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10 Mar 2011
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Last Updated: 2 February, 2011 - 16:32 GMT
Caught up in the Cairo protests
Clashes between pro-Mubarek and anti-government protests in Tahrir Square
BBC World Service Trust producer Sue Austen describes how her and the team of Egyptian producers, writers and directors, found themselves mired in the Cairo clashes.
I’ve been travelling to Cairo regularly for the past year working with the BBC’s international development charity, BBC World Service Trust, to help produce two Arabic-language television dramas aimed at encouraging social responsibility in drama.
Much of the work is about providing the space, through access to media, for citizens to raise their voices, get access to information and share their views.
I was in Cairo when Egyptians took to the streets in protest to demand rights that we in the UK take for granted. Sadly I had to leave earlier than planned, with our projects put on hold.
In context of what has been taking place in Egypt, our partners - Egyptian producers, writers, directors, actors and film-makers - are now all fighting for their voices to be heard and are taking part in a much bigger story.
Joining the protest
One of our writers found himself out on the street of his neighbourhood in Shoubra, armed with a piece of railing, helping his community guard their homes and families overnight
Producer Sue Austen
I wish I could have written this letter from Cairo, but in a bid to silence the people, all internet communication was cut off on the Thursday night. The mobile phone network was also blocked for more than 24 hours. Despite this, Egyptians met, spoke and rallied.
Many of the crew from one of our dramas finished their 12-hour shift, then went to join the protest on the Friday morning.
Our young female researcher is from a conservative family and has never protested before. She joined the group from her middle-class neighbourhood to walk to Tahrir Square, using the phone blackout to evade calls from her mother who forbade her from going.
Our director took her camera to film scenes from the street. She later ended up on camera herself when Al-Jazeera spotted her mid-chant and interviewed her expressing how proud she was to be an Egyptian.
One of our writers posted commentaries on Facebook until they were taken down. She also went on to the march with her family and friends, hopeful that her young son will see a change in regime that will secure his future.
Undeterred loyalty
Opponents of President Mubarek stand behind a make-shift shield during protests
As the day of protest continued, we witnessed the police firing tear gas and watched the protesters turn back to face them over and over again, undeterred. Across the Nile we saw a small fire grow larger and larger as the authorities made no attempt to put it out.
As evening fell the tanks rolled into Cairo, followed by an eerie and tense silence. On Saturday morning we walked around the streets of Zamalek where we were staying.
It was unusually quiet. Anyone who has ever visited Cairo will know that the traffic never stops. On that day, there were hardly any cars on the road.
We managed to meet our producer in a local cafe before curfew was due again. He had been to Downtown to check in his offices and staff. He told us of burned-out vehicles and a complete absence of police.
We all knew that he could leave the country if he wished to, but he told us that he would not go. He had lived through war in Lebanon and returned to Egypt where he was born. Movingly he told us that his fate was inextricably linked to his country and that whatever that would be, he would stay and share it.
Frighten into submission
As the BBC’s international development charity, BBC World Service Trust uses media and communications to reduce poverty and promote human rights, thereby enabling people to build better lives.
It is funded by external grants and voluntary contributions, mainly from the UK’s Department for International Development, the European Union, UN agencies and charitable foundations. It receives a small amount of core support from the BBC (both in kind and cash).
It believes that independent, vibrant media are critical to the development of free and just societies, and it shares the BBC’s ambition to provide accurate, impartial and reliable information to enable people to make informed decisions.
In every local neighbourhood, the residents were organising their own protection. One of our writers had over-ambitiously promised to finish the final script of his series and bring it across the city to hand-deliver it to us.
But he told us that instead he found himself out on the street of his neighbourhood in Shoubra, armed with a piece of railing, helping his community guard their homes and families overnight.
Official channels were reporting widespread looting, but in our part of town it was very quiet. We suspected that the stories were coming from the authorities who, having failed to listen to the people, were now trying to frighten them into submission.
Speaking out
Reluctantly we left for the airport on Sunday morning to fly home. We could not work and the BBC advised us to leave. It felt wrong to be pulling out and leaving our friends behind in such an insecure atmosphere.
I have grown to love Egypt and the Egyptian people in the past year, and it was depressing to think that I might not be returning soon.
But this huge country of diverse faiths, classes and talents has finally spoken out in protest against the regime which wants to keep it silent. And it will be heard.
Read more on clashes in Egypt and about the BBC World Service Trust
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