Laura Murphy traveled to Egypt to celebrate her sister Madeline Murphy Rabb’s birthday, but the already memorable trip evolved into an experience of a lifetime as she bore witness to days of unrest, hope, fear, and the first flickering of a new democracy ready to ignite.
Murphy, the Washington Director for the American Civil Liberties Union, visited the country as part of a group tour, first arriving in Cairo on Jan. 25. But the group’s plans were waylaid by a rising tide of protests, as Egyptians rose up against the three-decade reign of President Hosni Mubarak.
The first days of protest reminded Murphy of the Civil Rights Era protests in the 1960s.
“Here was just exhilaration,” she told CNN Feb. 1 of the early Egyptian protest marches. “It felt like the march on Washington in 1963 on steroids. There were thousands upon thousands of men, women, and children.”
As a veteran of the civil rights era, she told the AFRO that she talked with Egyptians in the streets and heard stories of oppression and brutality “and it was all so familiar.”
“We went out of the city on to Giza and we came back in and it was very difficult to get to our hotel,” Murphy told NPR. “And we had to be let off a bus several blocks away from our hotel. And coming straight at the bus, 30 people across, were hundreds and hundreds of protestors running toward the bus.”
“And they got close to the bus and they asked us to get out of the way. And they came and they looked in the bus,” she said. “And I think because we were largely an African-American group, they gave us the peace sign.”
Eventually the group had to disembark from the bus and reach their hotel by foot. But the tension wasn’t lifted once they passed the hotel building’s doors.
“Notes were slipped under our doors, saying: ‘Do not leave your room,’” she said. “They locked the elevators.”
As the week wore on, moments of peace and hope gave way just hours later to ones of violence and fear. Murphy told CNN that on Jan. 28 she watched from her hotel balcony as a procession, which she described as a “fantastic peaceful marching” passed over a bridge nearby.
But later that night, she saw a truck being bombed nearby. Increasingly, she told the AFRO, the protests became infected with strains of violence as “the lid was blown off the pressure cooker.”
“As the week progressed in Cairo, things got violent,” she told CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux. “We saw a truck explode off of our balcony. We saw a truck run over someone. The streets were blocked. The air was filled with smoke.”
Eventually, the group fled Cairo for the smaller city of Luxor, 400 miles from Cairo, hoping to take a tourist cruise from there to the city of Aswan. But the cruise never left, Murphy said, because every destination along the route asked the ship not to come, as local authorities could not guarantee the Americans’ safety.
One attempt to get back to her cruise ship, she said, resulted in nothing less than terror. “We were chased out of a side street,” Murphy told Malveaux; and in order to avoid the demonstrations, “we had to circle around the city in order to get back to our cruise ship….”
After getting back to the ship, she was able to reach her husband by cell phone in Washington, and arrange for a flight to London for her and her sister, leaving the other members of her group awaiting assistance from the State Department.
But what she has seen is clearly the early strokes of permanent change in Egypt. “This nation,” she said of the largest nation in the Middle East, “will never be the same.”
Murphy herself may have been permanently changed by the experience as well.
“I will bring back a special level of passion to our Internet rights, our free speech rights, our rights to assembly,” she told NPR, “because I could see so clearly how the control of this by the government could turn so easily into a tool of oppression.”