A group of 10-odd young men armed with sticks stop our cab three-fourths of the 30-km ride from the airport to downtown Cairo. A tall curly-haired boy shoves his head in on my side and asks, “Show me your passport.” The cabbie says something ending with “al-Hind”, the Arabic for Hindustan. “What do you do?” the teen asks me in broken English. “I write,” I say, as some of them check the car boot. “Ah, writer,” he says and waves us on. A similar situation is repeated a few kilometers on.
Such neighbourhood vigilante groups have sprouted all over the nervous Egyptian capital. They are looking out against an unknown set of hooligans – pro-Hosni Mubarak, anti-Mubarak or just plain thugs. And this is despite the presence of tanks and armoured army vehicles all over the city. The police, earlier ubiquitous, could only be seen on the way at the head of some tony localities. Miles upon miles of neighbourhood windows are shut. It’s, after all, a city under siege.
The signs can be seen at the almost deserted international airport itself. Hassan Wael, a 40-year-old Egyptian businessman based in Dubai who keeps travelling to and fro, says, “This airport is operating at, say, 30% capacity at the most.” There were barely 26 passengers on our Airbus 320 flight from Abu Dhabi.
The tension loosens as one enters the quiet oasis that’s the Indian embassy. Some 10-odd Indian television journalists are holed up here, some of them having been picked up and locked up for hours by the army, the police or by one group of protestors or another. Since late afternoon no journalist – declaring himself as one – is being allowed near the Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the revolution. A message comes in that a group heading towards Tahrir is passing by the embassy. A hush falls, but it passes soon, quietly.
As darkness descends, the crowd is swelling at Tahrir. Hassan, who has come in to join what he called “the first Egyptian revolution”, should be there by now. Could he take me in? “I can’t take responsibility for you, brother,” he said. On the climactic hour of the 10 days that shook Egypt, no one wants to take chances.