Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Cairo slums on the edge

I spent a fascinating few hours this afternoon and early evening watching riot police and their opponents clash on the edges of the Cairo slum known as Boulak Aboul Ela, which lies just northwest of Galaa Street. Amazingly, for those not familiar with the topography of Cairo, this densely populated area, with narrow unpaved lanes and extreme poverty, lies only a 10-minute walk from Tahrir Square, the very heart of the modern city and the scene of the major protest on Tuesday. I ended up in the lanes because riot police were firing tear gas canisters and other unidentified projectiles along 26th July Street, apparently in response to a small group of protesters who were throwing rocks at them. The lanes gave some shelter from the gas. The group of protesters, who numbered no more than 200 (there were other groups elsewhere in the city), were clearly outsiders, wealthier and better educated than the local inhabitants. Their main chants were political - "Al-sha3b yuriid isqaat an-nizaam" (The people ... want .. the overthrow ... of the regime - an echo of the similar chant now current in Tunisia). But what struck me most was the evident solidarity of the local people with the protesters and the possibility that at some point the local people too might might come out on the streets. If that happened, the government would be hard-pressed to disperse them by their current methods. The riot police would be overwhelmed and many of the police conscripts (they come largely from among the poorest of the rural poor) would defect or disperse. Without seeing these slum areas at first hand, it's hard to imagine how many tens of thousands of people live there. The population density is comparable to that in Gamalia on the northeast edge of the old city, where there are up to 80,000 people to the square kilometre. The lanes were teeming like an ants' nest and the mood was electric. I asked a random selection of about 15 people where their sympathies lay - with the government (as they called the riot police) or the shabab (youth, as they called the protesters)? With one exception (a man who said he was neutral), everyone said they wanted President Hosni Mubarak to go. This time only handfuls of them did appear to join in, but I judged they were fairly close to the tipping point. The confrontation took a form similar to that we saw on Tuesday. When the protesters advanced, throwing rocks, the riot police withdrew in disarray, to applause and cries of jubilation from many of the onlookers. Police trucks in the rear would then open fire with tear gas and maybe with rubber bullets, driving the protesters back to the shelter of the lanes. Two young men said they had been hit with small projectiles which they said caused intense pain on the skin, one in the hand and one on the neck. I examined both of them, but in the dark it was impossible to identify the cause.
    The baltagiya (government thugs) phenomenon which I mentioned yesterday was evident again today, in greater numbers. For the first time ever I noticed some of them trying on new helmets they had just been issued, and a separate group elsewhere even had riot police shields, though still in plain clothes. The government habitually uses these baltagiya to beat up individually targetted protesters. The logic, I assume, is that if anyone publishes photographs of them in action, then the authorities can dismiss the incident as a brawl between civilians. I cannot say what significance it might have for the government to issue them with helmets and shields. It's most unlikely that the government feels it is short of riot police, who continue to outnumber protesters many times over.
    Television stations report other clashes on Wednesay in Tahrir Square, in Alexandria and in Suez in the canal zone, but I can only be in one place at a time. 

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