A Glimpse of Hell
Thursday was a glimpse of hell.
As the reports filtered in of foreigners coming under attack and arrest across the city as the regime and Mubarak supporters vehemently tried to silence the media, my colleague Sam Tarling and I were heading across town, from Dokki to the edge of Midan Tahrir. We were previously staying at one of my friend’s places in Dokki but for unclear reasons his landlord gave us the boot around noon time, screaming at us to get out of the apartment. My friend was not at home, there was little to be done. On the street outside, our luggage drew a bit of attention, not in the good way. We quickly got a cab, as we got in some men in the street yelled at the cab driver for assisting foreigners.
We took the cab across Dokki to a hotel where we had stayed our first night in town on Tuesday. As we arrived, it was quickly apparent that the police had moved back into the neighborhood. The vigilantes on the street who I had come to know were nowhere to be seen.
With reports of arrests of journalists and attacks against foreigners, this did not seem to be an ideal situation.
We checked in and quickly checked out, opting to join a friend who had recently been able to get to a hotel on the edge of Tahrir Square without hassle thanks to a driver who could navigate through the new convolutions of the city. Tahrir, with its journalist and foreigner friendly anti-government protesters seemed relatively safe (so long as you could enter the square), despite the clashes on its edges. At the time, it didn’t look like reporting from the street in Dokki or other areas would be a possibility given the circumstances.
When the car came, we whizzed through checkpoints on the Giza side of the Nile, still manned by the community watch groups. On the other side of the Nile going around the backside of downtown, it was a different story.
I can’t remember how many checkpoints we had to go through. It was a lot. Spotting us as foreigners, the car would be pulled over, our passports snatched up and our bags searched.
Two checkpoints were particularly sketchy. The first was next to the newly reopened (and now reclosed) Museum of Islamic Art. A police officer spotted us a ways down the road from the museum and hopped in the car, ordering the driver to the checkpoint. Pro-Mubarak thugs armed with machetes and blunt weapons were on its outer ring. They circled the car, jeering and yelling at us as we pulled in. We were ordered out by the policeman who ushered us by some army tanks and armored personnel carriers to where the mukhabarat and police were set up, many out of uniform holding AK-47s. One of the mukhabarat in charge gave me a seemingly friendly pat on the back before shoving me forward hard. They interrogated us standing there. They asked if we were press. We said no, not wanting to get arrested and insisted that I wrote about culture in Beirut and had come to Cairo to visit friends. They searched our bags, dumping them on the ground. They were perplexed by my contact lenses (as were many other checkpoints). At one point, they made us stand by a group of detainees who stood with their hands bound behind their backs staring at the road divider. At this point we thought we would be arrested. The men were eventually bussed off, who knows what happened to them. The mood was very tense, but eventually they let us go – as with other checkpoints we told them that we were going to pick up a friend near Tahrir and then proceed directly to the airport.
From what I could tell, the mukhabarat and police were working directly with the pro-Mubarak thugs at this checkpoint and a number of others.
Not long after we were released from this checkpoint, we ran into a mob-run checkpoint. Our passports were grabbed through the window as the car was encircled entirely. My backpack disappeared from the trunk, spirited around the corner. The crowd became more and more agitated, yelling that we were spies and encouraging more people to come and see the foreigners. They wanted us out of the car. Our prospects were not looking good – there was no escape route through the mass of men and their machetes, knives and clubs. Unlike at other checkpoints, our driver’s charm was doing nothing to calm the situation and there was seemingly no authority figure to bring the crowds under control. I was fairly certain we were going to be ripped from the car and beaten if not worse as the men on my side started screaming to open my door. On Sam’s side of the car, a man spat on the window. There were no prospects of escape – at least 20-30 armed thugs held the perimeter of the car and the street was narrow and traffic locked. More thugs kept arriving, seething with anger. Frankly, it looked like it might be the end.
A tank sat around the corner with soldiers on top and around it, who seemed unconcerned with the situation initially. Finally one soldier came over with his AK and pushed through the crowd, getting them away from the door and screaming at them. He poked his head in the front door and apologized for the situation. He kept the mob away from my window and door with his body. Finally he hopped in the front seat with his rifle and had another Kevlar-wearing soldier with a chambered pistol in hand hop into the back seat with me and Sam. They drove with us through a few similar checkpoints, making sure we were okay.
I think I may owe my life to these soldiers.
We got out with our lives and our health. I only lost $600 stashed in my backpack that the thugs apparently found and took.
We never made it to Tahrir. We pulled over at a backpacker hotel off of Talaat Harb Street just blocks from where we had run into trouble. This was as far as we’d go. We were only blocks away from where we had escaped. The idea of moving in Cairo seemed impossible, for we would most likely have to traverse these same blocks. I had no clue who to trust anymore.
We were not in a position to continue reporting and unable to reach a secure location. The airport seemed to be the only safe option in the morning. Luckily, the Opera Square tunnel connecting to the airport highway was in sight and we were able to make it through unmolested. The decision to go to the airport remained daunting too, given that just the day before a television news crew had run into a life-threatening situation where an angry mob threatened to behead them.
I am not a rookie to life-threatening situations, but this was by far the scariest thing I have ever seen. I now realize that there is a clear difference between having a chambered pistol being put to your head and being at the hands of a mob with machetes.
In the end, we were lucky. Many have not been so lucky. The Egyptians have been the unluckiest of them all. Many are dead, many more are injured. Few receive the preferential or sympathetic treatment that the army officer bestowed on us for being foreigners.
There is much more to say about Egypt and I will continue to write as much as I can. In the meantime, please check out the following two stories about similarly scary incidents, one by two New York Times journalists arrested and the second by an Egyptian Bloomberg employee caught up in some trouble: