The Protests in Egypt and the Impact on Expats Living in Cairo
Note to governments worldwide: if you want to freak out every expat living within your borders, turn off all mobile phone networks and cut off all Internet access. Hey, it worked in Egypt and it could for you too.
I never knew how much I relied on these two relatively insignificant things to keep me *plugged in* to the rest of the world.
Friday morning we woke up to a very normal feeling day. Everyone knew that protests were being scheduled after Friday prayers (which ends around 1:00PM Cairo time). Usually we’re up earlier and off to the international church around 9:30AM but I forgot to set my alarm so we got up a bit later and went out for breakfast.
Cairo is always a quiet city early on a Friday morning and this Friday was no different. The streets are mostly empty (as in fewer cars that don’t have to stop because of traffic, we’re still talking about a mega-city of approximately 20 million people here).
First thing on Friday I noticed that the service for my mobile phone was down. It surprised me, and I thought at first there was a problem with my phone.
So I called for my husband. His phone’s service was down too.
Then we pulled out another mobile phone (I think we have them coming out of our ears in our house) with a line for another mobile company to see if it was working.
It was not.
I tend to think worst-case scenarios here. I don’t know if it’s the result of being married to an insurance guy for over 5 years or just my own life experience so far of how often Murphy’s law comes into play when you live in a foreign country.
The questions started running around in my mind. What happened if I got separated from my husband? What happened if his mother (who lives across town) needed something? What about hospitals, what if there was an emergency and we needed to go to the hospital, how could we reach them?
Let me just interrupt to say that landlines stayed working through all of this.
But, seriously, who uses an actual phone these days?! Certainly not in Egypt. Even the poorest of the poor somehow manage to have mobile phones in Egypt.
In our house I don’t even bother to plug in our landline phone anymore because (and I do not exaggerate here) we got more wrong number calls to the house than we did legitimate calls looking for us. I think the only people who know our landline number are the delivery guys from Papa John’s, McDonald’s and Peking.
So like I said we went out for breakfast but we were on our way home long before prayer time was over.
We all knew something was coming. We just didn’t know how far and how long it would last. Protests (of any kind) plus the Egyptian police never equals a very safe environment for everyone. And with the Muslim Brotherhood announcing on Thursday that after officially sitting out of Tuesday’s Jan. 25 scheduled protests that they would be joining in on Friday, we knew that was NOT a good thing.
So protests plus the Egyptian police PLUS the Muslim brotherhood had the potential to be a very volatile situation.
And after protests in downtown Cairo on Tuesday had gotten out of hand and had spread to other neighborhoods on Wednesday, we had no way of knowing how close the situation would get to us.
Even as far out as we live by the Cairo airport. It’s not that we live that far from downtown Cairo. In fact, on a good traffic day you can reach downtown within 20 minutes or less. But there’s still a whole lot of Cairo between downtown and us.
Somehow during the course of the morning we had realized that all internet service had been cut as well. Now block Facebook… block Twitter… I can live without them… at least for a little while. We can go retro here and go back to email (I’m kidding).
But cut off my access to the outside world… that’s a WHOLE different situation.
As I write this from our hotel room in Cyprus tonight internet access in Egypt is still down. There have been various rumors that it’s been up and running. And it seems that some places like embassies (or at least the U.S. embassy) and hotels have had intermittent over the past few days.
I won’t comment on the privileged few.
I’m talking about the humble masses out there without internet access here.
People like me. People who have iPhones and Blackberries that are never beyond arm’s reach. Bloggers. Facebook and Twitter junkies. People who live and breathe having access to the world at their fingertips. People who actually enjoy the information overload of the Internet.
I wear this badge proudly.
Because I could’ve cared less at this point what was going on downtown. All I was thinking is when this began to hit the news (which got turned on in our house the minute we stepped in the door after getting home from breakfast Friday morning and didn’t get turned off for about 48 hours), what is my family going to think? How was I going to get word to them that we’re okay? Would my mother have another mild heart attack wondering and worrying where we are and how we’re doing?
While the world was busy watching the events going on in downtown Cairo, the truth is that most of us here were just sitting at home waiting.
We were more worried about the basics. Did we have enough food? Were we safe? Were our families safe? Were our neighborhoods safe?
Because after the Egyptian police were pulled off the streets last Friday, homes and businesses were put in danger. Poor people from across Cairo as well as criminals taking advantage of the situation ransacked malls and businesses, carrying off anything and everything that wasn’t nailed to the floor.
It’s a pretty scary situation sitting at home knowing that you are helpless to control the situation.
I have never been scared in Egypt before. Never felt nervous about being in the streets. Never thought anything would or could happen to us or our home here.
Not that we were ever in any real danger. The part of Cairo where we live isn’t exactly in the thick of things downtown. But the unknown can still be a scary thing.
Nobody knew what could happen. Nobody knew how much could happen. And nobody knew when it would end.
But when news hit our neighborhood of looters at the edge of our part of town and my husband went down with all the other men of the building to stand guard in the street with a shovel in his hand, I must say I was worried.
Just a little bit.
It was interesting to see how something like this could bring together a community. We’ve lived in our building for five years now and although we know our neighbors, this was the first time we’d really interacted with them.
And it wasn’t just the people in our building.
It was the first time I’d spoken to our neighbors on their balcony in the building beside us. I’d seen them out on their balcony numerous times and was shy to speak to them. I respected their space, and they respected ours.
But this gave us something to talk about. Because who else were you going to talk to?
At this point even our mobile phones were still off. The only way we were getting our news was through the international news we were getting via satellite… and the rumors that drifted through the streets from building to building.
I think we’ll see in weeks, months, and even years to come how these days of coming together to defend our streets and homes will create a long-lasting bond in our neighborhood. I’m sure this will be true across Cairo and perhaps across the country of Egypt.
Because just like in any other country around the world, when ordinary people step up to do their duty to protect their homes and families, you see a strength of character and spirit of camaraderie unlike any other.
It made me feel safer knowing that the men who lived in our neighborhood were stepping up to keep it safe. We came home from the airport only to get stopped by 10 separate neighborhood checkpoints.
It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, Christian or Muslim.
This was about something bigger. These are our homes. These are our families.
If the government chose to turn a blind eye to the damage and destruction being caused by looters across the city, the men in our communities were stepping up to to fill the void.
I have never been prouder of my adopted country.
For more information on expat life in Egypt visit the author’s blog Egypt Ramblings