I seem to have several worried emails from friends worrying about riots in Cairo based on what I assume must have been some pretty interesting coverage about the massive demonstration in Cairo and across many of the cities of Lower (northern) Egypt yesterday. Probably the most important thing to realize is that what happened yesterday were demonstrations and political protests not riots. They were certainly the biggest demonstrations about domestic politics since the 1950s and perhaps among the biggest ever. They didn’t shake the regime that way that the food riots of 1977 did or the revolt of the conscripted troops in 1984 but they were large and the government is clearly taking them as a kind of warning. The most remarkable thing about them, I think, is that they were a spontaneous response to a call by more or less unknown leaders who themselves have no well-founded organization. As such they indicate not only profound discontent with the regime and its policies but also what may be the rejection of what many here call “the culture of fear.” Husni Mubarak is not likely to be taking a plane to Riyadh anytime soon but the events yesterday may have crystallized much of what has been happening here for the past year.
Although there were significant confrontations between the police and the demonstrators, it’s apparent that the government decided not to use the massive force of which it is capable in one swift gesture. It didn’t, in other words, mow people down in the streets but it did use the kind of force which it has routinely used against demonstrations in the past including clubs, water cannon, and tear gas.
I’m going to try to write more later but for the moment there are two quite hopeful things that stand out.
The first is that the demonstrations were initially called through the Facebook page “We are all Khalid Said” which has been leading a major and successful effort to organize protests against police brutality, primarily through publicizing the brutal and deadly beating of a young citizen, Khalid Said, in Alexandria last year. The major political organizations—including the Muslim Brothers—stood aside from the call for yesterday’s demonstrations until virtually the last moment. It appears to have been young people who more or less forced the hand of the established opposition parties and organizations so that they all endorsed the demonstration by the hours before it was due to start. Yesterday was a holiday—and I’m sure the irony wasn’t lost on the organizers—national police day. So it was a day off and it seemed more than appropriate that people use the day off to demonstrate about how the police are used as well as about economic issues that have roiled the country for the past several years, leading to many strikes in the industrial heartland of the Delta. The regime’s nightmare has long been that the strikes of the industrial workers might some day link up with the demands of political insurgency. Yesterday might have been a step in that direction.
The second hopeful thing is how strongly the initially quite peaceful demonstrations focused on Egyptian issues and the demand for political reform, freedom, and some amelioration of the economy. These are all issues that the opposition press has been stressing ever since events in Tunis which clearly had some catalytic impact here. As far as I can tell there were no demands for Islam as the solution and no particular concern with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. These are, of course, not issues without resonance in Egypt but yesterday Egyptians focused on Egypt. One sign carried by a demonstrator, “Tunis is the solution,” was clearly something of a rebuke to the Muslim Brotherhood whose slogan since the 1930s has been “Islam is the solution.”
For those who claim that Egyptians somehow don’t know what’s going wrong in their own society or can’t be critical of their own government this was also something of a watershed.
Where things go next is hard to tell. Unlike Tunis, the army is probably quite willing to use force to back up the police. The army does benefit from the current institutional arrangement. Nothing says this to me quite as much as the immense growth over the last 30 years of the Officer’s Club in Zamalek, a very affluent section of Cairo, which now has a luxury hotel, an outdoor restaurant, and (at least as nearly as one can judge from peeking through gaps in the very high and solid wall) an extremely relaxing oasis of a club in this island in the middle of the Nile.
There are of course very real problems, not least of which is tension between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority. From the drive-by shootings in Nag’ Hammadi in the south a year ago to the suicide bombing of a church in Alexandria in the past month there has been a persistent anxiety. This is heightened in that it seems to be very much the policy of the government to claim that it is protecting both the Copts and the majority of the Egyptian people from Islamic extremists. To do so, it says, it must maintain the state of emergency which I notice the western press says has been in effect since Anwar Sadat’s murder. Not untrue, that ignores the reality that with the exception of an 18-month period Egypt has been ruled either by martial law or some other form of exceptional rule for most of the last 50 years.
Where do things go from here? It’s hard to say but one thing does seem to have changed: this will be a much more interesting time to be here than I would have thought six months ago.