“This is just a movie we show,” a staff member said with a chuckle, “like Hollywood.” Several people had already gathered around the TV, tuned to Al Jazeera, in the lounge of my hostel in Cairo this Sunday when I saw a CBS News headline about riots erupting in the city.
My friend (Scripps ’13) and I have been in Egypt since Wednesday, when we arrived in Luxor after booking a spur of the moment trip only three days earlier. We’ve enjoyed the sights and the culture, including meals of falafel, kofta, and koshari, but today we were in the mood for something else.
So we ventured westward to Zamalek, an area of Cairo just across the Nile, in search of some purportedly delicious pizza. After dinner, at about 7:45 local time, we flagged down a cab. After we returned to the hostel, a harried guest arrived and said she couldn’t get any cab to pick her up; another said her driver had warned “No Tahrir; no Tahrir,” but she didn’t know what he was talking about. My friend and I, however, had no trouble getting a taxi; the driver said it would take about 30 minutes to travel the three kilometers back to our hostel because of the crazy Cairo traffic. By 8:15, however, it was clear something crazier than usual was afoot.
Our cab driver was yelling back and forth to other drivers; and while I don’t speak Arabic, it was clear he was trying to find a way around the traffic jam we were stuck in. We crossed the river on a bridge north of Tahrir Square, where I was perplexed to see people standing and looking down at a street below. After a couple more blocks, we heard sirens and saw emergency vehicles heading south.
“How much would it suck to have a heart attack here?” my friend remarked upon seeing an ambulance stuck behind a bus. I looked up to see a teenager throwing sand off an overpass. Moments later, amid the car horns, we heard a loud noise. Another kid had thrown a rock from the overpass. A man on the sidewalk yelled to our driver, who grew noticeably concerned. All of a sudden, we were backing up and turning around.
Based on earlier observations of Cairo traffic, going the wrong direction in a one way lane didn’t seem that unusual, but when we finally reached our hostel, I was still unnerved enough to see if something bigger was going on. It was. As of now, multiple news outlets are reporting no fewer than 24 casualties and over 150 injuries as a result of violence that erupted during what started as a peaceful protest over a recent attack at a Coptic church. Protests began in the Coptic Cairo area and moved towards the headquarters of a TV station on the East Bank of the Nile, only blocks from where our cab had turned around.
Among the dead are protesters as well as members of the military. According to NBC News’s Richard Engel and others, state media outlets are portraying the Christians as the instigators of the violence, but Egyptians on Twitter seem doubtful. Most of them are blaming the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, who have governed the country since the January revolution. Skeptics online recall the brutal tactics of pro-Mubarak “thugs,” whom the former regime employed to pose as opposition protesters during the revolution in an attempt to tarnish public perception of the real revolutionaries.
Reeling from the economic toll of the revolution, most here in Egypt desperately want to move forward and are frustrated by ongoing threats to stability such as tonight’s riots. Our tour guide in Luxor lamented that tourism has not recovered since the revolution; while we were able to walk right in, one used to have to wait for two hours to visit the most popular tombs at the Valley of the Kings. Whatever the truth is about this evening’s events, they show the tenuous nature of progress that has been made. As the Arab Spring continues through the Fall with challenges to leaders in Yemen and Syria, and Americans share political discontent by taking to the streets in Occupy Wall Street protests, Egypt’s troubles are far from over.