An American in Cairo: Close Encounters With Chaos
By Sam Ahmad
CAIRO -- I live on a houseboat on the Nile -- far from the cobblestone streets of my native Brooklyn.
Cairo was my first stop on a long trip through Asia and Africa. I've spent the last several months taking in its history, beauty, culture and, until recently, its security. Knowing that I could unchain the houseboat and float from these shores to those of New York Harbor added to the comfort and peace that I took for granted.
That changed when I went from greeting the water skiers and herons that passed my rear deck to dodging the tear gas and tanks that passed my front door.
Sam Ahmad stands in the streets of Cairo. The American has observed the protests in Tahrir Square and been interrogated by police and the army. On the morning of Jan. 27, I left my home aware that the Internet and cell-phone service had been blocked by the government. As I opened my front gate, I emerged to a crowd of young policemen carrying protective shields and batons -- facing protesters with stones in their hands and determination on their faces.
I witnessed several hours of these clashes. By late afternoon, the protesters had pushed forward, setting fire to police cars, tires and eventually the police station next door, as tear-gas canisters were being shot with the frequency of a heartbeat. Bloodied police officers were being rushed to their camps. There was a huge burst of euphoria from the protesters when the police began to retreat.
As the protesters marched forward, four terrified officers who had been left behind jumped the fence with the property next door and hid on the 12-inch ledge that separated them from the Nile. Hours later, they asked me for water and a change of clothes so that they could go home in civilian clothes as the entire Cairo police force had just done.
Word on the street was that looters were undercover police officers sent by the Mubarak administration in an attempt to create panic. A number of looters who were nabbed by watch groups were found with police IDs. Reports of prisoners being freed did not help. We all bought it and armed ourselves with homemade weapons, as we guarded our front doors.
Later that night, I received word that an older English woman five houseboats down was alone and terrified. My groundskeeper and I took his dirty 3-yard rowboat down the Nile to pick her up and bring her to my home. The trip would have been a beautiful one were it not for gunfire and screams that surrounded us.
The next few days were comparatively calm, even though each night, I fell asleep to the sounds of sporadic gunfire. I had made several trips to Tahrir Square to observe the protests. The anti-government protesters were calm and organized -- most appeared to be artists, students and professionals.
Things changed when, en route to Tahrir Square, a friend and I were removed from a taxi and interrogated by a mob of medieval-looking men wielding clubs and machetes. Rumor had it that these mobs were police posing as civilians. My only crime was having an American passport, as Egypt's state-run television had been blaming the protests on foreign influence.
Across Cairo, foreigners were being systematically arrested for being "spies" or journalists. As the mob handed us over to uniformed policemen, one of our captors told the police they had caught us smoking marijuana in the back of our cab.
The police searched and interrogated us, and after some very tense moments, handed us to the army. They questioned us in a police station with bloodied walls and windows that had been shattered in earlier demonstrations. After a terrifying four hours, we were eventually released -- to return to the same mob-filled streets.
Each of the three groups who had detained us -- the mob, police and army -- were interested in whether or not we had a camera. If they had seen the photos I had taken in Tahrir Square the day before, or behind the lines with the protesters, we would have been in genuine trouble. This was the first time I had left home without a camera -- and it was only because I had forgotten it. I thank God for that.
As of this week, it appears that the government is slowly regaining control. Two weeks without paychecks and security has taken its toll on the already cash-starved Egyptian population. Many who were initially involved in the demonstrations are supporting the government again, while thousands wake up each morning in Tahrir Square hoping for a new day.
After hearing about the previous night's ordeals, a friend said, "It's moments like this that I realize how good we have it here in America. ... Why do I complain over the most mundane things?"
I responded, "That's what the people of Egypt are fighting for -- the right to complain about a traffic jam as if it's the biggest deal in the world."
Sam Ahmad, 39, is an entrepreneur and former U.S. lawyer who now lives in Cairo. You can read more about his travels at samonearth.blogspot.com.
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