Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 -16 April 2003
Issue No. 633
Egypt
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875
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Demonstrating the rift

The US-UK led invasion of Iraq continues to sow rifts between government policies and people's sentiments, writes Amira Howeidy


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Anti-riot police line up in front of the Sayeda Aisha Mosque and a woman holds a photo of Saddam Hussein during protests at Al-Azhar Mosque
"I wake up every day and the first thing I ask is 'what happened?' Are they still resisting? What are today's casualties?" says Yasser El-Atawi, a chauffeur. "I can't stand the thought of Baghdad falling, and although I never liked Saddam Hussein, I can't help but sympathise, and hope nothing happens to either him or any other member of the Iraqi government."

Comments like these make it clear that, as the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq enters its fourth week, public opinion is being radicalised by the day. Following Friday prayers at Al-Azhar Mosque on 4 April, thousands of worshippers held their customary anti-war demonstration to show solidarity with both Iraq and Palestine. Although there was nothing new about that, the difference was that this time protestors were holding up photos of Saddam Hussein.

While demonstrations in Cairo have been relatively calm and infrequent, their counterparts at universities across the country continue to take place nearly every day, and feature ever-louder calls for jihad. And as Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, hundreds of volunteers continued to register their names at the Bar Association in order to travel to Iraq and fight alongside their Iraqi brethren.

Despite all this, both the Egyptian public and the government seem torn, however, between the disparate ways of showing solidarity and "doing something for the cause".

That schism reached a peak of sorts last Friday, when activists who had obtained a court ruling backing an anti- war march from Sayeda Aisha Square near the Citadel to the US Embassy in Garden City were prevented from demonstrating by thousands of anti-riot police (see text of court ruling). Anti-riot police -- deployed since dawn -- had closed off most city streets near the Citadel, with barricades drastically changing motorists' routes. Those trying to take taxis to Sayeda Aisha were told that "getting there is impossible because there's a demonstration going on."

The day before the scheduled demonstration, an unidentified "security source" had been quoted in the country's largest daily papers as saying that "any unlicensed street demonstrations would not be tolerated." The source indicated that the court ruling allowing the Sayeda Aisha demonstration to take place was not valid because the government had contested the ruling, with an appeal set for 24 April. As a result, warned the report, the planned demonstration was illegal.

It was the second time the government had contested the same court ruling, since the court had rejected the government's first appeal. According to veteran civil rights lawyer Nabil El- Hilali, this meant that "the demonstration was perfectly legal. Any law student knows that because the government's attempt to contest the ruling was turned down the first time, a second attempt to contest the same ruling does not prevent the ruling from being implemented." Hilali says "this proves the constitutionality of the demonstration, and anyone who obstructed it would be violating the law and held accountable," even under the Emergency Law.

Despite this, and in a practical reminder of the 23-year-old Emergency Law's ban on both street demonstrations, some 55 people who were able to show up at Sayeda Aisha were promptly arrested. These included activists, journalists, passersby and even tourists who happened to be in the vicinity.

Eleven of the 55 were remanded in custody pending investigations. They include veteran activists Ashraf El- Bayoumi, a 68-year-old university professor (profiled by Al-Ahram Weekly in last week's issue), and Abdel-Mohsen Hamouda, the 73-year-old engineer who obtained the court ruling.

It was not the first time the Interior Ministry went for the mass arrest approach in connection with anti-war demonstrations. Following massive protests on 20-21 March -- the first two days of the war-- police arrested approximately 800 protestors, including two MPs, university professors, trade unionists, activists, journalists and students. Local and international human rights groups claimed that many of the arrestees were tortured.

The clampdown on political activists, however, actually began when security forces were trying to contain massive Palestinian solidarity demonstrations that took place across the nation two years ago. Anti-Israel and anti-US demonstrations that broke out at Alexandria University to mark the 54th anniversary of the 9 April Deir Yassin massacre (when Zionist groups killed and tortured the inhabitants of the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin) ended up spilling out across the city, with anti-riot police using shot gun pellets to disperse the crowd. A university student named Mohamed El-Sakka was killed in the clashes, and four others suffered permanent eye injuries.

Despite the government's tough stance, activists remain undeterred. Linked up with the global anti-war movement, they are now referred to as "anti-war" activists. El-Bayoumi was one of the main organisers of last December's Cairo conference against the war on Iraq, and his arrest has been criticised by several prominent international anti-war groups, including the British Stop the War Coalition.

Perhaps making matters more complicated, 37 activists signed a communiqué -- which was presented to the prosecutor- general on Saturday -- demanding that legal action by taken against both President Hosni Mubarak, in his capacity as chairman of the ruling National Democratic Party, and Interior Minister Habib El-Adli, for banning the Sayeda Aisha demonstration and arresting the activists who tried to take part in it, despite the court ruling permitting it.

Perhaps making matters more complicated, El-Bayoumi is also one of 37 activists who signed a communiqué -- which was presented to the prosecutor- general on Saturday -- demanding that legal action by taken against both President Hosni Mubarak, in his capacity as chairman of the ruling National Democratic Party, and Interior Minister Habib El-Adli, for banning the Sayeda Aisha demonstration and arresting the activists who tried to take part in it, despite the court ruling permitting it.

Ahmed Seif El-Islam, director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, the organisation that submitted the complaint, said that although Mubarak and El-Adli are unlikely to face charges, the group's objective is to demonstrate Egyptian opposition to the war.

If anything, observers say, the increasingly tense situation makes it clear that despite the arrests and violent crackdowns on demonstrations, the government seems undecided about how to deal with the general public's fury, as well as the defiance of both activists and the political elite.

The above-mentioned communiqué follows on the heels of an unprecedented statement issued by a group of prominent intellectuals opposing the president's position vis-à-vis the war on Iraq, and another by 'Egypt's judges' in much the same vein. A third statement was released this week, this one by veteran legal experts arguing that Egypt has the legal right to protect its national security and prevent war ships from crossing the Suez Canal.

The government has -- thus far -- tolerated these bold, and previously unheard of, moves, but most analysts are sceptical as to how long this phase will actually last.

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