Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 March - 2 April 2003
Issue No. 631
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A day at 'Hyde Park'

Two days of massive anti-war street demonstrations rocked Cairo last week. Mass arrests followed. Amira Howeidy reports

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Thousands gather in Tahrir Square on the first day of the war; the scene in front of Al-Azhar after Friday prayers; the angry crowd tries to leave the mosque; on the street, police attempt to disperse the gathering using water cannons
The last time central Cairo's strategic Tahrir Square was 'occupied' by demonstrators was during the height of the 1972 student movement, when a left-wing led student movement shook the country with its calls for democracy, a more equitable economic and social system and "peoples war" against Israel, which was occupying Egypt's Sinai Peninsula at the time. It took 31 years and an American-led war on Iraq for the rare occurrence to be reenacted.

As the US-UK led alliance launched its military offensive in the early hours of Thursday 20 March, public anger across the nation was already simmering. By noon, a small group of activists had assembled at Tahrir Square to hold an anti-war demonstration and march to the nearby US Embassy.

A typical scenario then took place, as hundreds of anti-riot police immediately cordoned off the protest, preventing it from marching towards the embassy. Expectations were that the demonstration, like the vast majority of street protests that preceded it over the past two years, would end a couple of hours later, with the same limited number of participants taking part.

It didn't quite turn out that way. A few hours later, the square was blanketed with protestors, who blocked traffic and outnumbered the completely surprised -- and clearly unprepared -- anti-riot police. Massive groups of people had emerged from several areas leading into the square -- Bab Al-Louq, Talaat Harb, Garden City and the Corniche -- to join the protest.

"The people's first demand is shutting the embassy and expelling the ambassador!" protestors yelled. "Down with the USA, we won't be ruled by the CIA! We won't be ruled by imperialism", "Down Bush, down Blair, down Aznar!", "We give our souls and blood to you Baghdad", "Why are the Arab leaders silent? What will happen after the war?" were amongst the slogans being vigorously chanted in the square. Banners that said things like 'Down with Powellian democracy' also illustrated local resentment of the US administration's 'Middle East democracy initiative' announced several months ago.

Several attempts to reach the US and British embassies failed, as armies of anti-riot police blocked all the streets and squares leading to the two Garden City diplomatic missions. The scene at Simon Bolivar Square -- the closest to the US Embassy -- occasionally turned violent, with both anti-riot police and angry protestors hurling stones at each other. An armoured car equipped with a fire hose emerged from behind the police to spray demonstrators with blue- coloured water mixed with tear gas chemicals. All the while the demonstrators shook their fists and yelled, "Pull down the flag! Pull down the flag!", referring to the American flag fluttering above the embassy.

Independent estimates put the number of protestors at 20,000. In fact, for 10 hours, the capital's most famous and strategic square was occupied by people from all age groups and walks of life: activists; politicians; students; children; passers-by; families; housewives; professors; beggars; journalists; and downtown Cairo residents.

"I've never been to a demonstration before," said Sherine Abdel-Samei', a 20-year-old law student, "but today I decided to come. Today is different. They're bombing Iraq and everybody is here in Tahrir." Next to her, an 18-year old boy whose face was covered with a kuffiyah "to look like a Palestinian" said that "America is the source of terrorism. Ever since the Palestinian Intifada began, everyone has come to agree on this. The US is funding Israel as it kills Palestinians, and now it's killing Iraqis. We all want to go to Iraq to fight with our brothers. We all hate America," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

As the huge crowd gave up on reaching the embassies, and settled in Tahrir Square itself, the square's central but small garden began to resemble London's Hyde Park. Speaking into a microphone, Magdi Hussein, secretary-general of the frozen Islamist Labour Party, addressed some 200 people who had gathered around him. Unsurprisingly, the fiery opposition figure criticised the Egyptian and Arab governments for their stands vis-à-vis the war.

Addressing this same crowd, Nasserist MP Hamdeen Sabahi -- who was arrested on Sunday 23 March -- said that, "if Bush thinks he can occupy our land in Iraq, then we can occupy their embassy here." As the crowd cheered these words, he went on to say, "the Egyptian people hereby announce the closure of the Suez Canal in the face of the [allied forces]."

By nightfall, although many had left the square, more had poured in. "At one point I felt like I was in Paris's Place de la Concorde," said Diaa Rashwan, a political analyst at Al-Ahram's Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. "All sorts of people were there -- many of them ordinary housewives. Young people were drawing on the asphalt while others were singing."

Rashwan, who was an activist in the 1970s student movement, told the Weekly that he was stunned by the huge turnout.

The somewhat festive air was complimented by hundreds of candles that lit the square once the sun had set. Dozens of protestors chanted songs by poet Ahmed Fouad Negm and the late Sheikh Imam. The duo was famous in the 1960s and 1970s, representing the revolutionary fervour of Arab students and workers during strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations.

It was no coincidence, noted observers present at the demonstration, that these songs had been resurrected on the first day of America's invasion of Iraq by an entirely new generation practicing political activism for the first time. "Despite its general silence, Egyptian public opinion glows in situations like this," said Tarek El-Bishri, a respected historian and political writer, and former vice-president of the state council. "Issues related to Arab nationalism and liberation move the Egyptian consciousness, and consensus on these issues creates this effect."

