Saturday, 19 February 2011

Egypt, Arab world on Fire !

Egypt behind the headlines

By Amy Chew sunday@thestar.com.my 

The Star team Amy Chew and Azhar Mahfof were in Egypt recently to witness the people’s uprising against Hosni Mubarak and their victory when the president stepped down after 30 years.



Are you game for Egypt?” said a text message from my group chief editor Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai.
I stared at the text, not believing my eyes for a moment, before replying “yes!”

I immediately set out to make contacts in Egypt. I called and e-mailed Cairo for days on end, to no avail.
Ex-President Hosni Mubarak’s regime had shut down the country’s mobile phone and Internet services on Jan 27 for five days in an attempt to stop the protests from spreading.

After I arrived in Cairo on Feb 5, I learned that Vodafone, one of the country’s largest telecommunications companies, was forced to shut down at gunpoint.

This interesting bit of news came from a Vodafone employee protesting at Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the movement to oust Mubarak.

Clear message: An anti-government protester holding a placard that reads: ‘Leave, if you don’t understand, we can write in Chinese for you’ during a demonstration in Tahrir Square. — AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star  

“This is something the public relations at my company will deny. I was at work that time,” says the employee who declined to be named.

“On Jan 27, the government sent people to Vodafone. They went to the control room, took out their guns, pointed them at the staff and told them to kill switch,” said the employee.

I was fascinated. As he was speaking, more people joined in. Each time I interviewed a person, people would join in.

Everyone was eager to voice their opinions or recount a bad experience with Mubarak’s regime. I found myself constantly surrounded by a small crowd at Tahrir Square.

Earlier, I had interviewed a doctor who had a haunted look on his face. He had approached me, saying he was a doctor at a government hospital closest to Tahrir Square.

“I was on duty the night violence erupted (Feb 2),” he said, declining to give his name. On that fateful night, pro-Mubarak supporters had clashed with anti-Mubarak protesters. Hundreds of people were shot and beaten to death.

“I saw many victims. They were brought to my hospital,” he continued.

“They had been shot in the head, the neck, the chest. I saw people shot between their eyes; there were more than a hundred of them,” he said softly and then paused, blinking away tears.

I lowered my head. “I felt very sad. They (victims) were all young, below 30 years old. They felt like my brothers and sisters,” said the doctor.

Human rights groups estimated more than 300 people died in the violence. “Are you worried for your safety as you personally witnessed the brutalities?” I asked.

“No. I am not scared and I want change. That’s why I am here,” said the doctor. After recounting his experience, he slowly walked away, silent, dignified and determined.

Courage and kindness 

On Feb 10, Egypt was abuzz with rumours that Mubarak would announce his resignation on national TV. The whole country waited with bated breath.

When he finally appeared, Mubarak announced he was not stepping down. The protesters were outraged.
The next day was a Friday. The crowds at Tahrir Square vowed to fight to the end.

“If a bloodbath is what he wants, that is what he will get. We are ready to die,” said Mohamed Faisal, a member of the anti-Mubarak youth movement.

Rumours flew in every corner of the city that Mubarak’s regime would attack the protesters. “We heard all kinds of things, that bad things would happen to us,” said the protesters.

“Are you scared?” I asked them. “No,” they said. I wrote down their words. “Don’t worry. Nothing will happen to you. We will not let anyone harm you,” a 20-year-old student by the name of Helmy said to me. I was touched.

Helmy is a tall, sweet-looking boy. He travelled from Dakaliq in the north of Egypt to Cairo to demonstrate.
“My father is old, so he sent me here to protest on behalf of our family, to fight for change,” said Helmy.

We had two translators, Amr Gamal and Mohamed Saeed, who took good care of me and my colleague Azhar. Amr is a professional bodyguard who works in Dubai. He was back in Cairo on home leave when he was roped in to help us out.

Friday dawned. Amr, who has good government contacts, was assigned to assist me. “Today is going to be very dangerous. There is talk of shooting at Tahrir after 2pm,” he told me.

We headed off to the square. The crowds were massive. We had to squeeze our way through a sea of humanity.

Female travellers to Egypt often complain of harassment by local men, of being groped and pinched. There was none of that during the revolution.

The anti-Mubarak movement had brought out the best in people. The men were polite and chivalrous. They gave way to women at every turn.

On arriving at the square, I chanced upon a group of protesters who spoke English and interviewed them.
At 2pm, Amr who had left earlier, reappeared. “Do I have to go?” I asked.

“Up to you. There may be shooting. But if you want stay, that’s fine with me. Nothing will happen to you. I will protect you, don’t worry,” he said.

I felt it wasn’t fair for Amr to risk his life and limbs for me. So we left. In the evening, Mubarak resigned. Cairo erupted with joy.

I called Amr who immediately returned with a friend, also a security personnel. Our other translator, Mohamed, could not make it. 

Amr’s friend, who declined to be named, translated and guarded me. Amr went with Azhar. We finished our work and returned to the hotel past 11pm.

Journalist attacked

This week, CBS News disclosed that its correspondent Lara Logan was sexually assaulted and beaten by a mob of 200 while covering Mubarak’s resignation and the crowd’s reaction at Tahrir Square, the very same time I was there. I did not witness the attack.

From my experience in covering huge rallies, untoward incidents can happen at any given time. I could be at the same venue as another person, but encounter a very different experience. There is no doubt in my mind Amr and his friend’s presence and dedication kept us safe that night.

Many journalists were attacked while covering the revolution in Egypt. We were very lucky.

Egyptian demonstrators

Egyptians must be the best-looking demonstrators in the world and their courage was inspiring.

As I boarded the plane to return home on Feb 13, I felt very blessed for the chance to witness a major chapter of Egyptian history.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, Arab can write Chinese!

    Clear message: An anti-government protester holding a placard that reads: ‘Leave, if you don’t understand, we can write in Chinese for you’ during a demonstration in Tahrir Square. —

    You?

    ReplyDelete