For the last ten days we've been riveted to our television and computer screens, watching the unfolding revolution in Egypt. This one is personal: my niece lives in Cairo, as I wrote last year after our visit to Cairo and Alexandria.
She's out now, on her way to the US after spending three days here in London, along with several friends who also judged the situation to be deteriorating, even in the safe ex-pat enclaves where they lived.
But for other foreigners still there, and of course for the Egyptians themselves, the situation is not so good. The local Egyptians are doing a magnificent job patrolling their neighborhoods, providing homemade security. Roadblocks, sometimes constructed of abandoned cars, recycled Christmas trees, and other sturdy materials, protect the streets from looters. A prison outbreak in Maadi was contained by the local makeshift militia as well as army tanks that quickly arrived on the scene. Some of my niece's friends took this video showing the fortifications, as well as the local "vigilantes" on patrol.
In Cairo, the protests are mostly in Tahrir Square, next to the famous Egyptian Museum, final resting place of King Tut's treasures. That's where the cameras are focused, and for the most part, the protests have been peaceful—thanks to the efforts of anti-Mubarak protesters to keep them that way, despite provocations.
The so-called "pro-Mubarak" protesters are another story. They operate as agents provocateur, paid to cause mayhem and in many cases, carnage. Videos of cars smashing through protesters are popping up on the internet. On Wednesday they rode camels and horses through the square, whipping at protesters who got in their way. Many were caught with weapons and police ID—the state police are well known to be loyal to President Mubarak, who pays them well, perhaps from the $70 billion fortune he's amassed while many Egyptians live in desperate poverty. (In comparison, teachers in state schools make around $150 per month.)
Journalists have poured into the country, as near empty airplanes continue to arrive at Cairo's airport, loaded with evacuees on the way out. And as more and more journalists arrive to tell the story, the regime has resorted to its usual tactic of intimidation and repression to prevent the truth from appearing on Western television screens.
In times past, this would have worked just fine. With no internet, Facebook, or Twitter, no way to spread the word quickly, the scenes that brave reporters are managing to film—sometimes with hidden mobile cameras—would have quickly been forgotten. The world would have turned its gaze away—to a football game, perhaps—while regime change petered out and died.
This time, though, is different. At least I hope it's different. When Anderson Cooper, a veteran of many a disaster, gets hit on the head, when cheerful Katie Couric is surrounded by an angry mob, when Brits, Swedes, Danes, and other western journalists are subjected to horrific scenes of interrogation and torture, we should pay special attention. Because what they don't want us to see is much, much worse than what we're able to see on our Facebook walls and Twitter feeds.
There's not much, frankly, that we can do to support the protesters who fight for their rights in Egypt. But we can watch, and share, and not avert our gaze from what the regime does not want us to see.
Witness the revolution. They're risking their lives to allow us to.