ABDALLA F. HASSAN | World Press Review | January 30, 2003
Several hundred demonstrators gathered by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Jan. 20 to protest U.S. plans for a war in Iraq. They waved homemade cloth banners, chanted anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans, but were almost lost among the army of state security officers in riot gear—some carrying bamboo sticks—who cordoned off the streets around the embassy and kept curious bystanders away.
The rally was one of a series of peaceful street protests that have attracted anywhere from a few dozen up to a thousand protesters in the Middle East’s most populous city over the past months. In each case, riot police vastly outnumbered demonstrators. Acts of civil dissent—even if directed against a foreign power—were not allowed to get out of hand. A state security official questioned about the gathering that took place by the embassy coyly responded, “What demonstration? Perhaps it took place somewhere else.”
Asked about the display of force, Philip Frayne, the U.S. Embassy’s press attaché, responded, “We requested that adequate security be provided. The definition of what adequate security is, that is up to the Egyptians to decide. I don’t analyze the breakdown of who was on the sidewalk wanting to join the protest. We know that people turned out. We saw that there were a lot of police.”
In recent weeks, Friday prayers have been followed by impromptu protests at Cairo’s largest mosques. Following congregational prayers the Friday before, roughly 1,000 Cairenes gathered outside the historic Sayeda Zeinab mosque in Old Cairo to protest U.S. plans to attack Iraq. The same day, only a few dozen women showed up for a protest near the U.S. embassy. In late December, protesters rallied outside the Qatari Embassy, objecting to the Gulf state’s decision to permit the United States to use its military bases to attack Iraq. Demonstrators have also called on Egypt to ban U.S. and British warships from using the Suez Canal.
Security forces have been careful not to let the crowds spill onto the surrounding streets, cordoning off the protesters in the immediate vicinity of the house of worship. Truckloads of state security personnel are stationed in spots where spontaneous demonstrations may erupt.
“The state is determined not to allow these demonstrations to go beyond a certain limit,” says noted human-rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim. “The government seems to concede that it needs a venting out mechanism, since some of the slogans are calling on the Egyptian government and other Arab governments to do something—not to stand by and see the Iraqi and Palestinian people subjected to aggression.”
What effects do the demonstrations have? “Number one, people are angry, people are frustrated. At least, demonstrating seems to let them express themselves,” Ibrahim says. “Two, it puts pressure on the different Arab governments not to get involved on the side of the war. Three, it may useful for the governments to slow down or to avert the war altogether by pleading their case with the big powers: ‘Look we have a very tense situation here. Please don’t make it worse.’”
But don’t the small numbers showing up for the protests suggest that the reaction on the “Arab street” would be subdued in the event of a U.S.-led war on Iraq?
“[The protestors’] numbers are not the measure. They are the tip of the iceberg,” says Walid Kazziha, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. “If ever we were talking about a silent majority or a majority unable to express itself, it is us—this region. There are tens of thousands of people who have the same sentiment, but there is a price to pay when you come out.”
Moreover, Kazziha suggests, U.S. efforts to mobilize the world against Iraq are not catching on because a smoking gun has not been found. Kazziha sees mounting resentment toward the United States in the Middle East because of perceived double standards in U.S. foreign policy.
“In the last two years of the Intifada, people were talking about the U.S. policy in the region and how it deals with Israel on the one hand when it violates U.N. resolutions and when it uses violence. When it comes to the Palestinians, well that's another story,” he says. “Now you have another factor, which is North Korea. Here the United States is taking a totally different line. Here is a country that has declared that it has weapons of mass destruction, and the United States is opting for a peaceful solution to that problem.”
Protests are minimally tolerated in Egypt. “The regime has become increasingly security conscious,” adds Kazziha. “But the public resentment of the U.S. position is potentially dangerous in a setting like the Egyptian one. If, for any reason, law and order breaks down, even on a minor scale, it could snowball.”
Abdel-Monem Said, director of Cairo’s government-funded Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, dismisses such arguments as alarmist. “Outside the urban areas where there are universities, I don’t see much of a massive anti-war movement.”
“When you have a mass movement, security is not an obstacle. Never is security an obstacle to 100,000 demonstrators,” says Said. “But if you have hundreds, could they be thousands? I am not sure. Demonstrations will pick up because of the bombardment of Iraq, not because of security.”
