Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1137, 28 February - 6 March 2013
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1137, 28 February - 6 March 2013

Ahram Weekly

Civil disobedience: buzzword or wishful thinking?

All the rage, but is it happening? Amira Howeidy on the Gandhi-type civil disobedience that’s making headlines

Al-Ahram Weekly

It was on the 16th day of the nationwide protests against Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 that signs of what was then called civil disobedience — strikes in a host of public institutions — extended from Cairo to Suez. Two days later Mubarak stepped down.

The 18 days that ended Mubarak’s reign have been the subject of intense analysis but the subject of civil disobedience has been all but air-brushed from accounts of the nationwide demonstrations and their enormous effect. Now the term is being used to describe protests in several provinces, most notably in the Suez Canal city of Port Said.

Protesters blocked roads, congregated in the hundreds and thousands, closed schools and some public institutions and went on strike. The same occurred on a smaller scale in the Delta town of Mansoura and the industrial city of Mahalla, both of which witnessed demonstrations and road blocking. In Cairo dozens of protesters on Sunday stormed a Downtown Metro station, declared it a ticket-free week and invited passengers to take part in civil disobedience. On the same day the few dozen people who have kept Tahrir Square blocked for the past three months prevented employees at the Mugamma, the Interior Ministry’s administrative building, from going to work.

According to Al-Masry Al-Youm’s front page story of 25 February, the “circle of civil disobedience is expanding”. It’s all part of the new rhetoric on how opposition to President Mohamed Morsi is gaining momentum and moving beyond the state’s control.

What has turned the continuous rioting since the second anniversary of the 25 January Revolution into civil disobedience? More importantly, how do we define civil resistance, a term whose meaning has always been mutable? It takes more than attaching Gandhi’s photo to recent Facebook calls to disobey to fix a definition.

“Many confuse general strike with civil disobedience,” says Mona Anis, a former editor at Al-Ahram. What is happening in Port Said “is in essence a series of protests called by national and provincial grievances, including football fight and economic demands specific to Port Said’s history as a tax-free zone,” she adds.

On 26 January a court handed capital sentences to 21 defendants accused of killing 74 Ahli Club football fans in Port Said’s stadium last year. The verdict will be appealed but relatives of the defendants who are incarcerated in Port Said prison attempted to storm the jail. Many were armed. The violent clashes that ensued resulted in the deaths of at least 40, including two police officers, and hundreds being injured. Morsi responded by declaring a curfew in three Suez Canal cities, including Port Said. The residents defied the curfew, giving rise to the campaign of so-called civil disobedience.

It is unclear in what direction the protests are heading. Many of the road blocks lasted just 24 hours and work resumed in Port Said’s eastern port on Monday. Until Al-Ahram Weekly went to press Tahrir’s Mugamma was open and functioning. There have been no further attempts to instigate ticket free journeys on the tube.

While this might challenge notions that civil disobedience is gaining momentum, or even that it has been implemented at all, strikes, protests and anger at the authorities continue unabated.

“It all started with justified demands for a serious investigation into violent clashes, for victims’ families to be compensated and for Port Said’s pressing grievances to be addressed,” says Mahmoud Hegazi, secretary-general of the Salafist Nour Party in Port Said. “The people are angry, but that doesn’t mean they’re pushing for separatism.”

Fifteen- and 16-year-old protesters are calling for civil disobedience, “but it hasn’t gained momentum”, he adds.

But there are no guarantees either that the growing “sense of injustice” which Hegazi and many Port Said citizens have voiced will not lead to civil disobedience, including actions such as withholding payment of electricity bills and taxes, except perhaps for the fact that this requires, as Gandhi’s struggle for India’s independence illustrated, a clear and unified goal.

Rioters are divided between wanting to overthrow Morsi and demands for better wages, reforming the security apparatus, improving public services, addressing unemployment and the collapsing economy. The divisions are a reflection of the growing rifts across the political spectrum on how to manage Egypt’s crisis.


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