So the day before we left, my good friend Jon and I were eating at our favorite koshari place one last time. He went up to the register to pay as I finished up my food. As he was paying, several people saw him from the street and came inside. They began questioning him in Arabic. He looked flustered, but I just laughed, thinking that they were asking for money and he was having trouble navigating a tactful refusal in Arabic. But they were persistent and growing more frantic. I quickly joined him and realized they were not asking for money, but interrogating him on his business in Egypt. It became clear that they had taken interest in us because we were American, and they were upset, but our Arabic wasn’t good enough to figure out much more than that. As they grew more excited, we decided we needed to get away.
As soon as we moved outside, people from the growing crowd grabbed us and would not let us move. They demanded identification.
Luckily I had my passport in my pocket, so I showed them and shoved it back in my pocket before they could wrench it from my hands. Jon had left his passport in his apartment.
He tried to explain in English and Arabic that he had a student ID only, and the passport was in his apartment. The crowd was unsatisfied, and some of the men began shoving Jon and trying to take things from his pockets.
A man was holding my wrists and refusing to let me help Jon. I scanned the crowd looking for help. People were running from up and down the street to see what was going on, most paused just beyond our aggressors, trying to determine how much of a threat we were.
I made eye contact with a tall Cairene who looked sympathetic. I started yelling to him that we were students, we did not know any of these people, and we didn’t know what was going on. He joined with two other Cairenes to help us break away from the men holding us.
“Run!” he yelled. We tore away from the crowd and dodged cars until we made it across the street. We ran another block with the mob following us, and then made our way to the nearest metro station.
The people who assaulted us were likely conservative Egyptians from villages outside of Cairo. Many of the less educated Egyptians from rural areas were gathering in the city that day for a huge rally the next day. That week there had been several statements from politicians and military leaders blaming foreigners (specifically Americans and Israelis) for inappropriate actions in Tahrir. Basically the government was trying to delegitimize the protests by painting them as a plot by foreigners to undermine Egyptian stability. For these villagers, likely illiterate with no experience or education beyond the dusty confines of their village, they were doing a noble service for their country by detaining us and hindering our “Anti-Egyptian” agenda.
What would it take to motivate you to assault a stranger on the street? I don’t see this as an issue of character. This event underscores the desperation many people are experiencing in Egypt right now. There are few options for constructive action, and things are not improving quickly, if at all…