Two Cups of Tea

Two Cups of Tea

CAIRO — I met two generals today.

Both were exceedingly polite, welcoming me to Egypt and stressing their concern for my safety. The first, the top Army general at a Defense Ministry office in Mohandiseen, a middle-class neighborhood in Giza, across the Nile River from Tahrir Square, offered me tea and cookies. He told me how he "liked America very much," where he attended training as a special forces officer "many times."

The second, a senior general at the sprawling military police headquarters way across town — not far from the parade ground where Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 — spoke fondly of his training in England. As seemingly staged "man-on-street" interviews played on state television, he insisted we have a friendly chat.

"It’s one thing for people to demand their rights, OK," the first general said. "But not like this."

"The educated young people with Facebook and all that are one thing," the second general chimed in. "But the Muslim Brotherhood is another subject."

I asked them whether they thought the situation would end. "One or two days, maximum," the first general averred. "They will get tired — sleeping in the dirt like that — and go home."

And what about the police? He laughed. "They’re on vacation. Their day off."

"The police are bad," the second general offered. The unspoken implication: but we, in the Army, are professionals.

I wasn’t exactly their invited guest, however. Two hours earlier, I had been heading home to my hotel after a long day of reporting, when I was stopped at one of the hundreds of informal checkpoints that have sprung up across the city as the police have disappeared. The teenagers who stopped me in Mohandiseen were apologetic as they ejected me from my taxi and turned me over to the Army; it was just "normal procedure, yanni." I had foolishly stayed out past the 5 p.m. curfew, and orders were orders.

"What are you doing here?" one lower-level officer asked, after frisking me and confiscating my passport, driver’s license, and camera phone — but thankfully not my notes. "And where are you from?"

I told him I was a journalist who had arrived yesterday from Doha, Qatar, and wanted to see the situation with my own eyes.

"Min ad-Doha, eh?" Eyebrows rose at the mention of the home base of the Al Jazeera network, whose impassioned, daring reporting has put most other outlets here to shame. "Sit here."

As I waited on a shabbily padded bench behind the front desk of the Defense Ministry office in Mohandiseen, where the guard wearily watched BBC Arabic, whose reporting on the incredibly tense situation in Egypt has been widely praised, the officer took my belongings upstairs to his superiors.

I wasn’t sure what would happen, given all the reports of journalists being harassed, brutally beaten, or detained for hours on end. But nearly every officer I met was polite, if firm, in warning me not to stay out past curfew.

Upstairs in Mohandiseen, where I met the first general, a 37-year veteran of Egypt’s armed forces, there were more polite questions. What are you doing here? What’s your opinion of the situation? (I told him I just wished the best for Egypt, and that I had studied Arabic a few years back at the American University in Cairo — whose former campus faces Tahrir Square.) You came here from Doha? What are you doing there?

And then, with the tea finished: time to go. The general told me he would personally escort me back to my hotel, which I had been trying to reach before I was detained. He jumped in the back seat next to me, and we drove across an eerily quiet Cairo, bypassing the fouda — chaos — in Tahrir Square and heading suspiciously toward the airport. I thought I might be getting an early exit from the country, especially because I had been asked for my hotel and room number. Instead, we arrived at the military police headquarters where I met the second general — more questions, more tea, another free ride back to my hotel ("for your safety").

They bid me farewell, and I piled into a silver four-door sedan with three MPs. We drove through deserted streets, passing through checkpoints set up by local legnaat shaabiyya — popular or people’s committees (the MPs didn’t seem to have any better intelligence on the unfolding situation than I did). They briefly stopped at a downtown military police headquarters to consult with local officers about the safest path to the corniche.

As we drove, the young captain sitting next to me grinned as he told me of his training in the United States. "I love Maryland," he said. "I stayed at the Marriott and had seafood every night for two months. Oh, my God."

And then, three hours after my friendly visit with the army began, I was back at the hotel, where tired European journalists sat drinking Stella, the not-so-stellar local beer, and trading stories about the day. Five or six had also been detained for being out after curfew (though I don’t think they enjoyed the experience quite as much as I did).

The Republic of Tahrir

Earlier in the day, around 12:30 p.m., I made it into Tahrir Square just in time for Friday prayers, pushing through the main Qasr el-Nil checkpoint as hundreds of Muslim men knelt on the garbage-strewn street, guided by a megaphone-wielding imam.

Inside the square, a bulging crowd of thousands was milling around. Near a makeshift hospital on the way to the Egyptian Museum, I found Alaa Abd el-Fattah, a well-known computer programmer-cum-activist whose father had just been arrested the day before in a raid on the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, a hub of efforts to document human rights abuses against protesters and provide legal aid to those arrested.

"We don’t know why," Fattah said, before assuring me that the raid didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. "These activists do not lead this crowd. Tahrir is in control."

Nearby, various Islamist leaders, including Montasser al-Zayyat, who famously represented Ayman al-Zawahiri before the latter became al Qaeda’s No. 2 man, held court.

Several hundred yards away, at the southern end of the square, various politicians congregated near the megaphone that serves as the most visible sign of the emerging attempts to channel the crowd’s energy into a political program. Wael Nawara, the secretary-general of the liberal (and illegal) Ghad Party, told me that Egyptians "know how to take care of ourselves" after years of building a parallel state "in every field — education, health care, everything."

"We can get organization within hours of chaos."

Behind him, a giant yellow banner outlined the protesters’ demands, mainly: the resignation of the president, free and fair elections, a new constitution. What about Vice President Omar Suleiman, who claims to be offering dialogue?

"These people," Nawara said, "have stepped on the law and the Constitution. They have pissed on it in fact."

Suleiman’s strategy seems to be to hold talks with the legal opposition — a motley collection of hapless political parties that have virtually no representation or respect among the protesters in Tahrir Square. "It’s more like a monologue than a dialogue," Nawara said.

"It’s irrelevant to the main event," said Hisham Kassem, the dapper former publisher of independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm. "You have the regime trying to put out the message that they are open to dialogue…. It can’t happen. Nobody can assume leadership, and there is nobody to negotiate with. There is only one way to defuse this: for Mubarak to leave."

"If they try to play tricks on us, we’ll come back here," Nawara said. "If they want real dialogue, they know where to find us."