A war launched against Iraq accompanied by television images of destruction and bloodshed would set off large and violent protests, Kazziha and Ibrahim agree. “I would imagine that the tide of militant, fundamentalist, radical Islam will experience an enhancement by virtue of this,” says Kazziha. “Consequentially, [the bombardment] would contribute to acts of violence against American interests.”
“There is also the writing on the wall for other regimes. If they don’t reform, they may get the heavy stick from the United States,” Ibrahim adds.
One of the figures at the forefront of the anti-war protest movement in Egypt is independent Nasserite MP Hamdeen Sabahy. While he acknowledges that few people have turned up at the protests, Sabahy believes that can be explained by the heavy police presence, coupled with the detention of activists before and after demonstrations. “We believe the campaign of detentions will widen,” he says.
“Cairo needs a one-million strong demonstration to illustrate the antagonism of Egyptians to a war in Iraq,” argues Sabahy. “If the government allowed this—we requested permission, but is unlikely to come—we can definitely organize a demonstration attracting a million people.”
The protest movement is organized by a variety of informal committees whose activities center on a particular cause, such as solidarity with the Palestinians, anti-war demonstrations or anti-globalization protests. These committees emerged in Egypt following the start of the Al-Aqsa Intifada. Bearing such names as the Popular Committee Opposing U.S. Aggression Against Iraq and the Arab World and the Popular Committee for the Support of the Palestinian Uprising, they comprise divergent political interests: Arab nationalists, Nasserites, Marxists, Islamists, opposition political parties, civil societies, professional syndicates, intellectuals, artists, and public figures. Such political associations are illegal under emergency law, which has been in effect since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981. They are not registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs, as is required of every NGO, nor are they legal political parties.
Wael Khalil does not fit the stereotypical profile of a rabble-rouser. He is 37, a computer programmer, and married with a four-year old son. But his convictions about the coming war in Iraq have roused him to begin organizing anti-war protests.
“When I was a student at Banha University, the possibilities and avenues that are available now were not available then,” he says. “Non-clandestine political activity was simply not an option.”
“Public activism is a relatively new phenomenon because it was usually [met with] oppression in the past,” explains Khalil. “Apart from the ‘formal’ political parties, there are no other avenues of political activism. In the 1990s, we had the so-called civil society—which are the human-rights organizations. However, it cannot be called a movement, because it was never part of their objective to enlarge themselves or bring in new activists. They were organized around developing and delivering a certain definitely needed function or service, which was defending human rights or the rights of prisoners. They have had their share of harassment every now and then.”
Khalil got involved with the Popular Committee for the Support of the Palestinian Uprising. Founded at the start of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in October 2000, the committee has organized conferences and political forums centering on the issue of Palestine. Members collected signatures on a petition calling on President Hosni Mubarak to end Egypt’s ties with Israel, and for the United Nations to mandate international protection for the Palestinians. The organization has also delivered medicine and food convoys to Palestinians from the Rafah border crossing with Israel.
On Sept. 10, 2001, the committee organized a demonstration—then a rare occurrence in Egypt—which drew hundreds of protesters to downtown Cairo’s central Tahrir Square. Farid Zahran, the owner and manager of a publishing house and the father of three children, was among the organization’s most active members.
Ten days after the protest, Zahran was arrested. State Security prosecutors charged him with disseminating and possessing publications that threaten national security and injure the public good. He was later released after more than two weeks in detention, but the charges were never dropped and he could face trial at any time.
Egyptians face definite costs for getting politically involved. The arrest and detention of political organizers did not end with Zahran. Activists tell of security officials sending them pointed messages—often, significantly, through a parent or spouse.
Another fear was that the government would shut down the committee altogether, putting an end to all the group’s activities, says Khalil. “Should we sacrifice our success for other forms of political expression? This was an unresolved debate within the committee until the invasion [Israel’s “Operation Defensive Shield” of spring 2002] came. Then there were no more people saying, ‘No, let’s not demonstrate.’”
Had the Egyptian government quickly suppressed those expressions, it would have been equated with the Israeli army in the minds of the protesters, Khalil says. “By then, a larger core of activists felt that these were achievements and we are not going back. We should have the right to assembly, we should have the right to organize.”
Security forces have adopted a policy of permitting, but containing the rallies. Demonstrators are confined to a restricted area and are not allowed to march. Police prevent passersby from lingering on the sidelines long enough to join in.
Is Khalil afraid of consequences? “Slightly,” he says after a pause. “I wish they do not come.”
He breaks the unease with a laugh. “I think it is expected. I came close a couple of times and I was frightened.”