From the front lines of the Egyptian uprising

Tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo’s Imbaba neighborhood, calling for the overthrow of president Hosni Mubarak, 28 January 2010. (Matthew Cassel)


It’s been a long time coming, but change is on its way to Egypt.

In the working-class area of Imbaba in Cairo on Friday, 28 January, I and my companions joined a group of fifty or so protesters marching up and down the street. The crowd shouted “come down! come down!” to neighbors. Without even realizing that others were joining I looked back at one point to see that 50 had become 500, and not long after I couldn’t see the end of the mass marching through the streets.

As we marched, the Egyptian police hiding in their armored vehicles waited until the march got close. When it did they fired tear gas indiscriminately. People fled, and bystanders, including old women and children in their homes, panicked by the suffocating fumes of the tear gas, which was all marked “Made in the USA.”

The crowds dispersed, but only briefly. Moments later the mass was reformed and the march continued. Down one street and then another, it had no direction, no leadership. Just deep anger and frustration at thirty years of what everyone has been describing as a dictator whose corruption has destroyed the country. Despite the fact that they cannot communicate with each other now, nor could they organize freely or have access to a free media for thirty years, Egyptians from across the country have been unequivocal in their one demand: Mubarak must go.

Finally, when the march in Imbaba reached a certain point, the police decided it was enough. They formed a blockade and when the protesters neared, the gas began to fly. Non-stop tear gas — even two days later I can still smell it on my clothes. People fled, and they returned. It was an organic uprising that could not be stopped, the likes of which I had only previously seen in one place: Palestine.

The intifada was an organic uprising when Palestinians said enough was enough. Without even having to think, people took to the streets to challenge the oppressive rule of their Israeli occupiers. They were killed, beaten, arrested — but nothing could stop them. Egypt today is no different.

While it cannot be described as a foreign occupation, the oppression is there. And in both cases, the one supporting and financing the oppression is the same. Without the US government’s billions of dollars to both Israel and Egypt, there would be no intifada. There would be no deaths now, there would be no thugs roaming the streets and reports of bodies being dumped on the side of the road. That’s not to say without the US there would be a utopia, but without the US there sure as hell wouldn’t be this.

Now US State Department officials are calling on the Egyptian government to refrain from violence and making statements that feign concern about Egyptian lives. If that was true, the tear gas would not say “Made in the USA,” and a brutal dictator would not be supported with billions each year to oppress his people.

But US foreign policy that is becoming irrelevant, a failed imperialist ideology that people are standing up to. Resistance is taking over. And like in Imbaba, or Tahrir Square, or anywhere else, it’s not resistance of any one color. Hostile media appear to be hoping, as they did for Tunisia, that it has an Islamist element.

It doesn’t. The resistance is led by the people of this region, whatever their background may be. At Tahrir Square in central Cairo yesterday I saw young communist women chanting for Mubarak’s ouster next to men who minutes later were on the ground praying. Like in Lebanon, resistance against Israel and US intervention has widespread support, even if the military aspect of such resistance is led by Hizballah, a religious movement. You won’t find many Lebanese to tell you that they do not support resistance to Israel’s attacks on their country.

And the resistance is spreading. Here in Egypt, it appears to be unstoppable. After thirty years of Mubarak’s suffocating rule, the people are finally saying enough. There is hardly one place in the entire country where the dictator can go to escape the shouts demanding his overthrow. In response, he’s cut off communication. The Internet is still down, so is SMS. Mobile phones are only working sporadically. Today, Mubarak’s Minister of Information, who was supposedly dismissed on Friday in an attempt to placate demonstrators, came out and revoked Al Jazeera’s press credentials and ordered a shut down of what’s become the world’s most important news organization.

What makes an unstable situation all the more unsettling is that people are not only unable to communicate with the outside world, but also with their friends and loved ones inside the country. And this was the government’s tactic to try and terrorize its people even further and frighten them from going out into the streets in protest. It didn’t work. On Friday hundreds of thousands came out around the country to take their demands for change into the streets.

Yet in Egypt and beyond, resistance is spreading. It’s impossible to say when it started. In Egypt it was the killing of Khaled Said, the young man stomped to death by Egyptian police in June of last year Alexandria that brought protesters to the street on 25 January to protest the police and their dictator. Was it was the popular uprising in Tunisia that ousted that country’s Western-backed dictator of 23 years that sent shockwaves of inspiration throughout the Arab world? Could it have been Hizballah’s defeat of Israel during the latter’s war on Lebanon in 2006? Or the failed war on Iraq that the US cannot escape? Or the Palestinian steadfastness in their decades of struggle to liberate their lands?

Regardless of what sparked the situation that exists today, Arabs are uniting in their resistance to Western interference in the region and its oppressive autocracies. As one Egyptian activist said to me yesterday, “They try to say that we Arabs are all different and we’re disconnected. But look what’s happening now: uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen — even Jordan! We are one, it’s absolutely clear.”

The people in Imbaba, who faced wave after wave of US made weaponry, fought back and refused to give up. After the first few hours protesters grew used to the tear-gas. I know because I was at their side documenting their struggle. I could feel the effects of the stinging gas less and less as time went on. I no longer had to run into alley to breathe fresh air after inhaling the poisonous fumes. The protesters bravely pushed forward until after almost six hours the police retreated.

This wasn’t an isolated protest. It was only one of many happening around the country. Compared to other reports, it was actually one of the smaller ones in Cairo. Now, it’s up to the world and those in solidarity with Egyptians to take a stand and demand that the killing end and the Egyptian people’s grievances be met. The longer we delay, the more Egyptian blood will be spilled. With billions of US support each year, the Mubarak regime has had the resources and the time to develop well-armed and well-trained forces to repress those forced to suffer under his rule.

My taxi driver last night was in tears when he described to me how difficult the last thirty years has been for not only him, but every single Egyptian in every part of this vast country. “We want freedom, that’s it,” he told me. A simple demand, and one that we all have a duty to support.

Matthew Cassel is based in Beirut, Lebanon and is Assistant Editor of The Electronic Intifada. His website is justimage.org.

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