Sunday, February 5, 2012

Walking Through a Riot

I write this sat waiting for breakfast in a hostel in Cairo, after four hours sleep, and at what I hope will be the end of quite a hectic couple of days. In this issue: football riots, without the football, and friends in intensive care after 17 car pile-ups (just one friend, and just one pile-up).

You may have seen in the news that on Wednesday night there were 74 people killed in football riots in Port Said. I watched affairs unfold on the television, thinking it was very sad, but isolated. When I spoke to my teacher the next day, she was full of theories about counter-revolutionary forces trying to bring down the government – I’m not convinced by that, and rather think that it was a fight between ‘ultras’ that got out of hand. The police were attacked, and reacted in the only way that they really know in public-order situations: overwhelming and violent force. My experiences on Thursday rather bore this out.

I was taking a stroll in the evening towards my local supermarket, and noticed a bit of a commotion up ahead of me, followed by a small gaggle of youths running past looking excitable. However, the supermarket is on a busy pedestrian street, and commotions are not uncommon, so I carried on walking. The next thing I noticed was shopkeepers beginning to pull down their shutters. In the spirit of honesty I shall reveal that my brain was clearly not functioning on full capacity: my reaction was simply that it was odd to be shutting up shop so early in the evening, and I carried on. The next thing that I knew was that I was surrounded by a large crowd of youths, carrying steel rods, broken bottles, machetes (and in one, rather curious case, a plastic milk-bottle crate). I was still not firing on full cylinders: I thought I’d walked into a protest, and failed to register the lack of flags and chants, and the excess of weaponry and angry looking youths. I’d also failed to register another crowd of similarly angry and armed youths facing off against them. I was enlightened when the clash started, and beat a hasty retreat into the nearest side-street, where I stood (for lack of anywhere else to go) with a small group of other bystanders who were watching events with a mixture of anger, interest, despair, and plain annoyance at their evenings being disrupted in such a way. I spent ten minutes or so a good deal closer than I would have liked to a guy on the floor viciously being beaten with metal rods, to people hacking at each other with machetes, and to a chap who, still for unknown reasons, was waving his plastic crate around with no apparent purpose – but then the riot disappeared as quickly as it had arrived, and I continued my progression to the supermarket.

My shopping was uneventful, until I got back towards the front of the shop and realised that the shutters had been pulled down and there was much excitement among the cashiers. And a minor clue to something going on was the sound of gunfire outside… I had the longest conversation with one of the cashiers in the shop I have ever had (they’re usually very grumpy, with good reason: it is a soulless place), in English. Apparently there were “bad men” outside, who were shooting. However, they had a “secret” back entrance (for emergencies such as this!), and I was ushered back through the supermarket with all my shopping to an inconspicuous door on a back street.

Having completely lost my bearings at this stage, I took a guess as to which direction went vaguely towards my house and set off with purpose. Before long, however, I was surrounded by my friends from before, complete with their various accoutrements (Crate-Man had disappeared somewhere; perhaps to a secure facility), and many of them covered in blood (whether their own or another’s was unclear in some cases). But this time it was apparent that the game had changed, as they were very definitely fleeing from the gunfire that was erupting on all sides, though thankfully not on my street. Although it had finally dawned on my (far too late – never choose me as your guide in a crisis) that the situation was rather serious, I had very little choice but to carry on in the direction I was going. Not quite knowing what street I was on, and given the gunfire seemed to be coming from all points of the compass (though still unseen), one direction was as good as any other, so I walked determinedly, clutching my shopping (it held the makings of a crumble – I wasn’t letting that go to waste!). I finally emerged close to my house without further incident, and resolved that I was stay home for the rest of the evening.

To bring this little story back to its origin, and the conspiracy theories about counter-revolutionaries, it must be noted that the police were nowhere in sight, and the riot looked, in its initial stages, like an organised fight between rival groups. I don’t believe this to be any more than sheer criminality, born of a country which, post-revolution, has had very weak crime-fighting capacity.

There is one aspect of this country that fits in with the rest of the Middle East, and brings me back to the dominant theme of my first Alexandrian Note: the traffic. My housemate, H, was travelling to the airport in Cairo early yesterday morning for a flight to London. I got a call from him in the early afternoon: “have you heard what happened?” (an ominous way to start any conversation). I hadn’t. H had been in the initial crash of a 17 car pile-up in thick fog on the Alex-Cairo road, where cars travel in excess of 90 mph whatever the weather, and whatever the road conditions. He was asleep in the back seat when his car was hit from behind, and had woken up a few hours later in intensive care. My other housemate and I rushed to the station, and got the first train we could to Cairo. Thankfully, the hospital had called an upper-class Egyptian friend of his shortly after he arrived, and he had reassured them about money, and made sure that he was getting proper treatment. This was particularly helpful in H’s case, as he doesn’t have insurance…

My other housemate and I arrived at the hospital at 11pm, well after visiting hours, and blagged our way in by asking to speak to his doctor. The doctor seemed very good and competent, told us all that had happened, and all that they were going to do. He was in intensive care for observation, but he was stable and lucid. He’d had a very bad concussion, and they had to wait until the swelling had gone down a bit before they could tell whether there was any more serious damage. We were then allowed in to see him – remarkably his external injuries were limited to minor cuts and bruises (his Egyptian friend had told me that the car was in pieces). I’m exceedingly lucky to still have a housemate.

I suppose there are two morals to this story. The first is that if one is in this country for long enough, one is almost guaranteed to be in a car accident. Almost everyone I know has been – major or minor. But the biggest is never, ever travel without insurance, especially in this part of the world. Nothing here works without a little currency-shaped lubrication – doctors concerned about payment will not treat, or if they do, they won’t care. If it wasn’t for H’s friend, he’d be in a very much worse situation now.

A final point of interest came on the journey back into downtown Cairo from the hospital. We went through Tahrir square, in my first time there. It looked rather like a fair: if fairs were routinely held in the middle of big roundabouts, and in which people wore surgical masks as a defence against tear gas. The traffic was being directed by protesters, while within the encampment youths sat chatting around big kettles of tea. Of course, it must be noted that this was a protest in its down stage – there were no apparent police around, and it mostly looked like young people having fun. I’m reliably informed that it’s very different at other times… Hence the surgical masks.

Final apologies for the long gap between my last post and now – and the depressing nature of this one. I will try to be more upbeat next time!

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