February 6, 2011

Alan Chin in Cairo: Power In Flux

Anti-government protesters climbed onto an advertising billboard that has been appropriated for banners, Tahrir Square.

I arrived in Cairo very late last night, and all of my cameras were impounded at customs. This has been happening with disturbing regularity to many journalists who have come to Egypt in recent days, even as the situation on the street in Tahrir Square was relatively calm compared to the bloody clashes and violence of the days before. So the most important photographs for me these last twenty-four hours have been the ones I couldn’t take:

How the customs officers sealed my bag with the cameras inside with string and a wax seal that they melted by lighting pieces of paper on fire. How I took a taxi to an airport hotel at 3 am, but first two sleeping policeman had to rustled out of the back seat. How various airport, police, and customs personnel gave me the runaround all day today, despite some much-appreciated help I received from the American Embassy. Tomorrow the bureaucratic struggle begins anew.

In the meantime I bought an $85 point-and-shoot digital camera, and did my best with it. At least it is very low-profile at a moment when the military has been taking cameras and memory cards at checkpoints too.

A family at one of the Egyptian Army checkpoints leading into Tahrir Square.

Yet it was a day when parents were comfortable enough to bring their children with them to the Square. Sometimes the mood was relaxed; I saw people playing musical instruments and singing, radiant with hope. At other times the tension remained palpable; the constant drone of helicopters overhead, a volley of firecrackers or gunshots at dusk, the mother of one of those who has been killed mourning her son angrily, and:

Enraged anti-government protesters detain and haul away a suspected pro-Mubarek supporter.

There was shouting, pushing, shoving, grabbing, and then they were out of sight. It’s impossible to know the cause, justification, or outcome of these incidents, each one seemingly minor, but potentially explosive. Centers of power are in flux; it’s absolutely unpredictable how authority is wielded, and who has it at any particular moment or place. One thing is certain: the Egyptian government continues to make it very hard for journalists to work.

–Alan Chin


To see entire BagNews series from Cairo: Middle East Uprising 2011

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