Following a demonstration at the Cairo Book Fair Amira Howeidy
finds the 'Enough' movement embarrassed by its sudden rise to international renown
Friday morning in Cairo is the only time of the week when the city's famously congested streets are relatively empty. There was an exception to that rule last weekend, in front of the Nasr City Fair Grounds where the 37th round of the Cairo International Book Fair was taking place. Even though the fair attracts thousands of visitors a day, often bringing traffic on strategic Salah Salem Street to a grinding halt, there was something different about the Friday 4 February morning crowd.
State security police in black uniforms had replaced the parking assistants that usually patrol the fairgrounds' two parking areas. A third parking area had been fully occupied by khaki police trucks since the wee hours of the morning. Four anti-riot policemen on horses, long truncheons in hand, lingered nearby. Closer to the gates, there were high-ranking police officers carrying loud walkie-talkies. Eleven other policemen on horseback were stationed at the back entrance, and platoons of anti-riot police and their trucks stood waiting at the closed western gates.
The massive security presence was in anticipation of a demonstration, organised by the Popular Campaign for Change, against President Hosni Mubarak running for a fifth term in office. The demonstration was scheduled to take place inside the Book Fair at noon. Long lines of seemingly bored anti-riot police were positioned across the fairgrounds. Others were lined up in large square-like formations blocking vast areas of open space, rendering them off-limits to the astonished public.
At the far end of the fairgrounds, where the police was gathered in what looked like a sea of blackness -- broken only by several dozen blue-uniformed policemen from the newly formed Emergency Forces -- the demonstration was taking place, a small circle surrounded by several larger circles of anti-riot police.
"Leave!" the group of approximately 50 demonstrators belonging to the Popular Campaign for Change screamed -- " Kifaya ! Haram !" (Enough! It's too much!). For two-hours they chanted a variety of political slogans denouncing political repression, financial corruption, police brutality, poverty and normalisation with Israel. Their most popular chant, by far, was "Enough!" Reiterated dozens of times, with the same forcefulness and zeal, it immediately harked back to a popular slogan chanted in Egyptian football stadiums, and seemed a simple summation of a serious political sentiment at the same time. The word also translated eloquently into English, its nuances ensuring easy conveyance of the symbolic message to much more than just a domestic constituency.
The first kifaya demonstration ever held in Egypt took place in front of downtown Cairo's High Court last December. With only a couple of hundred demonstrators, the protest nonetheless attracted local and, more significantly, international attention. Organised by a group of activists, intellectuals and journalists calling themselves the Egyptian Movement for Change, or kifaya, the demonstration was mostly silent, with many of the participants covering their mouths with stickers that said kifaya.
The group's spokesman, Abdel-Halim Qandil, is the editor of the Nasserist opposition political party's mouthpiece, Al-Arabi, which spearheaded the campaign against reelecting Mubarak, and has openly opposed the rise of his son Gamal within the ruling party's ranks. Qandil was briefly kidnapped last November, beaten up and left naked in the desert. He said the security bodies were behind the incident, a charge vehemently denied by the interior minister.
Earlier, security forces had arrested three activists at the Book Fair, accusing them of distributing leaflets calling last Friday's demonstration. Two of them, Marwa Farouk and Baho Abdallah, were eventually released, but journalist Ibrahim El-Sahhari remained in Tora prison. El-Sahhari is a member of the Socialists Studies Centre that published The Socialists' Vision for Change -- a tome calling for political change -- which was confiscated last week by police at the fair.
Although he has been arrested before, this time El-Sahhari -- who was remanded in custody for 15 days pending investigations -- attracted international attention. His detention coincided with the arrest of opposition MP and Al-Ghad Party leader Ayman Nour, as well as the arrests of nine members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. On 7 February El-Sahhari began a hunger strike protesting his arrest. He was released a day later.
Both Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International issued statements this week slamming the arrests as well as the overall political climate in Egypt. By clamping down on opposition figures "as a means to intimidate members of the opposition and critics of the government and to obstruct their political activities", Egypt is sending "mixed signals," Amnesty said. HRW was more vocal, its Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson saying "the government's radical crackdown on peaceful dissent sends the message that there's no place for democratic freedoms under Mubarak."
On the same day, a New York Times editorial urged the Bush administration to confront Mubarak "with consistent calls for political freedom and open multiparty elections". Two days earlier, on 2 February, the Washington Post ran a story on the arrests, with emphasis on Nour's case. A Post editorial on 18 January had been titled "Enough in Egypt."
International, and particularly American, media attention has been a double-edged sword, or possibly a kiss of death, as far as the local activists are concerned, however. Spotlighting their demands and various forms of activism, it also lays them open to the charge of providing a pretext for foreign intervention in Egyptian domestic affairs.
One such activist, psychiatry professor Aida Seif El-Dawla, is unhappy with the attention. "Editorials like the one in the New York Times interpret what we do as a message to Bush," she told Al-Ahram Weekly, "which is absolutely not the case. If they were listening to what we've been saying, they would know we are also against imperialism in all its forms."
The attention has had its backlash at home, Seif El-Dawla said, with "pro-government newspapers and magazines using these editorials to question the Enough movement's patriotism".
Two weeks ago President Mubarak accused unspecified foreign powers of allocating $70 million to fund the campaign for constitutional amendments.
Seif El-Dawla is a member of the Popular Campaign for Change (PCC), the latest incarnation of what was originally a committee formed in 2000 in solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada, that evolved into an anti-war movement that called for and organised a series of massive demonstrations against the US-led occupation of Iraq. Five years later, this loose-knit group of leftists, Islamists, secularists, intellectuals, students, and activists has developed into something of a network of activists for change.
These groups reflect "a serious development in the political arena", said Magdi Hussein, editor of the suspended Al-Shaab newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Islamist-oriented Labour Party that was frozen by the government three years ago. "This is the first time demonstrations are held to oppose the president," he told the Weekly, "and not against something that was happening in Palestine and Iraq."
It is equally significant, he added, that the forces demanding change who have been politically active in the street over the past four years have not been the political parties. Hussein -- a member of the recently formed National Front for Change (NFC) -- led another anti-Mubarak demonstration at the Book Fair on 4 February outside the fairgrounds' mosque after police cordoned off the area and prevented demonstrators from departing from the mosque after Friday prayers.
Egyptian Movement for Change (Kifaya), PCC and NFC are organising a demonstration in front of Cairo University on 21 February (International Student's Day). "We definitely want to influence public opinion," Hussein said, "and collect more signatures demanding the simple right to elect the president."