Seasons of protest
2008: When demonstrations and strikes became the norm
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'We should not call it a strike, though it is clearly an expression of the discontent felt by large segments of society.' -- Prominent columnist Salama Ahmed Salama on the 6 April strike in which thousands of protesters in the industrial city of Mahala Al-Kubra demanded an end to spiralling inflation of basic foodstuffs.
The almost daily protests and strikes across Egypt provided a suitably dramatic finale to 2008. Nationwide demonstrations in solidarity with the people of Gaza were held throughout the past week while on 25 December demonstrations and strikes by workers, farmers and laypeople took place in Cairo, Fayoum, Assiut, Qena and Aswan (Upper Egypt), protesting against working conditions among a host of other issues. Examples of what has become a recurrent form of expression are in stark contrast with the mood that prevailed in Egypt less than five years ago.
In November alone 58 demonstrations, strikes and sit-ins took place according to the monitoring group Children of the Land Centre for Human Rights. The same group reported 44 demonstrations, sit-ins and strikes in October, 36 in August and 62 in July. It estimates that 188 separate protests took place in the first half of 2008.
The approximately 323 popular protests that took place across the nation spanned the social spectrum, from workers to Bedouins and farmers. Demonstrations and strikes by students, doctors, journalists, university professors and judges were not included in the centre's count. If they were, says political analyst Amr El-Choubaki of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, the number of protests in the first quarter of 2008 would equal the total for the whole of 2007.
"This escalation was last seen in the [demonstrations that led to the 1919 Revolution and subsequently the] 1923 constitution," said El-Choubaki.
Demonstrations of the once media-hyped anti-Mubarak Kifaya group were an exception in the last 12 months. The most notable protests in 2008 came from within blue-collar circles. Continuing a series of strikes and demonstrations that started at the end of 2006 and which escalated dramatically in 2007 (when more than 20,000 workers at the Delta Ghazl Al-Mahala textile mill held a 10-day sit-in protesting against unpaid bonuses), the same workers kicked off 2008 with a massive demonstration in February. Unlike previous protests, which focussed on improving work conditions and low wages, this one had an anti-government tone.
The situation in Mahala -- 120km north of Cairo -- took an unexpected turn when a workers strike planned for 6 April gained momentum nationwide. A group of previously unknown activists on the Facebook social networking website promoted calls for a general strike on the same day, a message picked up by thousands of Facebook users from all walks of life.
The 6 April "manifesto" -- as seen on Facebook -- focussed on a broad range of national grievances. "We want decent wages, education for our kids, a humane transport system, a functional health system, medicine for our children, a functional and independent judiciary, safety and security. We want freedom and dignity, and housing for the newly-weds. We don't want price increases, we don't want to be tortured in police stations, we don't want corruption, bribery, [arbitrary] detentions and manipulation of the judiciary," it read.
Facebook activists, who urged the public to refrain from buying anything on 6 April and, if possible, stay at home, did so against a backdrop of alarming shortages of subsidised bread across Egypt resulting in long queues, fights and deaths in front of bakeries. The calls for a national strike were preceded by an unprecedented one-day strike by university professors on 23 March protesting at low salaries and the intervention of the security apparatus on campuses across the country.
Days before the strike the Interior Ministry published a series of statements warning Egyptians not to take part and threatening to arrest anyone who attempted to stage public demonstrations. It is a moot point whether or not the Interior Ministry's actions served to publicise the strike calls and encouraged people to stay at home. The result, however, was clear on Cairo's famously congested streets which, on 6 April, were practically empty.
The scene was very different in the industrial town of Mahala where workers had planned to hold a peaceful demonstration after working hours. Clashes broke out between security forces -- heavily deployed in and around Mahala -- and protesters and two people were killed. Protests continued until 7 April and some shops and a school were set on fire, several cars were destroyed and hundreds detained by the security forces. Meanwhile, in Cairo, police arrested Esraa Abdel-Fattah, a 27-year-old employee at a computer company, one of the Facebook users who promoted the strike online. She was accused of "inciting" public disorder. Twenty-three others, including two Kifaya activists, were also arrested. While most of the detainees in Cairo were released Abdel-Fattah remained in prison for 15 days before the Interior Ministry set her free.
Attempts by the self-proclaimed "6 April activists" to mobilise the public for another general strike have all failed. But while many might have been discouraged by the violence and security clampdown of 6 April other, less politicised forms of protest, have continued across Egypt, in Sinai, Helwan, Qalyoubia, Ismailia, Toukh and Kafr Al-Zayat. Nurses in the Delta city of Kafr Al-Zayat staged a sit-in last November demanding better wages and working conditions, teachers at Al-Azhar Institute protested layoffs, pensioners demanded the payment of their pensions, Sinai's Bedouins demonstrated against random arrests and illegal detentions, and homeless residents of the Manshiet Nasser shantytown took to the streets to demand the authorities keep their promise to provide alternative homes after demolishing their houses in September.