Monday, February 7, 2011

The Interior Ministry

[From January 30th. I think this is the last of what I had written down, aside from some scribblings that never went anywhere. That said, I'm going to keep posting, new stuff that I'm writing as we speak, until I run out of things to say. So, please do keep reading]

It looks like the battle for the Interior Ministry is over, for now, and the ministry held. Protesters were trying to storm it for the last two nights, and the news tells me that a number of them were killed trying. This would be maybe two hundred meters from my apartment.

It's funny how my sense of danger dilated. I have friends in quieter parts of town whose families are terrified for them. "You're in Cairo, right next to the protests!" the discussion went. "Don't worry, mom. I'm in Dokki. All the fighting's practically a mile away". Those same people, though, are in turn worried for me because I live so much closer to the action than them, and I found myself saying even more lamely, "oh, don't worry. All the shooting's a whole two blocks from me. And my apartment faces the opposite direction. And I'm on the seventh floor. I'm fine."

Getting to the building is the only hard part. There are roadblocks everywhere, some run by neighborhood watch, and, once you get onto my street, others by the military. Last night I stayed out too late, and there was no going home. There was active fighting on the block, and they weren't letting anyone near it. I had to go to a friend in a different part of the neighborhood, though he was having his own problems: he lives on the second floor, and before I showed up he had been yelling at a policeman who was beating an unarmed protester right in front of the building. "You are an Egyptian! Why are you doing this?" The cop responded by throwing a rock up onto his balcony, which whacked my friend on the head. He had to go to the hospital, which he said was a disaster area. By the time I got there, my friend was bandaged, sleep-deprived, and already lighting up his hash pipe to try to calm down. He's a glass-blower, by the way. He makes beautiful hash pipes.

After that, I spent an intensely boring evening watching Jazeera and waiting to hear if the fighting had stopped, so I knew when I could go home.

Nobody covered the battle for the Ministry, to my knowledge. Reporters couldn't go near it, nor could I, not if I valued my safety. What I know is that protesters tried to storm it, and tried to convince the army tanks to join the attack. The tanks followed the protesters to the ministry, but didn't participate. They just watched.

The Interior Ministry is one of the most hated parts of the government, home to the universally-loathed police forces. There was some rumor that the cops had all fled, or that their command structure had broken down and it was chaos inside the ministry, but I never knew what to make of it. Whatever the case, that building is a fortress. Even under normal circumstances it's hard to walk near the ministry because of all of its defenses. In a siege, the protesters never had a chance.

I never saw it directly. As I said, my apartment faces the other way. What I saw were the boys attacking from the east with Fanta bottles and eventually molotovs, not the main assault coming from the north, from Bab al-Louq, a square that in quieter times is known among expats primarily as the home of an excellent juice stand and a scummy bar called Horeyya [freedom]. They made it as far as my building, but never farther. They were repelled easily. People in the buildings were not supporting the assault. They seemed angry about the property damage, and blamed the protesters. Little old ladies on upper floors were calling out information and advice to the ministry's defenders. "They're in the alley! They're hiding behind the car!", that sort of thing.

But, it looks like it's pretty much over now. I don't hear stories about them trying again soon; too many casualties, and in any case it loses them the moral high ground of being peaceful protesters. The main action is back at Tahrir, and with the makeshift neighborhood watches that popped up everywhere to prevent looting. This means a quieter night for me, no more gunshots, and no more clouds of teargas wafting past my balcony, no more wondering if anyone is dying on my street right now. But I still wish they'd sacked that evil place.

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