December 1st 2010
I stand on my hotel balcony in Cairo, Egypt, eating from a packet of Sour Cream and Onion Pringles and watching the unfolding protests in the streets below. It is my last day in Egypt and I have just returned from Tahir Square to watch a big fire and brimstone protest in the building across the road from the hotel. Little do I know at the time but this small protest at the corrupt elections that I witnessed just a few days previously is the future echo of a much bigger protest to come a mere month and a half after I leave.
I can’t say for sure what exactly the protest was about or if it was in anyway historically important (I don’t think it was, it seemed to be just a ripple in a constant wave of discontent) Other than a few pieces of information begrudgingly given to me by hotel staff everything that I picked up was from watching quietly from my hotel room balcony.
I returned from Tahir Square that day not to the usual barrage of intimidating niceties from the host of shop owners, taximen and schiesters that leeched to the roads outside the hotel;
“Where you from? Where you from? England? England? Ireland? Oh-Ireland! Iove Ireland, I have cousin who lives in Ireland. Dia dhuit. That is Irish.Come into my shop. Not to buy, not to buy. To talk about Ireland. I want to talk about Ireland. Not to buy….”
;but to hordes of marching, protesting people making their way slowly into the building across the road (which I was later told was the offices of a newspaper); a safe private property in which they could protest.
There were plenty of police around, keeping an eye on proceedings and guarding the hotel but all this seemed a very well honed drill at this stage and didn’t ever really feel that tense. The protesters, despite their sometime threatening screaming, were keeping the peace and the police were there just to make sure that everything went off without a hitch. This was how it was in Egypt, or at least what I got the untold impression of while I was there. “We’ll allow you aspects of a democracy, we’ll allow you have elections and we might even let some of the politicians you actually voted for get a position. We’ll build a kind of society that allows everyone to earn a little bit, to earn their backsheesh, we’ll even allow you have your protests; but don’t push it or we’ll bash your fucking heads in”
The police chief arrives. A hefty, weighty man. He is briefed briefly and then quickly charges one of the local shop owners to bring him and his Lieutenants a couple of chairs and a small table at which to sit and then a round of coffees. No payment or backsheesh for this, the shopkeeper moves quickly and without protest. The police chief sits out the remainder of the protest relaxing and chatting away with his lietenants.
The traffic, as always in Ciaro, shoves and pushes, beeps and screams, ignores obstacles and squeezes through gaps far too small. At one stage a banged up piece of shit of a car (is there any other kind) stalls right in front of the packed gates and the some protesters take a moment out to help push it on up the road.
The thing about the protest that stands out most for me is that, despite everything, life just continues in Cairo. Nothing really changes in the brief hour or two, most people walking or driving past ignore it, most people work their way around it, too busy doing busy nothings to have time for whatever it is that they are saying. At one point one of the many McDonalds takeout (yes, you heard it right – McDonalds take out) bikes truck-a-truck-a’s past and up the road; screams of “Allahu Ackbar” from the crowds.
The crowds disperse just before the battered loadspeakers of the Mosques begin the final boradcast of prayers over the dusty dirty streets. In Cairo the sun doesn’t so much set on the city as vapourise into the smog.