Egypt uprising: Making my way home during the battle for Tahrir
I arrived in Egypt after what appears to have been an attempt to crush dissent at Tahrir Square. I was unaware of the events of the day, but got a flavor of the tension in Cairo as I made my way out of the airport.
I arrived in Cairo today at 8 p.m. after leaving Boston at 6 the evening before. The last bit of news I had was watching President Obama call for restraint and telling Egypt's leader Hosni Mubarak that "an orderly transition ... must begin now."Skip to next paragraph
Dan Murphy is a staff writer for the Monitor's international desk, focused on the Middle East. Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.
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In the interval, disorder broke out in Tahrir Square, the focal point of unprecedented protests against President Mubarak's near 30-year rule in Cairo. At least three demonstrators were killed and 1,500 more wounded in running battles around Tahrir. Based on what I heard from the ragtag "popular committees" that a friend and I encountered on our circuitous way home from the airport, from reporting – like that of Monitor Cairo correspondent Kristen Chick – that I read when I arrived at my hotel, and e-mail and phone conversations with people I trust, this was not as simple as a clash between "pro" and "anti" Mubarak demonstrators.
Most informed observers were convinced that the violence was driven by Egypt's infamous baltaguia – plainclothes thugs from the state security services and gang members on their payroll, who have periodically been mobilized to break heads when protests emerge. They're used to prevent opposition supporters from making their way to the polls during Egypt's farcical elections (I've witnessed this three times personally), to put down labor strikes (seen that, too), and now appear to be out on the streets in favor of the established order, if not in service of specifically extending Mubarak's rule.
All of this created the impression that the regime is trying to construct a narrative of balanced "sides." Sure, there are many who want Mubarak removed and fundamental democratic change in Egypt. But there are as many who want things to stay the same. My long experience here convinces me that narrative would profoundly distort the truth.
I'm still piecing together the situation here in Cairo. But the odyssey that Wael, an intrepid tourist driver who took a high-paying commission turned down by at least three others at the airport, Pittsburgh Tribune Correspondent Betsy Hiel (who's covered Egypt for over twice as long as I have), and I experienced making our way to Zamalek (a fashionable neighborhood on an island in the Nile a few miles from Tahrir) brought home how extreme the situation has become. Dissent was not crushed at Tahrir today. But it could be if the regime can muster enough force without enormous international repercussions.