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."
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.
Getting to our driver Wael had its hiccups. The additional computer equipment I brought drew concerned glances from the staff at Cairo airport (who struck me as not run-of-the-mill customs officers), but they waved it through. Less lucky was a group of TV journalists, who were told that their digital cameras were not going to be allowed through on the orders of the state. "No cameras are allowed anymore," the government representative told them. "Until when?" one of the cameramen asked. "Until the situation has changed," they were told.
Out of the airport, we then easily went through 100 checkpoints and took three hours making a journey that, on a traffic-free day, takes 20 minutes. First were the friendly, almost offhand checkpoints run by Egyptian soldiers backed by Abrams tanks around the airport.
Then there were the “popular committees” – the neighborhood watch groups of young men armed with machetes, clubs, and butcher’s hooks – who were jumpy and a little undisciplined, but full of apologies for the “situation,” solicitousness to us, and full of more “welcome to Egypts” (a phrase commonly graced to foreigners here, both in English and Arabic) than I’d heard in my four years living here.
Finally, after a long, jagged route that took us far around Tahrir Square, we found ourselves on Roda – the Nile island just south of Zamalek that is a bastion of support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Here, the popular committees were more switched on, easier to communicate with – and a little better armed. Mixed in among their clubs and knives were a few narrow-gauge shotguns and pistols.
At each stop we were warned to stay away from Tahrir Square. A few times we were almost turned back. We were told of fires burning there (Molotov cocktails were apparently thrown), and the overall impression is that no one’s security could be guaranteed if they made it there.
Endless, redundant inspections of our luggage for weapons were made, only to be stopped at another checkpoint 500 yards away with the same questions and concerns, but we made it.
Along the way, kids and young men were playing football in the deserted streets, small clusters waving Egyptian flags, chanting and making their way in the direction of Tahrir Square. The general feeling was that of a holiday mixed with the portent of revolution.
But make no mistake. Today’s violence has been spun out by forces opposed to change and openness in Egypt. Soldiers stood neutral as thugs went after democracy protesters in Tahrir Square today. The police, hated by the anti-regime protesters, were thin on the ground.
A young Egyptian doctor I just met told me he’s been warned that there will be professional repercussions if he goes to Tahrir tomorrow, something he took as evidence that a major crackdown is in the offing. State television has been warning of the dangers of “chaos.”
Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian intelligence chief named Mubarak’s first ever vice president a few days ago – and so Egypt’s (and the regime’s) de facto president in waiting – issued an ultimatum to the protesters earlier today.
Kristen Chick is now at Tahrir and we should have more from her on the situation there soon.
What will tomorrow bring? I’m excited, and a little apprehensive.