Civil society and tear gas (observations from the Cairo protests)

While living in San Diego, I had many discussions with my roommate Casey about the role of government and the role of the community in various domains. Liberals tend to believe that government should play a large role in society while conservatives like to push these types of program to the lowest levels (local government, private charities, etc).

This past week I’ve witnessed what happens to a society when the government is perceived to be inadequate and actively working against the people it purports to work for. I’m pleased to say that the Egyptian people will continue to survive and thrive in the presence of a corrupt government, or even without a government at all.

This past Friday I went downtown with a group of friends to witness the protests. Friday was perhaps the most violent day of the protests. Police liberally used tear gas and rubber bullets on Egyptian citizens in a failed attempt to demoralize them. Here are some of the impressive acts I observed firsthand.

1. Egyptians giving damp cloths to each other

These damp cloths were used to relieve some of the symptoms of tear gas. There was no such feeling of “every man for himself.” Resources were liberally shared. Erica was even offered a cloth wetted with vinegar (apparently it does help).

2. Egyptian citizens preventing violent acts and vandalism

On Friday, I saw one protester attempting to set a Tourism police vestibule on fire. Immediately, several other protesters stopped and reprimanded him.

On my street in Heliopolis, various groups of people who have armed themselves with sticks and knives have taken it upon themselves to protect their neighborhoods from looters (some of whom were caught and identified as internal security members).

3. Egyptians risking their own safety for others

I saw several incidences in which Egyptian citizens would grab an activated tear gas canister and either throw it out or douse it in a bucket of water. Trust me, being exposed to tear gas is not fun.

These are all things I’ve witnessed first hand. There also reports of Egyptians in Tahrir Square actually picking up their own trash and lining up. Anyone who has lived in Egypt would find this remarkable.

Though I’ve definitely made critiques about Egyptian society, I’ve always admired their willingness to help each other. This quality has magnified itself 100 times over the past week. They have taken responsibility for each other in a time of crisis and instability and have demonstrated their ability to grow civil society. Go Egypt.


PS: Pictures to follow soon.



2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Sameh Ahmed on February 2, 2011 at 7:42 pm

    It is good to know that you are safe and ok. Thanks for your first hand eye witness report.


  2. Posted by Jim Enloe on February 11, 2011 at 4:32 am

    I’m not sure if your Dad ever told you about getting hit by a tear gas canister in Korea during the grand peace march for Democracy June 24th 1986. It was right near Pagoda Park – the scene of the 1931 anti-Japanese uprising. He took a shot right in the leg, caused chemical blisters. After that the government announced free elections only three days later. Nothing like city wide riots to get the political classes attention.

    You’ve been a witness to history – an experience you will never forget.


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