So right at that moment, I was a little bit nervous, because there was nothing you could do if you were sort of pinned between two people to avoid being hit with one of the canister. And the panic of people, running in every direction to avoid getting hit, was also a little bit worrying. I had a translator with me who is sixty-two years old, and she’s not in great health, and I was worried for her safety because she couldn’t really move that quickly. I was climbing up and over walls in the midst of people running in every direction, and at one point I had to carry her. There was another point where I felt a little bit in danger, and that’s when some young people in the demonstration started throwing rocks at the police, and the police picked up the rocks and threw them right back—we were kind of in the middle of the crossfire of that. But thankfully, at that point, they hadn’t started to use rubber bullets or anything like that.
In the press I’ve read, a couple different reasons for “unrest” are cited: unemployment, bad economy, government corruption, and a probably fraudulent election. When everything started, were you able to tell how united the protest was? Was it clear that everyone was protesting for the same reasons?
Well, you can tell a lot about, for instance, the class of the people in the protest by how they are dressed, whether they speak English or not, things like that. And this is only the protesters in Tahrir Square—that’s not to say anything about the protesters in Suez or other parts of the country. Within the square, it was still about 50 percent young people, well dressed, many university students or graduates, ranging from twenty to thirty years old. But there were plenty of other types of people there as well whom I spoke to. There were a lot of older men who had probably participated in many protests before and seemed to be more seasoned in dealing with tear gas, etcetera, and also a fair number of working-class people in more traditional dress (that’s kind of a class distinction in Egypt, whether they wear traditional dress or more Western clothes).
But the people I talked to all talked about Tunisia as an inspiring example. Nobody would say that the regime here is very popular, but I think a lot of people here hadn’t thought it was possible to actually do anything about it—until this Tunisian example came along, and suddenly there was a model for them to follow. And they’ve been, in some ways, following it very closely.
The inspiration for the Tunisian and Egyptian protests may have been the same, but do you think the outcome will be the same? It seems to me that the difference between the two situations has been the reaction by the military and police to the protesters. In Tunisia, the government forces refused to fight.
Well it’s still very early here. The Tunisian protest has gone on for a week. I was just discussing that with a political scientist today, asking him, you know, that’s the crucial question: when do the military or security forces or whoever get tired of beating people down, or, most crucially, whether or not they decide to use lethal force. I think it’s so early still. It’s premature to say whether the Egyptian military has come down on either side; the military has actually not been involved yet, it’s just been the state police. We haven’t seen actual soldiers yet on the streets of Cairo.*
But I don’t know, maybe that’s not in the cards. Maybe the government counts more on the loyalty of the police forces than it does on a general military that’s still fully conscripted, and is made up mostly of young Egyptians, many of whom are just as frustrated as the people on the street protesting. But anyway, it’s just too early to draw any conclusions about which way the momentum will go.