Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – Some who are courageous to the point of fear, and others who are afraid and have set aside their courage, all fearing that the “adventure” in the country will become something else. There are two feelings that have come to represent the situation in Egypt, and something that anybody feels walking around the streets of Cairo at night, braving the curfew imposed by the authorities following the outbreak of anti-government demonstrations and protests across Egypt.
I am greeted with slight variations of the same scenes throughout Cairo’s neighborhoods, streets and squares, namely that of civilian checkpoints formed by “neighbor watches.” These scenes engender feelings of both pride and fear as I try to make my way across these checkpoints, reciting holy verses of the Quran and hoping that my courage does not desert me, until I can reach safety, and home. Egypt is on the verge of a critical and defining moment in history.
It is possible to see large groups of youths, sometimes accompanied by experienced adults, but often not, forming these “neighborhood watches” and checkpoints, which can now be found in almost every neighborhood following the disappearance of the police, and the spread of chaos and looting. Each youth is armed in his own fashion, own with a wooden stick, another a metal bar, as well as knives, and even swords, their blades glinting in the sun, or gleaming in the dark in the light of the small fires that have been kindled to drive away the cold of night.
With nothing more than a friendly smile and a warm welcome I managed to cross 8 such checkpoints [on my way home from Tahrir Square] formed by such neighborhood watch committees, with nobody asking my identity or what I was doing breaking the curfew. However, from time to time, my profession as a journalist which should have been a source of safety and security, was anything but, surprising and indeed arousing the suspicion of these youths who have set up checkpoints through their neighborhood. In fact, a young man at a checkpoint I passed through warned me of a large checkpoint close to Tahrir Square, saying that they might “treat me badly” due to my profession as a journalist.
The scenes in Egypt have reminded me of the famous essay “I am Sultan, the law of the jungle” written by well-known Egyptian writer Yusuf Idris in response to the story of the lion “Sultan” fatally mauling his trainer, Muhammad Helw, in Egypt in 1972. Idris used this story as an allegory for the country, and the state of the Egyptian people at the time, who – like the lion – were roused to anger after years and years of silence and confinement. Indeed, when “Sultan” the lion was later put down, many Egyptians greeted his death as if they had lost a friend. The same can be said today with regards to the unexpected anger of the Egyptians. My telephone has not stopped ringing throughout these protests and demonstrations, with my wife, children and friend checking up on my safety.
Crossing a dangerous checkpoint, I saw the blades of the knives and swords gleaming in the hands of the youth, indeed I saw some youths even carrying guns. I witnessed these youths halting an expensive private car, demanding that it be closely inspected, in spite of the objections of its owner, who I later learned was a senior doctor at a private hospital.
It was my turn to cross this checkpoint; a youth holding an axe asked me, “Can you please show me your national identification card, please? Where are you coming from and where are you going, sir?” I gave him my press card; he glanced at this quickly and asked for my national ID card. I asked him whether my press card was enough, and he answered “these are orders!” I smiled and commented “OK, but you are raising the ceiling of the law a little.” The youth looked at me, and in an angry voice said “there is no law, we are the law… we are the state!” I received the message, and quickly handed him my national ID card, and he pointed me across the checkpoint. As I was leaving, another of the youths apologetically said “forgive us, sir, but by God we are tired!”
With a nervousness similar to that of Yusuf Idris – who was well known to be an anxious man – I lit a cigarette and thought about everything that I have seen over the past week in Egypt; historic scenes, crises and disaster, joy and sorrow, happiness and fear. When I finally reached the suburb of Cairo where I live, I sat down in a chair in the street and thought about everything that I have seen and tiredly, I thought to myself, “Yes, the youth was right, for when a country is reeling and in a state of shock, and there is no security, and everything is in a state of chaos….nobody has any assigned roles, what’s important is one’s capability to transform themselves and do what they can.