In Cairo, checkpoints mark a city transformed

The usually noisy city has been transformed by 8 days of demonstrations.

Last Updated: Feb 01, 2011, 20:48 PM IST

Cairo: As the plane banks towards Cairo
airport, passengers peer from the windows onto the highways
below, empty of the cars usually inching along in heavy
traffic at all hours of the day and night.

Arriving in Egypt`s protest-shaken capital after
curfew, visitors quickly see how the usually heaving, noisy
city has been transformed by eight days of demonstrations
against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

At the arrivals terminal, immigration booths that are
usually fully staffed and tending to enthusiastic tourists are
now mostly empty.

Two officials process the lone arrivals, a group of
journalists.

"To be honest, you`ve arrived at a terrible time," one
official tells them.

In the departures lounge, hundreds of tourists wait
for flights out of the turmoil that has swept Egypt as
protesters seek to end Mubarak`s 30-year rule.

The military has declared a curfew from 3:00 pm to
8:00 am, stationing tanks on major roads and near key
government buildings and hotels.

But Egyptian citizens, terrorised by reports of
looting and home invasions, have set up their own checkpoints,
intent on preventing their homes from being targeted.

At the airport car park, the standard throng of taxi
drivers offering their best price to take people into town has
disappeared.

After curfew, it is virtually impossible to convince
anyone to risk venturing onto the roads, but eventually a
driver agrees to take a group into town over the objections of
his boss, who insists it is unsafe.

The highway from the airport is eerily empty for 9:00
pm, early evening by Egyptian standards, and the bus speeds
along before arriving at the first checkpoint of the evening,
a tank in the middle of the road.

A soldier peers into the bus, but waves it through
after a cursory glance at the driver`s identity card.

After a second military checkpoint, and a third, the
bus encounters its first civilian stop, manned by five
Egyptian men, in the upscale neighbourhood of Heliopolis, not
far from Mubarak`s presidential palace.

Each wields a weapon: shotguns, knives lashed to
bamboo, pistols, sticks and metal bars. They scrutinise the
driver`s licence and identity card but allow the bus to pass.

Inside the neighbourhood, the checkpoints multiply,
with the bus stopping almost every 500 metres.

Most stops are staffed by men, some on plastic chairs
next to small fires, others pacing to stave off the cold. But
at a few, women stand guard too, and at several, young boys
peer into the bus with curiosity.

At each, initial suspicion disappears when foreigners
are spotted.

"Welcome!" shouts one man, as he waves, a small pistol
in his left hand.

"Tourists, tourists," another shouts ahead to the
checkpoint up the road, as the bus passes.

At several, locals offer apologies. "We are sorry,"
one man says solemnly. "We only try to protect ourselves."

After more than 70 stops, the driver drops off his
passengers one by one, and promises them: "This is not
normal."

"This is only something you can see after 30 years,"
he says.

PTI