Last week's response to political dissent appears to have united reformist ranks
Click to view caption|
Anti-riot police surround demonstrators at a tense protest against Mubarak's decision to seek a fifth term in office
Protesters for change and political reform who generally gather beneath the umbrella of Kifaya (Enough) now have two dates to remember.
The first, 25 May 2005, was when a small group of Kifaya activists -- mostly women -- were assaulted by thugs thought to have been hired by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) while they were demonstrating against the referendum on the amendment of Article 76 of the constitution. The attacks against the women, who were molested, beaten up and dragged in the street, provoked an international outcry. While the response of international rights groups, and more importantly Washington, pressured the government into setting up an enquiry nothing has emerged from the investigation, much to the chagrin of the victims. The one positive development was that following 25 May anti-Mubarak demonstrations tended to be violence-free. That unspoken truce ended on 30 July, the second date. The Popular Campaign for Change (PCC) had called for a demonstration in central Cairo's Tahrir Square in response to President Hosni Mubarak's announcement that he would run for a fifth term in office, scheduled at 6pm on 30 July.
By 5pm on Saturday the Tahrir Square resembled a military zone. Thousands of anti-riot police, special forces, hundreds of plain-clothed policemen, high ranking police and State Security Investigations (SSI) officers were deployed in Tahrir and the surrounding streets. Khaki police trucks and armoured vehicles completed the picture. "No body is allowed to stand here, please go away," a police officer standing in front of the mogamma, the government services building overlooking the Tahrir Square, told Al-Ahram Weekly. Members of the press who converged to cover the event were confined to a street next to the mogamma, surrounded by rows of riot police.
Ten minutes later, in nearby Talaat Harb Square, several Kifaya leaders, including George Ishak, Amin Iskandar and Mohamed Abdel-Qudous, were beaten by plain-clothed policemen as they attempted to gather in front of the Nasserist Party headquarters. With the exception of Abdel-Qudous, a Muslim Brotherhood member, they were then arrested.
The police sealed Talaat Harb Street and stopped all cars. Hundreds of plain- clothed policemen ran through the streets, arresting dozens of young men who were forced to sit on the ground with their hands behind their heads. Others were lined up against police trucks. A man in his late 30s lay semi-unconscious on the pavement while his friends called desperately for an ambulance.
Yet more plain-clothed policemen arrived, armed with short, heavy truncheons, and proceeded to round up demonstrators. One man, in his early 60s and apparently in shock, ran in circles shouting "Kill us! Hang us! Down with tyranny!"
Demonstrators who had escaped arrest gathered in Falaki Square, a couple of blocks away, where 60 of them stopped traffic and shouted anti-Mubarak slogans, some of which were insults. Half an hour later hundreds of security forces and plain- clothed policemen arrived.
Meanwhile a smaller group of demonstrators, including Aida Seif El-Dawla of the PCC, Wael Khalil, a Kifaya activist, and members of Youth for Change were cornered in Bab Al-Louq Street. Khalil, 40, was arrested by plain-clothed policemen and taken with several dozen others to Al-Darassa military camp.
While Ishak and Iskandar were released within hours 24 others remained in detention. They were accused of illegal assembly, resisting arrest and disseminating tendentious propaganda. Several activists sustained injuries that required hospitalisation.
Following his release Iskandar told the Weekly that SSI officers informed him and other Kifaya activists that "there will be no more demonstrations after Mubarak's nomination. It's over."
While Interior Ministry officials approached by the Weekly declined to comment on Iskander's claim the ministry did release a statement on Sunday saying the protesters had attempted to stage a demonstration without a licence, and accused them of throwing stones at security forces.
The tactics used in suppressing the demonstration appear to have backfired, just as they did on 25 May. On Saturday activists staged an all-night sit in at the Press Syndicate and the following morning moved to the nearby prosecutor- general's office, chanting slogans against corruption, the emergency laws and Mubarak and demanding "a free prosecutor". A few hours later Kifaya held a press conference in front of the Press Syndicate denouncing the arrests as "state authorised terror" and vowing to defy the authorities by continuing to stage peaceful demonstrations.
On Monday the 24 detainees were released on bail. Their release coincided with statements by US State Department spokesman Tom Casey who expressed "serious concern" at the arrests. "Any kind of intimidation or harassment of opposition groups would be incompatible with genuinely free and fair elections," he said.
A statement released by the Washington-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged President Mubarak to "urgently" appoint an independent commission to investigate the attacks.
"Police brutality against peaceful protesters is becoming the norm again in Egypt," said Joe Stork, deputy director of HRW's Middle East division. "What we saw in Cairo on Saturday night reflected a high-level decision not just to prevent a demonstration but also to physically punish those daring to protest against President Mubarak's candidacy."
It is a strategy that appears to be playing into the court of the reform movement. Following his release Kifaya's Wael Khalil described the police response to Saturday's demonstration as "stupid".
"It's brilliant PR for the movement for change, perfect anti-regime propaganda," he said. Such tactics, he continued, serve only to "energise the movement to continue what we're doing".
While Khalil sees his arrest and subsequent release as evidence of the "confusion" that has beset security officials as they struggle to formulate a strategy to contain political dissent, Iskandar points to the American factor. When Washington and Cairo are in agreement, specifically on regional issues such as Palestine and Iraq, then the authorities, he said, feel more comfortable in suppressing opposition.
Khalil believes the violence faced by Saturday's demonstrators will only increase the momentum of calls for reform. "It's good for us internally if only because it makes it clear who and what we're against."
His words seemed to be born out on Tuesday evening when the demonstration in Talaat Harb Square was organised by Writers for Change, members of Kifaya, PCC, Youth for Change and others. This time the police did not interfere.
With less than five weeks till presidential elections reformists protesting against Mubarak's nomination for a fifth term now face his imminent re-election under election rules they claim have been tailored to ensure no one else stands a chance against the incumbent. How will this effect their strategy?
"We will focus on discrediting the president and the election," Khalil replies confidently. "And once the elections are over we will re-define our mandate. It certainly won't end there."
As the Weekly was going to press on Wednesday, Kifaya was due to stage an anti-corruption demonstration in downtown's Opera Square.