An Air of Dangerous Freedom in Egypt

Emad Mekay

HAVANA TIMES, Feb 6 (IPS) — Imam Mohammed Al-Saba of the Eisa mosque here in the centre of the rural town Kirdasa takes the pulpit to tell his congregation he can smell “the air of freedom for the first time in 30 years.”

“A week ago, I couldn’t have said what I said today,” he says to the hundreds of town residents gathered at the mosque, 23 kilometers south of Tahrir Square where tens of thousands have been calling for the immediate departure of President Hosni Mubarak.

“Last week and for many years I had to report what I was going to say in the mosque to the secret police beforehand. Today I didn’t have to thanks to the young people of Egypt who expressed themselves.”

The imam reminds worshipers how mosques have been kept under control, with everyone who visits brought under surveillance. “Injustice ends eventually and oppressors are not the owners of the universe. God is.”

Across the street from the central mosque stands the building of the city’s police station – charred and burned down.

Next to the police station is the building of the Amn el-Dawla, the secret police offices. This too was set on fire during two days of protests last week.

Kids are now playing outside the iron doors.

“Those kids would have probably been beaten, insulted or even had their parents arrested for daring to play next to the doors of Amn el-Dalwa,” says a man who identifies himself only as Abdelfatah. He owns a store a few blocks from the office.

This sense of security is the first achievement of the uprising that started Jan. 25 to try to remove Mubarak as president of this nation of 85 million.

Now, the city functions without the police. And, it feels a much safer place.

“We do not have the same police abuses as before. They used to beat people and use force against all who opposed them,” says Moustapha Radwan, a shop owner selling handmade scarves.

Five people died and hundreds were injured in protests in this town. After last Friday prayers, hundreds lined the street for a religious service in homage to the “martyrs”.

A few meters from the mosque in the city centre, minibus drivers express happiness at the disappearance of the police force.

“Officers forced us to take them wherever they wanted for free,” says one driver who refuses to give his name. “They would force passengers out so that they could have the car all for themselves. It used to happen even when we haven’t made any money. If we objected, they’d grab us by the collar and drag us into the police station where they would threaten to frame us in some criminal case. Thank God it isn’t happening anymore.”

People in this town say they were inspired by mass protests on Tuesday, Jan. 25 in Tahrir Square.

“We looked at them protesting against the regime and I felt they were representing us…We acted because of their revolt, because of high prices, unemployment, police abuse and the rigged (November) parliament elections,” Radwan says.

Abdelfatah clutches his throat, opens his mouth and sticks his tongue out as if he was choking. “We were suffocating,” he says.

The new relief comes with new dangers. On way to Kirdasa, this reporter was stopped by pro-Mubarak vigilantes searching cars for food. This reporter was detained for an hour. A uniformed police officer was called. He made several phone calls before ordering release.

The mob swore at anti-Mubarak protestors, with some saying “America betrayed us” and “Nobody is better than Mubarak”.

The nervousness and cruelty of Mubarak’s hired muscle has become a trademark over the past several days as they lose ground to a growing pro- democracy movement. Their tactics of intimidation have alienated more and more people from Mubarak.

They are asking the public to choose between security and stability under Mubarak, and chaos, insecurity and food shortages without him.

The people of Kirdasa are indeed suffering. At night they patrol the streets to prevent prisoners, reportedly released by the police force itself, from attacking their homes. Many haven’t sold a single item to a tourist for almost two weeks now. Yet many say this is a low price to pay for freedom.

“For 13 days we didn’t have a single tourist to come to buy from us. This is not easy on our business or on our kids,” Abdelfattah says. “But we do not want to set back the clock just for money. With patience and time, Mubarak will go and calm will be restored. Tourism will be ten times better when we elect whoever we want and when we are free.”