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08 Feb

Time for action

As protests continue, the regime is expected to take the opportunity to respond to demands of reform, writes Shaden Shehab

photo: Khaled El-Fiqi Click to view caption
photo: Khaled El-Fiqi


Now 25 January will no longer be remembered solely as the day in 1952 when police heroes in Ismailia fought against the British occupation, refusing British demands to evacuate the Suez Canal Zone. Fifty-nine years later what was once Police Day will now also be engraved in the memory of the nation as the Day of Anger, when thousands of Egyptians took to the streets demanding political and economic rights, and thousands of policemen were dispatched by the regime to disperse protesters and keep the situation under control.

Whereas in 1952 41 policemen died, on Tuesday three protesters in Suez and one policeman in Cairo were killed as a result of clashes between riot police and demonstrators. At least 500 were arrested and about 300 injured.

Although the Interior Ministry warned on Wednesday that anyone joining demonstrations would be detained and prosecuted the protests continued yesterday despite a heavy security presence. On Facebook the 6 April Movement urged Egyptians “to continue what we started on 25 January”.

“We will take to the streets to demand the right to life, liberty and dignity and we call on everyone to take to the streets… and to keep going until the demands of the Egyptian people have been met.”

As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press hundreds of demonstrators were gathered in front of the Press Syndicate. Protesters also gathered in Ramses Street and around Al-Ahram buildings and were chased by police in many areas Downtown.

That 25 January would be a day of nationwide protests had been announced well in advance on both Facebook and Twitter. Yet the regime, and many analysts, were caught by surprise, believing that 1,000 protesters at most would take to the streets, chant a few a slogans and then go home. What actually happened was unprecedented, as many thousands took to the streets of Cairo and other cities in a coordinated wave of anti-government protests.

For some of the day organisers used Twitter to give minute-by-minute instructions about where to gather in an attempt to outmanoeuvre the police. By late afternoon Twitter reported that it had been blocked in Egypt. The cabinet spokesman later said it was a false claim. It soon became clear that other opposition forums had also been blocked.

Security officials estimated the number of protesters to be 10,000 while participants in demonstrations say up to 100,000 citizens could have been involved.

Among the movements and opposition groups calling for nationwide demonstrations via cyberspace were the Association for Change, the Popular Democratic Movement for Change (HASHD), the Justice and Freedom Youth movement and the Revolutionary Socialists.

Few commentators have failed to draw comparisons with the Tunisian uprising that began on 17 December when a young man, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself ablaze after police confiscated the cart from which he sold fruit and vegetables. Four weeks later the country’s president fled. Since then there have been a number of copycat self-immolations in Egypt, and “We will follow Tunisia” was among the slogans chanted by protesters.

“This is the first time I am protesting. It is time we show we are people with power,” said a civil servant.

“We are not less than the people of Tunisia,” said a housewife. “The barriers of fear must be broken.”

“The government thought that it could blatantly rig elections, raise prices and do whatever it wants to a silent population. It is time to let them know that we are demanding real change,” shouted a student.

Dubbed a “day of revolution against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment” by the protests’ Internet organisers, Tuesday’s demonstrations in cities across Egypt began peacefully enough, with police showing unusual restraint in what appeared to be a calculated strategy to avoid further sullying of the image of the security forces.

By 2pm small groups of protesters had taken to the streets of Cairo, Suez, Ismailia and other governorates. Their numbers soon swelled to the hundreds, the hundreds became thousands and then tens of thousands. Some protesters raised the Egyptian flag and sang the national anthem while others chanted anti-government slogans and demanded political and economic reform.

In Cairo protesters clapped their hands in front of security officials. The police were equally civil and did not use force to disperse the crowds. It was not until demonstrators in Shubra, Mohandessin and Downtown gathered at one meeting point — Tahrir Square — that the scene became violent. Some protesters threw stones at the police, who responded with tear gas and water cannons.

A statement released by the Interior Ministry late Tuesday said security forces had decided to allow demonstrators “to voice their demands and exercise their freedom of expression” and were committed to “securing and not confronting those gathering”.

It added that some protesters, “particularly those affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood… began to riot, damage public property and throw stones at the security forces”.

Though the Interior Ministry was clearly seeking to blame the Muslim Brotherhood for any rioting that took place the outlawed Islamist group had incurred the wrath of many of its younger cadres for refusing to join the demonstrations.

