Al-Ahram Weekly Online
4 -10 April 2002
Issue No.580
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A massive popular outburst against Israel's brutal invasion of the Palestinian territories is sending a powerful message of solidarity to the Palestinians, and other messages closer to home. Amira Howeidy recounts the story of an unusual week on Egyptian streets

Tens of thousands of Egyptians were hitting the streets daily this week, expressing their outrage at Israel's brutal invasion of Palestinian territories and solidarity with the Palestinians' determined struggle for independence --see caption--
No one can count the number of times that Israeli and American flags have been burned to cinders, this week, across Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel 23 years ago. Almost as impossible is keeping a tabs on the number of demonstrations, or the innumerable demonstrators themselves. People across the country, and elsewhere in the Arab world, watched in awe as Egypt was shaken by demonstrations.

Possibly for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century, the Egyptians -- a people often viewed as politically indifferent, apathetic and even nihilistic -- did the unthinkable: they took to the streets to express unprecedentedly powerful feelings of solidarity with their Palestinian brethren.

Every day and seemingly everywhere, Egyptians have been going out onto the streets, from universities, schools, student hostels and mosques. And while the government continues to hold onto its traditional posture of "restraint", popular opinion, outraged at the extent of Israeli brutality against the Palestinians, has been throwing restraint to the wind, openly defying strict security measures designed to ensure the ban on street demonstrations stipulated by emergency law -- in force since 1981.

"The first demand of the people," protesters have been roaring in every demonstration, "is to close down the [Israeli Embassy] and expel the [Israeli] ambassador." The nation's professional syndicates, dozens of civil rights groups, pan-Arab committees, Palestine solidarity groups, religious institutions and political parties have been pressing for the same demand, through a frenzy of statements released over the past week.

And notwithstanding the ban on street demonstrations, it has become commonplace to hear about or often witness an impressive pro-Palestinian, anti- Israeli and anti-American protest, closer to home than could be imagined: in the school across your street, in the nearest university or, less frequently, out in the streets.

Everyone, it seemed, was joining in. A 70-year-old mother reportedly joined a 5,000-strong student demonstration in the 6th of October University; while an 8-year-old took great pride to tell this reporter that he had burned the Israeli flag at his prestigious Catholic-French school.

Also the stereotyped "Westernised" students of the American University in Cairo (AUC) broke out of their campus and actually blocked one of downtown Cairo's main streets, Qasr Al-Aini.

Friday, March 29: following the Friday prayers, a few thousand worshippers at Al-Azhar Mosque started the first demonstration following Israel's incursion into Ramallah the night before, and its attacks on the headquarters of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Saturday, March 30: a series of massive demonstrations sweep Cairo and Alexandria universities. In the Cairo suburb of Maadi, around 1,000 students at a military school demonstrated on the streets, calling for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador. Meanwhile, at the downtown headquarters of the Bar Association, hundreds tried to break away from the lines of central security forces blocking the syndicate's entrance, which eventually lead to violent clashes between the protesters and riot police. A number of lawyers were injured as a result.

A mix of state security officers and central security forces controlled all movement in the surrounding area. "No one will go out, people can shout as much as they want inside," one officer told Al-Ahram Weekly. "But we wont let them out and risk major chaos in the streets."

"Believe me, if any of this was useful, I would have joined them," he added.

The Nasserist Lawyers committee of the Bar Association invited protesters to join them and all patriotic people, "to march towards the Israeli Embassy" outside Cairo University two days later.

Sunday March 31: as Israel's indiscriminate executions of Palestinians increase and Arafat's plight worsens, unprecedented popular support for the Palestinians and mounting anger at Israel, the US and the Arab regimes takes the Egyptian street by storm. Tens of thousands across the nation join the demonstrations.

Protests could be seen in Giza, Heliopolis, Maadi, Boulaq, Doqqi and 6th of October City; and outside the capital, demonstrations took place Alexandria, as well as in various Delta and Upper Egyptian towns.

The slogans were the same nearly everywhere: "Palestine is Arab;" "We'll give up our souls and blood for Palestine;" "Down with Israel;" "Down with America;" "Abdel-Nasser said it once, the occupation is American;" "the [Saudi] peace initiative is American;" and, of course, first and foremost, "out with the Israeli ambassador."

Monday, 1 April: Hundreds of anti- riot squad men, accompanied by Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs), fire engines, tear gas, helmets, shields, batons and sticks, waited in front of Cairo University and cordoned off the entire university area, in preparation for the planned 12pm demonstration and would-be march towards the nearby Israeli Embassy.

By ten minutes after twelve, thousands had assembled in front of the main gate. Five minutes later, they had succeeded in breaking through the central security cordon and dashed towards the Israeli Embassy. As they approached the heavily secured apartment building which hosts the Israeli Embassy on its top floor, tear gas canisters began to fly. The suffocated protestors were forced back towards Cairo University's gates by stick-wielding riot police and rushing APCs.

Still, the demonstration continued for hours as the undeterred protesters reiterated their slogans again and again, despite virtually confrontations with the anti-riot police. The scene took on an epic character. Passionate protesters at the "front" of the crowd pushed against the lines of frustrated central security forces, in order to march towards the embassy. Each time they were stopped as the sticks of the anti-riot police rained down on them.

"The march will go on, it will go on," the crowd would roar and try to push through the police cordon. And again, the sticks would go down. The protestors' ranks continued to swell, joined by greater numbers of Cairo University students. Meanwhile, several thousand more demonstrators poured out of the nearby Sa'idiya high school and Cairo University's Faculty of Agriculture, on the east side of the road. Cordoned off by the police, they battled to join the protest in front of the Cairo university gate. Other demonstrations errupted on the western side, and others again on the northern side, approaching from the Egypt's Renaissance statue.

The anti-riot police, determined to keep the various demonstrations apart and away from the embassy was faced with an opposite determination on the part of the protestors. The demonstrators took to hurling stones at the police which responded with water cannon, tear gas, APC and batton charges.

Then, suddenly, an APC roared out its warning siren and attacked.

"Is this a battle zone or Cairo University?" asked Al-Jazeera TV's correspondent in Cairo in his report, aired later on in the day.

Tuesday, 2 April: Even bigger demonstrations break out in Cairo University. By 3pm, the scene in front of the university did resemble a battle zone.

As Al-Ahram Weekly went to print on Wednesday, the public anger and mass protests continued unabated. "Maybe it's the horrifying footage I watch every single day, or the fact that in my life time, I've heard only about defeat; negotiations for peace, but no Palestinian state and no Jerusalem. I'm fed up and angry and I dont care if the anti-riot police break my head," Farid Abdallah, a demonstrator in his 20s told the Weekly. And on the other side of the barricades: "Do you think we want to beat those people up? Only God knows how I feel inside," said a pencil-thin officer of the Central Security Forces.

photos: Khaled El-Fiqi, Sherif Sonbol & Ayman Ibrahim

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