamalek, the island in the middle of the Nile, across the bridge and up to the checkpoint at the entrance to the Square. The barrier of two tanks is controlled jointly by civilians and young squaddies.
That tells you a lot about where the army is, as does yesterday’s scenes of officers being carried on the shoulders of the crowd in Tahrir. But a crackdown is still possible. In Tiananmen they brought in raw troops from Nepal on the other side of China to ‘clean out Beijing’. But the cost of such a counter-revolution would now be very high... it would have to be on a Chilean scale, with thousands of deaths in football stadia. Mubarak must be near the point of not being able to mount such an operation. The US and its allies are deserting him and the regime looks to me like the Honecker regime did in East Germany in the days before the Berlin Wall fell. Honecker gave the order to fire but army officers refused to pass it on, knowing that, among other things, Gorbachev wouldn’t back the regime.
But, needless to say, such things still hang in the balance. The young activists in Tahrir are pushing on. They are, as many tell me, ‘not afraid to die’. It’s not rhetoric. Ola Shahba told me last night that when she was marching in the front rank to Tahrir last Friday the protester next to her was shot dead. Mohammed Shafique was one of those trying to storm the Interior Ministry when the snipers opened fire. He still has the marks from shot gun pellets. He winced when I embraced him because the bruises from the rubber bullets are still on his back.
They are both organising today from the Socialist Renewal Current offices just around the corner from the Square. They hope Tuesday’s demonstration, the one-week anniversary of the revolution, will be a million strong. They hope it will be the day Mubarak goes.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.
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