Egyptians marking the Intifada's third anniversary seized the opportunity to protest their own government's policies. Amira Howeidy reports
Two days of solidarity activities marking the third anniversary of the Palestinian Intifada this week were largely overshadowed by the current economic crisis and other domestic problems.
At a 27 September sit-in, dozens of journalists lined up at the entrance of their downtown headquarters chanting slogans against the US, Israel, the Iraqi Interim Governing Council and the Egyptian government, while security forces -- who outnumbered the protesters -- watched from the other side of the road. Soon, however, slogans like "Resistance is the solution" and "Palestine, Hamas and Iraq -- Hold on!" gave way to "Atef Ebeid, the Egyptian people are eating stones."
The transition occurred when Nur El-Hoda Zaki, a journalist with Al-Arabi newspaper (the mouthpiece of the Nasserist opposition party) took over the microphone, and shouted, "Seven pounds are now a dollar," and "To the government of soaring prices: tomorrow our country will burn." The crowd -- which had been repeating the pro-Intifada mantras with relative nonchalance, now began chanting the new slogans with much more passion.
The next day, a demonstration in central Cairo's Tahrir Square marking precisely three years since the Intifada began saw much the same sort of scene. The few hundred activists, intellectuals and politicians who had gathered in front of Mugamma' Al-Tahrir -- the headquarters of the government's central administrative offices, and the demonstration's meeting point -- since noon were surrounded by rows of anti-riot police, dozens of armoured vehicles, APCs (armoured personal carriers), high-ranking police officers and police dogs which were also conspicuously sniffing around the surrounding underground metro stations. "We're 100 to one" chuckled one protester.
Palestinian and Iraqi flags fluttered above the heads of those chanting, "Long live the Iraqi resistance, long live the resistance of the Arab people!" and "Repeat after me -- America is the source of terrorism." As the three-hour long demonstration gained momentum, hundreds of Mugamma' employees who had been gazing out at the demonstration from the buildings' many windows seemed to have decided to join the crowd.
Gradually, the focus of the chants began to change. "What does the emergency law mean? It means jail," the crowd started to chant wildly. "Lock up the free souls, raise prices, glory for us and shame on you!"
Police informants posing as reporters were frantically scribbling down the slogans, their hidden but noisy walkie-talkies exposing their true calling. Other officers were simply dictating the slogans into their mobile phones.
"We want a new government, life has become unbearable," chanted the crowd. "I swear by the sky and the earth, the NDP is the cause of our ruin" was one slogan that was clearly directed at the ruling party's annual conference that was taking place on the other side of town.
Although Sunday's protest was mainly organised by left-wing political forces -- the Egyptian Popular Committee in Solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada (ECSPI) and the opposition Tagammu Party -- Islamists represented by the frozen Labour Party actually started the demonstrating. At times, the demonstration seemed to be fluctuating between its Islamist and nationalist bents, with each group shouting out its respective sentiments, from "Open the doors of jihad" to "Long live the Iraqi resistance, long live the resistance of the Arab people."
Frustrated by a seemingly unstoppable economic crisis, the local currency's loss of 50 per cent of its value in less than a year, skyrocketing prices and a scary shortage of government subsidised bread, the demonstrators harped on the average Egyptian's daily struggle to make ends meet. Other slogans -- calling for the release of detained activists from both the left wing and Islamic movements such as Ashraf Ibrahim, Ali Abdel-Fattah and Gamal Heshmat -- were meant to be reminders of the stifling effect of the 22-year-old Emergency Law.
Despite the importance of these domestic issues, critics were unhappy with the fact that the demonstration's focus had shifted away from the Intifada. Many accused the organisers of confusion and ineptitude. According to opposition MP Hamdeen El-Sabahi, "a demonstration has to focus on its objective, but there are very serious issues like the rise in prices and the issue of freedoms and free speech that simply cannot be ignored." El-Sabahi told Al-Ahram Weekly that, "Egyptians' latent feelings that they cannot express themselves freely [helps] turn this kind of demonstration into an occasion to spill out everything at one go. Free speech is under siege all the time and that's what you get as a result."
In fact, Sunday's demonstration was the first to take place in Tahrir Square since last March, when tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets in protest of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. The unexpected massive turnout took many by surprise, as the masses grew in number and eventually occupied this strategic point in the capital. Rows of anti-riot police had prepared themselves the next day to prevent the alarming power of the people -- usually solidly under control via the Emergency Law -- from taking other shapes and forms. Violent clashes the next day resulted in the arrest of approximately 1,000 people, including anti-war activists, MPs, journalists, university professors, students and passers-by. El-Sabahi was one of them.
"We mustn't forget that this was the first demonstration in six months, and we had to seize the opportunity," he said. "The Egyptian nationalist movement is still immature and remains incapable of mobilising the masses, nor does it rise to the level of threat that this country is facing. The general security environment that is intolerant of such activities is largely responsible for this, but we must admit our own shortcomings as a movement as well."
Indeed, the feeble turnout at the Press Syndicate on Saturday, combined with the few hundred who showed up for Sunday's demonstration, seemed to reflect a growing apathy within the ranks of activists and demonstrators alike. Even Cairo University and the American University in Cairo, both of which have been founts for massive student demonstrations over the past three years, remained conspicuously silent for the Intifada's third anniversary.
Had the devastating economic crisis, the primary subject of concern for most households, taken its toll on what seemed, until recently, to be a growing political awareness amongst the masses?
"We can't really know if people have lost interest," said Aida Seif El-Dawla, a university professor and one of the founders of ECSPI. Seif El- Dawla pointed at the rows of anti-riot police blocking the protest from moving to the street. "Because they are keeping people from coming here," she said. Seif El-Dawla conceded, however, that the fact that domestic issues dominated what was supposed to be a pro-Intifada demonstration showed that "issues that concern us take more passionate forms." As an afterthought, she also said, "I think that a popular outburst will very soon follow."