“This is becoming ridiculous, please get out of the car, I am calling it a day, it’s impossible to work this way, you are on your own now” said the taxi driver, followed by profuse insults. The insults were not levied towards us, they were against al-lijaan ash-Sha’abiyya (people’s committees), the civilians who had taken it upon themselves to patrol the streets post the 28th of January when the police had fled and abandoned all their stations, posts and with it their duty “to keep the streets and people safe”.
A security vacuum had ensued, with the army stepping in but only to protect important sites and capital, in the hope that the scattered tanks here and there would impose enough fear and signs of authority that would prevent all hell from breaking loose. All hell did not break loose, yes we heard stories of break-ins and thefts, but on the whole life carried on much as before with the exception of the curfew, an intensified form of panic that some people experienced fuelled by rumors and propaganda, and al-lijaan ash-Sha’abiyya. In each area, each street, each alley, the men had decided that they would provide the security needed at night, self-proclaimed vigilantes in a way, who would stop and search cars, ask where people were going and even chase those whom they thought looked suspicious and were up to “no good”. They would have with them items for “self-defence” ranging from wooden planks, to tennis racquets, to kitchen knives, to more menacing items like saws, swords and guns. You would see them huddled up in groups, developing camaraderie amongst themselves they never knew existed, you would hear them laughing, eating and sometimes shouting. They quickly developed codes amongst themselves to signal “danger” or to convey to the next committee that this or that car is to be given safe passage and has been already thoroughly searched. During the day, you would hear them complaining how tired they were because they had been up all night “protecting the neighbourhood”, cussing the police’s withdrawal, but you could see that that was all rhetoric. There was a glimmer in their eyes as they talked about their nightly escapades, about the would-be thief they caught and “how they taught him a lesson”. It became a ritualized process that they imbued with a great deal of reverence, a calling, a fulfilling of childhood fantasies, a grown-up play of “a’skar wi Harimiyya” (soldiers and thieves). People lauded them for their courage. Few back then and now see, how they and that was part of the problem.
Our daily demonstration’s route had ended in Mahtit Masr that day which was a good 20-25 kilometres from where I lived. The curfew had begun at 3 pm and it was already 6 pm. I had shared a taxi with a seeming stranger, a middle aged delicately built Egyptian woman whose raspy voice showed that she was or had been a heavy smoker. I quickly found out five minutes into the ride that she was a friend of my sister-in-law’s family and that she too was in the demonstration; H. H was head of the comparative literature department at NYU, and I had previously read many of her articles. We were enjoying the ride discussing all kinds of things. The taxi –driver on the other hand wasn’t. He was sick of having to be stopped every five minutes for his car to be searched. He told each lajna that the one before had already searched his car, but his objections were in vain. He let us out half way back, and we were left with the only option, which was to walk back to our respective homes, a common daily practice.
We walked centre road so that we would be visible. The streets were empty, the debris and paper wrappings fluttering in the evening winter wind. The sounds of our footsteps echoed and were amplified by the tall high rises that lined both sides of the road. We had passed a few lijaan Shabiyya whom hadn’t approach us, but who had furtively watched us walking by. Then one stopped us, or to be precise a man in one of them stopped us. He came up close, hands in his dress pants pockets, dark brown leather jacket, looking us straight in our eyes, slightly hunched forward. In a low commanding tone he asked us “where are you coming from?”. H was quiet. I faltered for a second and then said pointing “from a few roads down …shari’ surya, I was visiting an aunt sir.” He looked us, up and down. To him we didn’t look or sound like the kind of people who would be in a protest. Retaining his seriousness, his face broke out into a half-hearted condescending smile, “I will stop a taxi for you to get you back home safely and in the future make sure you are home before curfew.” We nodded mustering a half-smile back. The minute we were in the taxi, H sighed a sigh of relief, “I was so afraid that you would tell him the truth, that you wouldn’t realize….”