Foreigners living in Cairo face rapidly changing environment

Foreigners living in Cairo face rapidly changing environment

February 6th, 2011 in News

EDITOR'S NOTE: Sarah Grebowski, a 2005 graduate of Girls Preparatory School, is living in Cairo, Egypt. She has observed the citizen protests since they began. She is contributing occasional dispatches about the events there.

The pace at which events in Egypt are changing has not ceased to amaze me.

Each day since the protests started, I insisted to friends and family back home that anti-Americanism was not a part of the equation in this mass uprising.

The Egyptian people were fiercely focused on their struggle with President Hosni Mubarak; they paid no mind to Americans, Western governments, famed opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei, or any other peripheral actors that would distract them from the true focus of their activism.

This sense of security that foreigners attending the protests in Cairo had enjoyed was shattered Wednesday and Thursday.

As Mubarak's security forces redeployed throughout the city in the form of armed mobs, journalists of all types from both the Western and Arab media were harassed, detained and beaten.

According to news reports, at least 20 journalists were captured within 24 hours. Passports and camera equipment were confiscated. An ABC News crew was carjacked and threatened. Even Anderson Cooper was beaten up.

Government propaganda broadcast over state-run television channels had instructed Egyptians that it was foreign elements -- journalists, spies posing as journalists and straight-up spies -- who were sowing seeds of unrest in their country.

I was accused of being the latter. On Thursday, I attempted to at least get close to the action in and around Tahrir Square.

As soon as I crossed the bridge onto the side of the Nile River where downtown Cairo rests, I was immediately pulled aside by young men carrying sticks and other ragtag weapons. These men seized my passport and delivered me to a larger and more aggressive group that surrounded me.

"Are you a journalist?" they demanded.

I explained to them that no, I was simply a foreigner who wanted to observe the protests.

"Are you a spy?" they spat.

To me, the accusation was laughable. But they were not playing games.

I asked them why it was so unreasonable that I would want to go past the army tanks into downtown to watch what was taking place. After all, they were letting fellow Egyptians through the makeshift checkpoint.

"This is between Egyptians now," they shouted, and gave me a stern warning: Go home immediately and don't come back.

My experience took place early in the day when tensions hadn't yet peaked. But on Wednesday and Thursday, foreigners had experiences harrowing enough to make even the bravest among them catch an early flight out of Cairo on Friday. Correspondents who have covered all types of civil unrest and political turmoil were spooked.

In addition to the mob mentality that overtook parts of downtown Cairo, state propaganda implicating foreigners in the country's state of turmoil also proved effective in many residential neighborhoods.

But to my disbelief, Egypt did another about-face Friday -- this time from hostility back to hospitality.

A fellow journalist and I cautiously approached downtown Friday morning after noticing that pro-Mubarak mobs had disappeared. There were far fewer consequences to carrying a Western passport than in previous days.

Eventually, we successfully crossed Qasr al-Nil bridge, where a military and civilian-run checkpoint was allowing people in Tahrir Square (although under tight security).

My first surprising observation was that foreigners and journalists were given priority in the long line waiting to enter Tahrir Square.

We were allowed to enter safely and quickly. Egyptian men stepped aside for me to pass and the Egyptian women who checked my ID and patted me down for weapons (a routine procedure at civilian checkpoints) smiled at me and welcomed me. One woman even looked me in the eye and said, "Thank you for coming today." I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming.

Egyptians in the square were similarly appreciative that the terror of the last two days hadn't driven away all foreigners and journalists.

These pro-democracy demonstrators were never among those that were causing harm; most foreigners were targeted by pro-Mubarak forces in side streets leading to and away from downtown.

However, I received more welcoming smiles, gestures of respect, and playful "where are you from's" than any other day.

Perhaps the most memorable moment of the day occurred in the middle of the bustling Tahrir crowd. Seeing me approach, an Egyptian man who was a devout Muslim, judging by his conservative dress (a brown robe, long beard, and head covering), caught my gaze.

He smiled and bowed his head, simply saying, "Thank you very much."

-- Sarah Grebowski