The area around Tahrir Square is in lockdown today. The violence has shifted from the square itself to the streets leading to it. Most entrances to the downtown area are sealed off by groups of pro-Mubarak supporters, and the one entrance allowing vehicles in that my nervous taxi driver (though not as nervous as me) could find was manned by the president’s men. They were immediately hostile when they saw a foreigner in the car, and demanded my passport and bag. They found the cameras immediately. “Sahafi, sahafi,” (journalist, journalist), they shouted. Fortunately I’d already fed the taxi driver, pro-Mubarak himself, my cover story. “No, no, he’s a teacher. And he’s African. Look at his passport.” It was the African argument that really swayed them, and they returned my passport and cameras with smiles and apologies. I breathed a sigh of relief and held a brief moment of thanks for the African Union and its spineless inaction on the Egypt issue. If I’d been American, I don’t think I would have got the cameras back. Or Qatari – Qataris are enormously unpopular at the moment because of the role that Al-Jazeera has played in televising the revolution. The line being peddled by the government’s supporters – and there are a lot more of them than I expected – is that the protests are a plot conceived by the US, Qatar and Israel. Despite the smiles, I am still denied entry to downtown Cairo, and I decide it’s not worth pushing it; things are still too unpredictable, tensions too high. Not everyone will buy the African argument.
The situation is very fluid at the moment. The TV coverage is providing perhaps a distorted picture of events. All the major networks have corralled themselves in apartments in Tahrir Square, and aren’t showing anything else. The attention that Egypt has received has been remarkable, but Egypt is bigger than Tahrir Square; and what I don’t know, and what Egyptians don’t know either, is how extensive the anti-Mubarak protests are across the rest of the country. I think that may be because support for the protestors is beginning to dry up; many people are happy to accept the President’s promise to retire in September, and just want their daily lives to return to normal. It seems to me that outside Tahrir Square, you’re more likely to see large crowds outside of functioning ATMS than in protest against the government. And without genuine popular support, the protestors in Tahrir are unlikely to get what they ask for. I hope that’s not true, but I’ve seen and heard nothing today that persuades me otherwise.
For a more extensive account of my day in the square yesterday: