Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Day of Anger In Egypt

Just a few remarks about today's Day of Anger protests in Egypt, based on my personal oberservations. This was an important test for both the government and the opposition. The opposition -- a loose alliance of liberals, leftists and Islamists -- had to prove that the uprising in Tunisia has changed the balance of forces by showing ordinary people that they can bring about change by coming out on the streets. The government, acting as so often through the riot police, had to show that such protests are pointless and Egyptians would do well to stay away. They also had to avoid confrontations which could lead to deaths and serious injuries. The protests are continuing into the evening but the numbers of people taking part seems to be diminishing as it grows colder and people get hungry. At 7.30 p.m. a separate group of about 100 is still chanting in Kasr al-Aini street within earshot of my balcony.
    The numbers were not that large. Al Jazeera said tens of thousands but that included protests in provincial cities where reporters (at least in my experience) have a habit of greatly exaggerating the turnout. My estimate, from what I saw in Tahrir Square right in the heart of the modern city at the peak, was that several thousand people took part there. There were also many spectators, with differing levels of engagement. Such numbers are not quite unprecedented. In 2005 the Muslim Brotherhood brought some 10,000 people on to the streets in Ramses Square, opposite the main train station. But for a change the protestors appeared to feel that there was at least some chance that their protests might just make a difference and might lead to a popular movement of the kind that brought down President Ben Ali in Tunis.
    The police acted with a mixture of restraint and incompetence. They abandoned their usual practice of sealing off the hard core of protesters and instead let them loose to march through the streets. The riot police did form cordons here and there but the cordons melted away when protesters approached in large numbers. The riot police were ill-prepared -- when protesters threw smoking tear gas canisters back at them they had to disperse because they didn't have any masks. When protesters threw stones at them, disciple broke down and the police started throwing stones back. A few groups of police tried to use their shields phalanx-style to protect themselves but it was haphazard. The water cannon was too feeble to deter the protesters. On several occasions I saw groups of up to 100 riot police retreating in disarray, with protesters in pursuit.
    The participants were a cross-section of Egyptian society, including many middle class and lower middle class, but the poorest of the poor were not there. I saw very few men wearing galabias, which is generally a class marker. The Muslim Brotherhood, which did not fully endorse the protest but allowed young member to go, was in fact very much in evidence and I saw several Brotherhood members acting as 'stewards'. When stone-throwing broke out, a group of Muslim Brothers started chanting 'Silmiya, silmiya" (Keep it peaceful). The grievances aired were very diverse, but the departure of President Hosni Mubarak was the overwhelming demand.
    So what next? I don't know. I expect the government will be seriously rattled -- in effect they lost control of central Cairo for many hours. But it was a public holiday so that didn't matter too much. The riot police (Amn Markazi or Central Security) clearly have disciplinary and tactical problems which could leave them vulnerable if there are bigger protests. The opposition will be greatly encouraged, to some extent by the turnout but yet more by the atmosphere of optimism that change might be possible. This was not a Sidi Bouzid moment for Egypt, but it was quite different than the desultory and demoralized protests of about 100 people that Cairo usually sees.   

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