Throughout the Arab and Muslim world there have been protests against the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip. Thousands have turned out for these protests, some of them encouraged by the protesters' governments. In Egypt, however, the government is actively working to control demonstrations.
Right after the Friday prayers earlier this month, my boyfriend Mohamed (who is Egyptian) my roommate (who is an American journalist) and I set out to Al Fatah mosque in downtown Cairo. The large mosque also across the street from the capital's main train station, which means the area is always teeming with people (at around 8 million, Cairo's population is equal to New York City's).
As we exited our taxi, we saw hundreds of national security police lining the mosque entrances, the square in front of the mosque, the bridge above the train station, and most of the surrounding streets. These were not the ordinary traffic police but the national police usually dispatched whenever there is word of a protest, all wearing riot gear-plastic face shields on their helmets and long police truncheons.
We walked in front of the mosque and heard chanting down the street. On getting closer to the crowd, we saw police attempting to contain the protesters down a small alley. A few minutes after arriving, people started running, and we saw the police beating the protesters to get them to move back down the alley and away from the main street. There were people watching from their shops, the storefronts' metal grating mostly pulled down in case the crowd got out of control. A couple of shop owners offered to let us come inside the shops should something happen.
Clamping Down on the Muslim Brotherhood
We headed back towards the mosque and saw about 20 men, whom we assumed to be plainclothes police officers, run across the street and down another alley. We heard chanting, then screaming.
About 10 minutes later we saw men being dragged or carried down the alley towards the main square and into military armored cars.
We had heard that the protest had been called by the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the largest political opponents of the National Democratic Party, ostensibly the ruling party in Egypt. The Brotherhood is also the organization that Hamas drew its ideological origins from in 1987, although unlike Hamas, the Brotherhood officially renounced violence half a century ago.
"Jihad Is the Way"
We walked back to where we had originally seen the protesters. The crowd had grown significantly. To avoid attracting the police’s attention, we went into a building close by to try to get some pictures. Some men in the building helped us to the roof when they heard we were journalists.
From our new vantage point we could see that crowd had grown to at least 500 men (there weren't any women on the street, perhaps a sign they expected the protest to become out of control). The crowds chants had religious undertones ("Jihad is the way") and many of the banners being held up cited phrases from the Qur'an.
All of a sudden a group of men started attacking the protesters. They knocked over a telephone booth, assaulted cars and each other. We were all confused as to why this group of men began hitting the protesters until, subsequently analyzing the video we'd taken, we saw that the group of men on the attack all held identical, miniature-sized police batons. They were government plants, a common tactic against protesters in Egypt.
Becoming the Story
We were on the roof shooting video and taking pictures for about ten minutes before someone told us we needed to leave. When we got back down to street level, Mohammed said he wanted to get closer to the protests despite my entreaties to stay. After he left, a bunch of men started running and my roommate and I ducked into a shop.
Mohammed returned, but then a plain-clothes policeman grabbed him and demanded he produce his camera. The officer began dragging him back towards the mosque and to his higher-ups, with me yelling, “I’m American, and he’s my husband.” Saying Mohammed was my husband would imply that he could have American citizenship. While the police would probably not to arrest and imprison an Egyptian for taking pictures, they would be far less eager to arresting or hold a foreigner, a westerner especially, an American even more so (the United States is Egypt's largest foreign-aid source, contributing about $3 billion a year).
While he was being half dragged down the street, the policeman kept looking back at me and telling me to leave. Of course I refused. In front of the mosque, a couple of officers questioned Mohammed and asked me in Arabic for my camera and voice recorder. I showed them my American driver's license and he showed them his American University in Cairo ID (while I pretended I didn't understand Arabic). They made us delete our pictures and my audio, then let him (and I) go.
Voices of the Arab Street
We met up with my roommate and witnessed another ongoing protest outside of a hospital. We could hear the chants of the men and see onlookers at every window of the hospital. The eyes of a protester we talked to brimmed with tears when he talked of images of injured Palestinian children in Gaza being shown on the news.
On our way to Al-Azhar mosque, where we heard there was supposed to be another protest, we asked our cab driver of his opinion about the ongoing situation. He talked of the need for the Palestinian people to be united in their cause, to have their own country, because without that their goal would not be achieved. (Currently, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and followers of the mostly Fatah-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank are competing for Palestinians’ allegiance.)
When we arrived at Al-Azhar, the ancient and influential mosque was surrounded by riot police. The protest had been suppressed: a couple men being were dragged out of the mosque, their faces bruised.