A Filipino witness to the Egyptian uprising

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  Aaron Cang Sinsuat in Egypt
  Aaron with fellow students of the Qortoba Institute

Journalist Aaron Cang Sinsuat is a correspondent of the ABS-CBN TV News and Current Affairs Department and a former colleague of Pilipino Express contributor, Lucille Nolasco. Originally from Cotabato City, Aaron has been studying Arabic in Egypt since 2009. In this report for PE readers Aaron shares his experiences as a witness to the nationwide protests that toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak on February 11. - Editor

I flew to Alexandria, Egypt in October 2009 to pursue Islamic and Arabic studies at the Qortoba Institute for Arabic studies. During the course of my education I was exposed to two worlds; the beauty and benefit of learning the Arabic language while witnessing the difficulties of our bagongbayanis, the Filipinos working abroad.

I was billeted in an area called Mayamy, a middle class residential area with a number of Islamic and Arabic language schools. My school is a popular Islamic institute both for Muslim scholars and Muslim converts alike from around the world. In my residential building the students were mostly foreigners from several countries in Europe and North America. I was the only one from Asia – so to speak.

Life in Alexandria

Living in Alexandria, is like living in Manila or anywhere in the Philippines, but with a stricter adherence to Islamic living. Men dress in their traditional Arab clothes and wear thick beards while the women are in burqua. Mosques are everywhere and one would never miss hearing the adhan call to prayer.

Even with their Islamic lifestyle, Alexandria is similar to my home in Mindanao or comparable to the Islamic city of Marawi. Because of my familiarity with and immersion in Islam, I did not have a difficult time adjusting to their culture. And to my surprise, most Egyptians are extremely friendly and helpful to foreigners.

At the outset, security was not an issue and safety was assured. Other than petty marital altercations or teenage brawls along the streets, I did not witness any serious crimes. Egyptians, in my opinion, are moderate, patient, hardworking and kind.

The government clamps down

However, on New Years Eve, everything changed drastically, especially for foreigners. One of the triggers of the civil unrest was the church bombing that killed around 30 Egyptians, mostly from the Christian Coptic community. The church was adjacent to a mosque only a few blocks from our home in Alexandria. Thereafter, the situation became tense and people were wary of everyone.

In an apparent effort to show that the government was still in control, President Hosni Mubarak appeared on television ordering an immediate investigation of the atrocities and soon thereafter issued a statement blaming international terrorist groups as perpetrators of the acts.

Suddenly, security police were on almost every corner of our district of Mayamy and Mandara, conducting regular visits to our institute. They inspected every flat looking for foreigners, eyeing them as suspects. In my understanding, my school was tagged as a haven for foreign students who were allegedly among the instigators of the civil unrest or active supporters thereof.

The police stopped and questioned any non-locals seen on the streets. I was a victim of such inspections. I was brought with some of my friends and classmates to the police station and interrogated. We were instructed to give copies of our passports and visas to them.

After that, we no longer wanted to go out of our flat. The irony of it all is that for the first time in my more than 30 years of living, I was discriminated against as a Muslim in a predominantly Muslim country. So in response, and to avoid profiling, I shaved my beard and cleaned my goatee. I avoided wearing thaub (Muslim attire) in public to avoid being identified as a non-local or foreign Muslim in the eyes of the security police.

The harassment of foreigners continued into the first few weeks of January 2011, up to the unprecedented success of the January 25 rally against the Mubarak regime in Cairo. Rallies immediately spread and gained sympathy and vigour in Alexandria, Suez and other major cities in Egypt, leading ultimately to the president’s resignation on February 11.

A change in the atmosphere

When I first set foot in Alexandria, no one dared to utter the name Mubarak or speak about the affairs of the government. However, it had suddenly made a 360-degree turn. Everyone, young and old, men and woman, were talking about organizing concerted actions against the Mubarak government. It seemed like nobody was afraid anymore.

In my observation, the rallies were spontaneous and natural for the Egyptians. I did not see anyone inviting others to join the protests. I saw huge groups voluntarily coming out of their buildings and onto the streets moving in one direction, in a joyful mood.

I saw that the Egyptians were hungry for change. I witnessed their anger towards people in authority like the security police. In Alexandria, all the security police stations were burned to the ground, as well as police patrol trucks. The sad thing is that, the situation escalated and fire broke out everywhere. People were in disarray and looting occurred. There was smoke everywhere; there were just too many people on the streets, mostly young men and women. It seemed like the rule of law was gone.

I felt an obligation to tell a bit of what was happening. So, I joined the people on the streets. I experienced the intensity of the situation from the heart of the action. People were singing a patriotic song, some were chanting in unison, “Down with Mubarak” in Arabic.

It was really tough documenting the scenes in Alexandria. The military was very strict about taking pictures and videos. We had to do it surreptitiously and beyond view of the authorities or Mubarak supporters. At first, we were just amazed by situation and took documentation left and right but a soldier caught us. He pointed his rifle at us and warned us to stop. He took our camera and instructed us to delete the pictures and video that we had taken. Luckily, I was able to keep some.

At that time, all practically all communications were out – the Internet was down, mobile networks were non-operational, roads blocked, busses were non-operational and train services cut. Even the airports at some point were closed. The only communication Egyptians could rely on was the foreign media. I tried to document as much as I could and send it to ABS-CBN but it was impossible. I also tried reaching other media outfits in the Philippines but to no avail. The only way we could think of was through social media sites like Facebook and Youtube. As soon as the Internet came back on line, we uploaded our experience to Youtube.

The revolution that happened in Egypt is a reminder of our own EDSA People Power revolution that happened 25 years ago last month. It could also be equated to the subsequent EDSA uprisings, whether successful or not, due to the concerted efforts of people with the ultimate objective of changing the government.

Aaron Cang Sinsuat is a student of the Qortoba Institute in Alexandria, Egypt and a candidate for Al-Azhar University in 2011. He is also a nephew of former news broadcaster, Noli de Castro.

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