Because our tickets here were bought through a university travel agency, we receive frequent “International SOS” travel notices. These alerts read as though written from a nearby planet rather similar to our own, only, say, with air containing some other element instead of oxygen. They are oddly accurate – even using terms such as “disillusionment” and such phrases as “perceptions of Mubarak-style authoritarianism by the military rulers” and yet impossible to map onto any world we recognize, perhaps from an exaggerated effort to be objective: “Fattah [not Abdel Fattah for some reason] has been detained on charges of inciting sectarian unrest” or “this is despite the SCAF’s recent concessions to protesters.” The other surreal thing that’s hard for me to convey here is the flatness of perspective, the lack of proportion. Major and minor incidents are reported in almost the same tone, as though what interested me was basically their effect on traffic. Whereas we could be witnessing the “second wave” of the revolution that several of my friends have long been predicting.
Imagine the effect these notices would have on a businessperson who doesn’t know this country well, doesn’t understand Cairo geography, who perhaps doesn’t have great news sources and is traveling to Egypt for the first time on some random business trip or other? What the hell do they mean, “Normal travel can continue,” when all they are doing is scaring people?
We received a couple of them yesterday and so far two today. The security concerns aren’t crazy: Last night I gave a lecture at Cairo University, halfway across town from Tahrir Square where the current violence is localized; it went beautifully (thanks to the presence of theatre director Hani Afifi and his lead actor Mohamed Fahim) but was attended only by those, mainly English dept faculty, who really felt they had to be there — there were plenty of students around earlier in the afternoon, but they seemed to have hurried home to their parents rather than stick around after dark for a 5pm talk. But the cumulative effect of these emails, arriving every few hours now, is pretty surreal.
Without further comment, I reproduce the travel notice here.
Medical Alerts and Travel Security Online
Egypt: Situation remains tense as police clash with protesters in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez
Clashes overnight on 19-20 November continued between the security forces and pro-democracy activists in several urban centres around the country, particularly the capital Cairo, Alexandria (Alexandria governorate) and Suez (Suez governorate); at least two people have reportedly been killed and more than 675 others injured in the unrest, in which security personnel used batons, tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse participants. Reports indicate that related protests also took place in the cities of Damietta (Damietta governorate), Ismailia (Ismailia governorate), Mahalla (Gharbia governorate) and Mansoura (Dakahlia governorate).
The unrest in the capital occurred on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, near the interior ministry building, and in the vicinity of the central Tahrir Square. Unconfirmed reports indicate that demonstrators have erected barricades around Tahrir Square and reoccupied the area after the security forces dispersed encamped activists from the site earlier on 19 November. In Alexandria, several thousand protesters staged a march to the security directorate building. In Suez, demonstrators reportedly engaged in vandalism and marched to a police station before being dispersed by the security forces.
Comment and Analysis
The situation remains fluid and sporadic confrontations between demonstrators and the security forces are likely across the country, particularly in the aforementioned cities. As highlighted by the recent clashes, attendant security force personnel are likely to employ forceful crowd-control measures to disperse unruly protesters; such occurrences would pose indirect risks to bystanders. Traffic disruption should also be anticipated around Tahrir Square and other popular rallying locations in the coming hours, due to the presence of large crowds of protesters or heightened security measures.
The clashes on 19 November, which involved members of the so-called ‘Ultras’ football supporters group, who have a history of violent confrontations with the security forces, were said to have broken out after riot police were deployed to Tahrir Square to clear several hundred protesters that had erected an encampment at the location following a protest on the previous day. The 18 November demonstration, which was attended by tens of thousands of activists and supported by several political groups, was held to demand that the interim ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) speed up the process of transition to civilian rule. Demonstrations against the SCAF – mainly over its ambitions and alleged abuses of power – have occurred on a frequent basis in recent weeks, attracting large crowds.
Disillusionment with the interim government remains widespread among the population and protests against the SCAF are expected to continue in the run-up to the parliamentary elections, due to commence on 28 November. This is despite the SCAF’s recent concessions to protesters, including an agreement to alter Article 5 of the country’s electoral law, which stipulates that one third of seats in parliament be reserved for independent candidates. Various other issues remain unresolved, among them are the continued opposition to the emergency laws, the possibility of the SCAF remaining in office until 2013 under a protracted electoral timetable, as well as the role (if any) of Sharia (Islamic law) and the military in the new constitution. In addition, perceptions of Mubarak-style authoritarianism by the military rulers, or the latter’s prolonged governance, have the potential to trigger large-scale rallies and strikes.
- Normal travel can continue.
- Avoid all rallies because of the credible risk of localised unrest. Liaise with your hotel and hosts on the timing and location of any planned activity.
- Protests, which carry a credible risk of unrest, might occur in response to national political developments. In the event of violence, foreigners are unlikely to be targeted, but may be at incidental risk.
- Ensure that you are fully briefed on the situation prior to travel and monitor events for signs of rising tension prior to and during your stay. Establish reliable information sources, taking care to distinguish between fact and rumour.
- Ensure that you know what to do in the event of a security incident, such as localised unrest, during your stay.
- Exercise heightened awareness in the vicinity of sensitive locations. These include (but are not limited to) government buildings, police stations, military barracks and Tahrir Square.
- Treat members of the security forces you encounter with patience and respect. Carry photographic identification and follow all instructions promptly.
- This advice is not exhaustive; liaise with local contacts and consult the Standing Travel Advice for Egypt.
Please do not reply to this email.