Laura Dean's Cairo Diary

Cairo Diary, June 30: An Introduction and the Scene at Tahrir

By Laura Dean
Sunday, June 30, 2013, 4:41 PM

It's almost midnight here in Cairo, and Tahrir Square is full---again---as are the streets outside the presidential palace and a place called Rabaa el Adaweyah Square. The latter is full of Muslim Brotherhood protesters while the other two places are crowded with members of a broadly defined opposition. Egypt is in the middle of a rebellion. A rebellion against the president Egyptians elected a year ago. Numbers have been flying around all day but the latest figure is 14 million---14 million people across the country were in the streets calling for Mohammed Morsi to leave. That's about one in six Egyptians. I will be posting here as things unfold over the next few days, or weeks, or longer.

I realize this series may be pushing the boundaries of what Lawfare does. I am not by any means an expert in the law of national security---or the law at all. But I am here. And I talk to a lot of people. And Ben asked me to blog what I see and hear and read. And I couldn't be more pleased to accept.

I grew up in this part of the world, or close by---in Bahrain. I am a lifelong student of Arabic and came to Egypt in 2011, after a stint at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I came originally to work as a long-term election observer in the Nile Delta, the North Coast and on the border with Libya. I spent last summer observing the elections in Libya, and I've been here on and off---mostly on---ever since.  At present, I'm working as a freelance journalist.

In late April, opposition figures began collecting signatures for the "Tamarod" or "Rebel" campaign calling for the ouster of President Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Their goal was 15 million signatures, and they claim to have collected 22 million by today. Protests began on Friday amidst fuel shortages that left Cairenes sleeping in their cars as they waited in lines that lasted all night. Anticipation ran high this weekend at rallies all over the city. People were out with their families, children had their faces and hands painted black, red and white as they ate snacks from street carts. They tied bandanas that read "Leave!" around their heads. In addition to festive preparations, though, the Ministry of Health announced that seven people were killed, including one American, and more than 600 people were injured in the violence leading up to today. There were also sexual assaults in Tahrir Square and an explosive device was detonated at a demonstration in the canal town of Port Said. And then today came.

A few notes from Tahrir and around:

No one quite knew what to expect today. Yesterday, protests went late into the night. Helicopters have been flying over Tahrir for the last two days. And while the square was filled with families yesterday afternoon, as of last night there had already been five documented sexual assaults after dark. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood remained across the city at their own rally in support of the president. This morning, there were reports of guns being confiscated from people entering the protests, though some said these were just rumors to discourage people from going. Around 4pm, when marches were supposed to be heading to the square from other parts of the city, I headed over.

On the way there, women shout on empty Garden City streets, "Leave, Morsi!" Men of all ages screech by us on motorcycles and tuk-tuks waving Egyptian flags and chanting---honking their horns in the rhythm Egyptians use at weddings. When we get to Tahrir, people are arriving from all sides, motorcycles squeezing in amongst pedestrians. The mood is celebratory.

I speak with Amani Sayed, 43, who wears a full face veil, about why she has decided to come out. Holding a piece of cardboard over her head to shield herself from the sun, she tells me she has been in the square since ten thirty in the morning. This at around five in the afternoon. When asked why she is there, she is adamant: "He has divided us."

"Christians from Muslims!" her friend interjects.

"And Muslims from Muslims," says Amani. "We are munaqabat [wear face veils], muhagabat [wear hijabs], unveiled. Egyptians are liberals, secular, conservative. We’re all Egyptian." Though she has been with the first revolution, she says she supported the Tamarod protests more and had voted for Ahmed Shafiq, the old regime candidate who competed against Morsi during the run-off elections a year ago. She says that Morsi is painting Islam in a negative light. “It’s not a religion of violence, not a religion of blood,” she says.

It feels like a party, a similar atmosphere to the first anniversary of the revolution on January 2012. But this time people are demanding something, and it’s unclear what the reaction will be when someone responds to that demand.

“Look, look! This lot must be from Zamalek,” says my companion, referring to a wealthy Cairene neighborhood across the river. And sure enough, we are walking through a cluster of protesters in skinny jeans and oversized sunglasses.

On the bridge leading into Tahrir that clogged with people heading in, I speak with Sayeda Zaky, 56, from the low-income neighborhood of Imbaba. “We want someone who will feed us!” she says. Her son had been imprisoned under Mubarak and she was no supporter of the former regime, but the situation, she says, has gotten worse under Morsi.

As I leave, a young man calls to me, "Why are you by yourself? Come, we're all together today!"

It’s dark in Cairo. Egyptians and Egypt watchers wait to see what will happen during the night. The question has been and remains, what next? The next few days, as well as weeks, months and years, will tell. But I am grateful that after much expectation of violence, the day itself, at least so far and notwithstanding the burning of the Brotherhood office in another Cairo neighborhood, has been relatively peaceful. A very sad caveat to that are the instances of sexual assault documented by activists who report difficulty accessing victims because the areas where people are protesting are so crowded.

Stay safe, Cairo. More tomorrow.