Waves of panic and shock are passing through Cairo tonight along with gusts of smoke and teargas.
I was at a friend’s shop near Tahrir Square at 7 tonight when facebook began lighting up with news of the clashes at Maspero, the radio and television building a few blocks to the north. “The Christians are setting fire to cars,” my friend said.
He said a new chapter in the revolution had been opened. We walked toward Tahrir and heard what sounded like firecrackers. “That is live fire,” he said with anguish. “Believe me, we lived through this for days.”
He turned back but I wanted to see. Tahrir Square was filled with panicked people. The crowds moved first one way and then another. I heard more shots ringing out, it was not clear from where, and decided to get out of there. I walked northeast to meet friends at a restaurant.
In shops and businesses, people stood around watching the live feed from Maspero with worried faces. No one is happy in Cairo tonight. I went into a barber shop to watch, and the proprietor welcomed me, the Cairo friendliness unabated. He seemed embarrassed. “Christians and Muslims are together in our country, this is very unusual,” he said.
By 8:30, when my friends and I had finished eating, downtown was a panicky mess. Smoke wafted through the streets, and mobs of people ran one way and another without any purpose but an aura of hysteria. The door of my hotel was barred, and a dozen internationals had gathered in the television room. The management was urging everyone to stay inside. The wild rumors had begun. The highway to Alexandria was shut. And then it was open.
I left the hotel a few minutes later to make a pressing Skype call, and the streets were suddenly empty. People stood on balconies watching. Stores were shuttered. The redheaded clerk at the internet salon who always wears a tie wore a lugubrious expression. He said he was afraid for Cairo.
Cairo is on edge tonight. The English television channel is blaming the disturbances on outsiders. “It’s very obvious that there is a plot, a consiracy against Egypt,” Yehia Ghanim of Al Ahram newspaper said in an interview on Nile television. “”Some other party, a third party, is planning for a disaster in Egypt.”
Nile TV is utterly supportive of the army. It claims that 19 soldiers have been killed. While Al Jazeera and Reuters say that 19 civilians have been killed.
The Egyptians I know believe Facebook and social media more than any mainstream outlet. In the midst of the panic tonight, an English friend at my hotel says she saw a crowd swarming a man in Tahrir who had caught some of the action at Maspero on his mobile phone. She couldn’t get close enough to see, and then men urged her to leave the Square, in a hurry. Syria and Libya are out of control; and Egyptians are afraid of what the next chapter of their revolution holds.