Saturday, 24 September 2011

Reflections on my first stampede

An unsettling thing happened last night.

I'd gone for a Friday night shisha with Ben and some friends of his in the stock market area of the city (Boursa), in or near Downtown (not very far from Tahrir Square). We were sitting out on the street, beside the road which was lucky, but on the outskirts of the cafe. The place was packed and lively, groups of people enjoying shisha and tea or coffee.

It was still early - maybe 10pm - when there came a ripple of shouting and motion. Cries tore through the buzz of conversation and people scattered in what seemed like a perfect slow-motion domino effect.

The reality of course was not poetic at all. Everyone responded as you would in such a situation - with panic. Tables were overturned, glasses and shisha pipes smashed, phones and bags abandoned as people scrambled to get out of harm's way. Ben had grabbed me and pulled me behind a parked car before I even fully realised what was going on. We snatched our things, located the other members of our group, and walked away.

In fact the incident passed very quickly. After the initial wave of fear, which must have uprooted and dispersed 200 people sitting outside the cafe, it wasn't clear what was going on. We'd walked down a side street by the time we heard gunfire. To be honest though, that's not such an unusual sound in Cairo. Just the other day I was playing tawla in the well heeled area of Zamalek when we heard gunshots. "It will be a wedding" my friend Dawood said casually. "Remember in Egypt we like to celebrate with a bang". Cue accompanying cheeky wink.

There are different theories as to what happened, and why. Ben, a journalist, later went back and spoke to some people who said that a fight had broken out in the area and that the police had been called to break it up. A report from a well-regarded Egyptian newspaper claims that the cafe was attacked by people with knives and that the police were sent to rescue cafe-goers. This could be true, but it's interesting that just two days previously there had been clashes in exactly this area because the police and military had raided cafes trying to clamp down on outdoor seating (theoretically illegal, in practice widely accepted, as the cafes' main source of revenue comes from large numbers of customers being able to sit outside, especially at weekends).

Here's the link to the Al Masry Al Youm article:

What I find interesting but frightening is how quick people are to panic. It surprised me that I didn't panic more than I did, especially watching the reactions of all the other girls in the group. The whole incident showed how something small can provoke a huge and disproportionate reaction in a group of people on edge. Understandably, because the whole of Egypt is on edge at the moment. No one knows what will happen when the elections take place. Everyone is a little scared; many fear the worst, even as they hope for something better.

What can we do but watch, wait and try to reduce the scaremongering? Especially the non-Egyptians, who would have to leave if anything went badly wrong.

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