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Flying into the Egyptian revolution

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Waiting for my flight to Munich in Toronto, a voluble American my age struck up a conversation. Ed is an attorney from Atlanta with 7 kids -- 3 from his first marriage, 2 from his second wife's first marriage, and 2 from their marriage. "A typical American family these days," he said, meaning the mixed marriage rather than the number of kids. He launched unbidden into a scathing critique of the US, saying it was basically a basket case, becoming a totalitarian monster, and that he was looking for a place to move to with his family.

When I told him I was going to Cairo, he asked if Egypt was a good prospect. Considering it was in the midst of a revolution, I suggested he consider Cyprus as a better option. He was seriously considering Costa Rica. "I'm going to Poland to visit my son who got a computer design job. Couldn't get one in the US. Then on to Lithuania -- I was an adviser to the government there just before independence in 1990 to help them set up a stock exchange. Then on to St Petersburg to visit the Hermitage."

Ed is a member of a frequent flyers club and is always online with his ipod, snapping up incredibly cheap flights ($9 from Atlanta to Orlando) which must be last second sell-offs, as they literally last only seconds before disappearing into the internet void. He visited Cuba via Cancun last year and loves their health system. "You go into a hospital and someone comes and greets you and asks you warmly what ails you," he sighed, contrasting that with the reception at US hospitals which first ask "Are you insured?"

I asked Ed what he knew of Egypt's current turmoil. "There are mass demos calling for Mubarak's resignation," he said confidently. "And can you tell me," he added, "is it true that Mubarak had Sadat bumped off in '81?"

I was afraid that the plane would be overfull of Egyptians eager to return to partake in the historical uprising, but the EgyptAir plane was half empty -- the usual mix of tourists and Egyptians, watching "Inception" with Leonardo Dicaprio subtitled in Arabic (a confusing action movie). I slipped easily through customs in Cairo and climbed to Departures, having figured out that's where you find the precious white taxis with working meters, fated to return empty-handed downtown after delivering their fares. If you go out from Arrivals, you are met with various scams, microbus 'limos' which prevent the white taxis from picking up customers.

The driver Samir was delighted to have an unexpected passenger and I said "Congratulations", to which he said "God be with you" and smiled. He jovially suggested LE100, but I had noticed the meter running and suggested we abide by the law and a healthy tip and he acquiesced.

We proceeded through the post-apocalyptic scene of burning tires and clouds of tear gas, men, women and children desperately flagging us down for rides. This was Friday evening, the fourth day of the protests, when the hated Central Security police unleashed their full fury against the protesters before disappearing altogether -- probably mostly crawling into their holes, possible ordered down. We picked up one fellow going my way. Already it was past curfew -- 6pm to 7am, though he said taxis were exempt.

Back at home in Manial, the mood on the street and among friends was festive. The end of the dictatorship was anticipated eagerly. That night there were outbursts of looting, with the police gone.

The army was deployed Friday evening, and by Saturday, they were exhorting people to form their neighborhood committees. Right from the start, the people embraced the soldiers, kissed them, showered them with cigarettes and food, jumped up to have their pictures taken on their tanks, sprayed with "irhal ya mubarak" and "yasqut diktator".

People in each neighborhood formed their own vigilante committees of men and boys armed with sticks and knives. Some looters were caught and turned out to be plain clothes security forces, carrying their guns. This fact quickly spread and convinced any waverers of the venality of the Mubarak regime. Athlete and architect student Ahmed in the apartment just below me related excitedly yesterday how he and 10 others cornered a thief the previous night, who tried to run away. Little did the thief know that Ahmed is a track-and-field star, now carrying a club. Ahmed whacked him on the head and he and one accomplice were handed over to the army with their loot and car.

By Monday, the army spokesman announced on local TV that the army would not use force against the people, and would only fire on someone if he fired first.

Meanwhile, Mubarak refused to talk with the protesters or ElBaradei, who fully supported the protests and came at night to Tahirir Square to speak to them. Mubarak hurriedly appointed Omar Suleiman the head of intelligence as his first vice president in 30 years and an ex-air force chief Ahmed Shafiq as prime minister, but 'too little, too late'. Already, plans for the million man march were set for Wednesday 31 January and a permanent presence in Tahrir (Liberation) Square until the president resigns.

Western countries are all evacuating their nationals. I just realized the Canadian Embassy probably doesn't have my new mobile number and cannot reach me via internet as there is no internet. However, why anyone in their right mind would want to leave at such an exciting historic moment is beyond me. There is no security problem as long as you keep out of the line of fire. This is one of those fleeting moments of communism, when people rise above their pettiness. In Tahrir Square today, I was treated to a fresh sweet bun and later to a delicious orange. People were/ are reaching out, full of life, focused on a sense of justice and willing to sacrifice themselves to achieve it.

For them, for me, it's as if a new world is being born. Such moments are to be cherished once the humdrum everyday cares flood back in. Everyone you meet, you connect with in a new way, having shared this precious experience.


Eric Walberg

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Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s.

He has lived in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and then Uzbekistan, as a UN adviser, writer, translator and lecturer. Presently a writer for the foremost Cairo newspaper, Al Ahram, he is also a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Global Research, Al-Jazeerah and Turkish Weekly, and is a commentator on Voice of the Cape radio.

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