How enough is enough?
Yesterday, all across the country, writes Jailan Halawi
, hundreds of Kifaya demonstrators were stopped in their tracks
In the third and final episode of a three-part TV interview entitled "Testimonial to Posterity" -- aired Tuesday evening -- President Hosni Mubark insisted that he is yet to decide whether to run in the forthcoming presidential elections, scheduled for September. He also expressed the hope that his initiative to amend Article 76 of the constitution -- allowing for multi- candidate presidential elections -- will foster a vibrant opposition in Egypt.
Quite how vibrant was put to the test the very next morning, yesterday, as activists across the country heeded the call, made earlier this month by the Egyptian Movement for Change -- otherwise known as Kifaya (Enough) -- to gather at predetermined sites in 14 cities in peaceful protest of a possible fifth term for Mubarak. And while yesterday's was the most ambitious protest to be called by Kifaya since it launched its increasingly vocal campaign against Mubarak's reelection last December, it was hardly the show of national will the organisers envisaged for Cairo, Alexandria, seven Nile valley towns (Mansoura, Damanhour, Damietta, Zagazig, Aswan, Minya and Qena) and five coastal towns (Al- Arish, Marsa Matrouh, Port Said, Suez and Ismailia).
According to a Kifaya statement the focus of the protest this time round was ending the State of Emergency -- in force since the assassination of President Anwar El-Sadat in 1981 -- and forming "a transitional government and a national assembly to draft a new constitution". Scheduled to take place outside the Supreme Court Compound in downtown Cairo -- the site of Kifaya's first demonstration on 12 December -- the Cairo rally was halted as hundreds of anti-riot policemen cordoned off the area, arresting a number of activists as they stepped out of the adjacent underground metro station. Forced to relocate the protest to the nearby Press Syndicate, some 300 demonstrators gathered on the steps of the syndicate headquarters chanting anti-government slogans, surrounded by national and foreign TV cameras, besieged by many times their numbers of anti-riot police: "Enough," they chanted, "enough for Mubarak, enough for Gamal [Mubarak], enough for Kamal [El-Shazli, the deputy secretary-general of the ruling NDP]... Enough, we're at the end of our tether."
With the government under pressure both at home and abroad to introduce radical political reform, the past months have been witness to increasingly bold and vocal protests -- something the government need not necessarily dislike, some believe, so long as it remains within the boundary of the few hundred activists the Kifaya movement has so far managed to mobilise. In support of this view, they cite the harsh security measures unleashed in the case of Muslim Brotherhood protests -- Egypt's largest opposition group was conspicuously absent from yesterday's demonstrations -- in contrast to the relatively mild treatment Kifaya demonstrations receive. Aware that they were maintaining a precarious balance, the police, though they showed restraint towards protesters gathered outside the Press Syndicate, were more than sufficiently prepared for the possibility of the demonstrations spreading through the streets of downtown Cairo.
According to the editor of the Nasserist newspaper Al- Arabi, Kifaya activist Abdel- Halim Qandil, "52 activists were detained in the various Egyptian towns where demonstrations were to take place." Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Qandil said the police forced many Kifaya activists in Cairo into taxis, ordering the drivers to take them away; they also detained 30 demonstrators in the underground station near the Supreme Court. Security measures notwithstanding, the number of those who showed up at the Cairo demonstration was small relative to the publicity campaign waged prior to the event in opposition papers. In the words of Kifaya's general- coordinator, George Ishaq, "We don't care about the number of people who joined the protest, but rather about the fact that such acts of opposition are taking place -- exerting pressure on the regime to undertake genuine political reforms."
Will Kifaya manage single- handedly to engineer such reforms? Many Egyptians will not hesitate to answer this question in the negative. The charge that Kifaya -- and many of its leading figures, especially the controversial MP Ayman Nour -- is at bottom a TV phenomenon is frequently levelled at the movement. And the fact that the tens of thousands of people who witness such demonstrations in dowtown Cairo carry on with their business as usual is, for many, in itself evidence that it will take more than Kifaya to mobilise Egyptians in a political movement capable of bringing about a lasting, tangible change.
At time of going to the press many of the detainees had already been released.