As night fell thousands of protesters stood their ground for what they vowed would be an all-night sit-in in Tahrir Square, just steps away from the parliament buildings and other government landmarks. Then at 1am Wednesday morning police fired teargas and water cannons, used batons and shot bullets in the air to disperse the crowds. Once the protests had been broken up the square at the heart of Egypt’s capital was filled with milling police and street sweepers clearing away the debris left behind. Police trucks were lined up on access streets to ensure the crowds did not return. Yet in the face of ubiquitous policing — some squares looked like a sea of black clad security officers — many did attempt to return to the streets. Such is their determination to make the regime understand that change is now inevitable.

The day after:

As demonstrations continued for a second day there was the inevitable speculation over what comes next. Some political observers suggest that chaos, or even revolution, could ensue, while others — including some of the ruling party members — downplay the consequences of Egypt’s unprecedented street demonstrations. What they do agree on is that the frustration being expressed was genuine, and that one way or another it must be accommodated and defused and that there is dire need for quick action.

The government has been silent as far as issuing conciliatory promises is concerned. In a brief statement the National Democratic Party (NDP) expressed “its respect for the right of expression as part of the political reform process” and insisted it was “open to dialogue with the young generation and committed to meeting their demands”.

NDP Secretary-General and Shura Council speaker Safwat El-Sherif told the daily Al-Akhbar that “there is a difference between freedom of expression and chaos” and that the protesters should not underestimate how valuable the stability is that Egyptians enjoy. He warned that no one should attempt to exploit the situation to destabilise the country.

Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said that, “we are all for the freedom of expression provided there will be no breach of public security.”

Officials fell short of saying anything about meeting protesters’ demands — “freedom and social equality is what we want”; “Down with Nazif” and “Parliament is illegitimate” were among the slogans chanted by demonstrators — or about political reform. However, one NDP source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that “the situation triggered calls within the NDP to discuss what has happened and forge a strategy for 2011.” He added that the protests “will strengthen the reformist camp” within the party and predicted new social and economic welfare packages.

“We need to take a deep breath and contemplate what is going on rather than give in to fright,” Al-Ahram Board Chairman Abdel-Moneim Said told national TV.

“We need to revise our connection with the new generation which went out on the streets in droves. They are better educated and more open to the world and their ambitions grow faster than previous generations can comprehend.

“We need to understand that people did not demonstrate solely because they want job opportunities. Like young people elsewhere in the world they too dream of a better life. Such a shift in perspective will help the state to determine how to deal with members of the younger generations, to see them as they are and understand their world.

“The state must not assume positions contrary to those of young Egyptians. It should work to bridge any gaps,” said Said. “I am not worried, the revolution will not happen today or tomorrow because a majority of people realise that those who went out on the streets went out for a better Egypt.”

Press Syndicate Chairman Makram Mohamed Ahmed argues that the “situation needs swift action and a rereading of the pace of political and economic reform”.

“This is a clear warning to the regime. The protesters are telling the regime we want change and reform. The protests are not, as some government officials insist on saying, solely about economic and social demands.”

Egyptians clearly understand that economic and social change can only happen if there is real political reform, Ahmed told Al-Ahram Weekly before he had a heart attack yesterday. He warned that if the only response the government can muster is that appropriate to “a bunch of irresponsible youth making noise” then “the situation can easily get out of control”.

Leading commentator Salama Ahmed Salama described the demonstrations as a “popular movement”. It would be astonishingly naïve of the regime, he says, not to address head on the anger of young protesters. “That anger is not going to go away. Yesterday they did not raise personal demands. They want change and nothing else will do.”

“There should be a statement from the NDP. What they do not want is for it to be dealt with as a security issue.”

“People are exploding,” says political science professor Mustafa Kamel El-Sayed. “After the rigging of parliamentary elections and all the recent sectarian tensions, and in the absence of any meaningful political reform, it is to be expected.

“Yet it seems the uprising is still being seen as a security and not a political issue. The Interior Minister has said the protesters’ demands are all socio-economic, ignoring the fact they asked for an end to the state of emergency and for parliament to be dissolved. These demands should be met, and as swiftly as possible,” argues El-Sayed. “And then the constitution must be amended.”

“For the first time the Egyptian regime saw thousands of Egyptians protesting against it. The barrier between intellectuals and citizens has been lifted. Everyone is demanding change,” argues political analyst Amr El-Shobaki.

“The barrier between virtual and actual activism also fell this week when a call that originated with a group of young people on Facebook was answered by more than 50,000 Egyptians who abandoned their fears and took to the street to share their grievances.”

Political observers who were interviewed by the Weekly all agreed “that all scenarios are open to what will happen next”.

Additional reporting

Mohamed Abdel-Baky

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