Despite the fact that the exhausted anti-riot police set police dogs loose on the demonstrators after midnight to force them to disperse, the general view was that the security apparatus was exceptionally tolerant on Thursday. Friday was another story altogether.

Thousands of anti-riot policemen had been stationed across central Cairo and near Al-Azhar Mosque in Islamic Cairo since daybreak. Dozens of Armoured Personal Carriers (APCs), police vehicles and fire engines had turned the city into what looked like a military zone, in anticipation of a massive anti-war march following Friday prayers, with demonstrators set to walk from Al-Azhar all the way to Tahrir Square.

At the historic mosque, as soon as some 20,000 worshippers had finished praying, the anti-war chants began. For a while, the police refused to let the worshippers out of the mosque. Eventually, however, the mosque's doors were forced open, and an armored vehicle immediately began spraying water on the people pouring out onto the street. This didn't stop thousands from gathering around the mosque, and onto Al-Azhar Street, where several demonstrations took place.

Although police forces were able to divide the masses into smaller groups, this did not stop the demonstrators from trying to break through the various security cordons, resulting in more water being sprayed, and stone throwing from both sides. Somehow, a bit later in the afternoon, thousands of demonstrators managed to make it to central Cairo, where anti-riot police, police officers and plain-clothes police agents chased them down, and reportedly arrested hundreds.

"We weren't doing anything to justify all this," said an eyewitness who was at Tahrir. "We assembled there for a peaceful demonstration but everyone was beaten up with truncheons or arrested. Others were sprayed with blue-coloured water canons near the Egyptian Museum, and at Abdel-Moneim Riad Square."

In any case, it appeared to be pure chaos, with more and more people approaching central Cairo from several directions at once, and anti-riot police attacking all and sundry. The most shocking development, perhaps, took place when a fire truck parked near the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) headquarters on the Nile corniche suddenly caught fire, marking Cairo's sky with thick black smoke, visible for miles. Eyewitnesses say that although another fire truck was parked right next to the one on fire, there was no attempt try to put out the blaze. The demonstrators were blamed for the fire, and mass arrests took place.

By 5pm, other than the tens of thousands of anti-riot police, some 400 police vehicles (according to an officer who requested anonymity) and police dogs, downtown Cairo and Tahrir square were completely empty. Any group of people who dared to approach the area found themselves immediately under attack by hundreds of plain-clothes police agents who beat them with truncheons.

On Friday evening, the interior minister issued a statement prohibiting street demonstrations without permits, basically a reminder that the Emergency Law bans public demonstrations. This however didn't deter tens of thousands of students who continued demonstrating against the war and the US-led coalition -- albeit within the grounds of their respective universities. Hundreds of journalists also held a two-day sit-in at the Press Syndicate on Monday and Tuesday, protesting the arrest of activists, and demanding the immediate release of detainees. And on Monday, thousands of lawyers went on strike in protest of the war.

As the Interior Ministry made its statement on Friday, a few hundred activists, lawyers, journalists and students held a sit-in in front of the Bar Association, where they chanted slogans demanding the release of those detained throughout the day. Although anti-riot forces had cordoned off the protestors, some 200 plain-clothes police agents suddenly emerged from nearby Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat Street, and attacked the sit-in, viciously beating and arresting people at random. Nasserist MP Hamdeen Sabahi was beaten up by a dozen of these agents, who then left him bleeding on the street. Al-Jazeera correspondent Lina El-Ghadban, who was covering the event, was also attacked, with agents snatching her bag and the station's video camera. Those inside the syndicate's headquarters were screaming hysterically. "Where is the media? Where is everybody?" shouted a lawyer in between sobs.

"The police are obviously in shock," Bar Association head Sameh Ashour told the Weekly. Ashour had arrived at the syndicate after the attack to hold an emergency meeting. "This was all a result of public anger, enthusiasm and sincere nationalist feelings. But we won't allow anyone to violate the sanctity of our syndicate, and we hold the Interior Ministry responsible for what happened."

According to Sabahi, the police clampdown on protestors reflects "the government's fear of the power of the people, as well as America's fear of this same power." Speaking with dried blood all over his face, the MP vowed to present an interpellation to parliament regarding what happened.

Sabahi was due to present that interpellation on Sunday evening but was unable to make it to parliament because he was arrested on Sunday afternoon in front of his home. Both he and independent MP Mohamed Farid Hassanein have been remanded in custody for 15 days pending investigations. Dozens of activists were also arrested, either from their homes or on the street, throughout the week. One of these, PhD student Tamim El-Barghouti, son of renowned Palestinian poet Murid El-Barghouti and Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour, was arrested at 5am at his home on Sunday.

Meanwhile, shocked activists, many of whom expect to be arrested, confined themselves to 'reassessment' meetings to figure out ways to deal with the government clampdown.

"It seems there were two police policies set up to deal with the demonstrations," argued Rashwan. "The first was more politicised, favouring containment of anger, rather than confrontation. This attitude prevailed on Thursday, 20 March. The other school of thought -- which is purely security oriented -- later won out, hence the clampdown." Rashwan predicted that if police repression continues, "combined with public anger and the existing economic crisis, we'll enter a dark tunnel".

Rashwan urged the government to reconsider its policy.

The people are reacting to the "occupation" of an Arab country, explained Rashwan. "It's not a 'war'. This is the first kind of occupation the Arabs have experienced since the 19th century. Its magnitude shouldn't be undermined."

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