Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 March 2005
Issue No. 735
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

From Baghdad to Cairo

As Egyptian anti-war protesters marked the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq in Tahrir Square, reports Faiza Rady, domestic agendas seemed to take centre stage

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Protesters cordoned by policemen at the demonstration

Sunday 20 March marked the second anniversary of Egypt's first mass demonstration in a great many years.

On this day in 2003, some 20,000 Egyptians gathered in Cairo's Tahrir (Liberation) Square to protest against the US-led war on Iraq, joining millions of other anti-war activists across the world in a global day of protest.

In commemoration of this day, the 20 March Movement for Change (MMC) sponsored a demonstration on Sunday.

The MMC is a broad and motley coalition of opposition forces, which incorporates right- as well as left- leaning tendencies, including leftists, Islamists and Nasserists. Although protest over the continued US-led occupation of Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestine retained their rallying force within the movement, MMC activists broadened their demands this year to include other international and domestic issues.

"We are raising our voices to say no to Mubarak and his regime. We are against tyranny and dependency [on US imperialism], and we reject the regime's corruption and the impoverishment of millions of Egyptians. We demand democracy for the people and by the people," reads the MMC flyer.

The police, as usual, was out in full force as thousands of policemen occupied Tahrir Square since the early hours of Sunday morning. By noon, they had sealed off the square, transforming it into a no-go zone.

Indeed, so extensive was the police presence, and few the numbers of the demonstrators that many passersby were not aware that a demonstration was taking place. "There was a demonstration on Tahrir Square on Sunday, 20 March? What are you talking about? All I saw were heavily-armoured riot police vans, and helmeted shield-carrying policemen. I thought there had been a warning about some terrorist attack," a German resident at the Nile Hilton, overlooking the square, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Other pedestrians walked around, intrigued perhaps, at the obtrusive police presence, but otherwise oblivious of the demonstrators -- who were carefully shielded from public view by a wall of riot police. "We are here to preserve law and order and protect law-abiding citizens," a police officer told the Weekly.

In a tight zone of the square, by the mogammaa administrative building, two opposing groups of demonstrators were tightly squeezed behind police cordons and separated by several hundreds of baton- wielding policemen -- clearly outnumbering the two sets of demonstrators.

The more visible and hence more vocal group of an estimated 200 protesters turned out to be pro- government counter- demonstrators, sponsored by the ruling National Democratic Party and calling -- like the opposition -- for the withdrawal of United States troops from Iraq and an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Waving the Egyptian flag amidst posters of the president, this group interspersed anti-US occupation slogans with pro- Mubarak chants. "No to the US and no to Israel, there is no alternative to Hosni Mubarak", they chanted, and "no to American hegemony, reform is a popular will," a disclaimer of any US influence on President Mubarak's recent decision to amend Article 76 of the Constitution and allow for multi-candidate presidential elections.

"The president has worked hard to pressure Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians. He is also establishing political reforms. I fully support him and I'll vote for him," said 30-year- old computer analyst Magdi Gohar, one of the pro-government demonstrators.

Some 500 demonstrators, on the other side of the police fence, disagreed. "I've never voted in my life," said 24-year-old taxi driver Ahmed Gabr, who joined the MMC demonstrators, "but this time I'll vote in the presidential elections come September, if only to register my protest."

"Our message is anti-imperialist and anti-occupation," Salah Adli of MMC told the Weekly. "But beyond this we are also demanding an end to the emergency laws which have choked us for the past 24 years. We want a change of regime and we want to establish a democratic government that will free the Egyptian people from the oppression of poverty and destitution. This is why we are here."

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