Egypt Struggles to Control Anti-War Protests

For the second consecutive Friday, thousands of Egyptians gathered at Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque on March 28, 2003 to voice their opposition to the US-led invasion and bombing of Iraq. But it was immediately apparent upon arrival at al-Azhar that the March 28 demonstration would be very different from the dramatic protests of the previous week. Riot police lined the streets leading to the 1,000-year old mosque, but the state deployed only token forces around the building itself, in contrast to the massive presence on the previous Friday. Instead of clubs and riot shields, anti-war cartoons drawn by some of Egypt’s more famous caricaturists were arrayed in front of the mosque. Instead of police commanders, Muslim Brothers wearing badges issued by the “order committee” bustled around the street. Following noon prayers, a very orderly crowd of 10,000 marched out of the mosque away from downtown Cairo and dispersed peacefully within an hour. Three effigies with Halloween masks for heads bore the requisite Israeli, British and American flags, but the protest leaders refrained from shouting slogans against the regime of President Husni Mubarak.

The previous weekend, Cairo had witnessed two days of protests like nothing seen since the 1970s, complete with a day-long occupation of the central Tahrir Square on Thursday and running battles between riot police and demonstrators trying to reach the square again on Friday. At times, security forces were overwhelmed; at times, they reacted savagely, beating protesters with their batons. The regime cracked down. By nightfall, Tahrir Square was like an armed camp. According to human rights groups, a massive campaign of arrests has picked up 800-1,500 people — including two members of Parliament. Though some detainees have now been released, Human Rights Watch verified that several were severely beaten while in custody, to the extent that many suffered broken arms. Even those protesters who are out of jail face the prospect that their cases will be referred to Egypt’s notoriously opaque State Security Courts.

But Mubarak’s regime is responding to anti-war sentiment in Egypt with more than repressive security measures and large-scale detentions. As the March 28 demonstration showed, the regime recognizes the need to provide a state-sanctioned outlet for the growing rage over the US-led assault upon Iraq. Crowd control and specially printed placards were supplied by the Muslim Brotherhood, the officially outlawed party that is widely regarded as the strongest organized opposition to the nominally secular government. Brotherhood cadres sporting black bandanas dotted the demonstrators’ ranks, and yellow-sashed marshals periodically ordered sections of marchers to slow down. “Whenever the government is threatened by the street, it goes to the Brotherhood,” commented veteran activist Muhammad Waked.


The regime’s twin strategies of repression and cooptation aim to reduce the likelihood that the March 20 popular takeover of Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo will be repeated. Normally a snarl of honking traffic that pedestrians cross at the peril of death, the square belonged to the demonstrators on that day. For about 12 hours, they wandered almost bemused across its suddenly car-less expanse. “This is the first time we’ve made it out of the cage,” said one jubilant activist. Riot police were present in vast numbers, but only on the edges of the square. They had surrendered the center, which was filled with some 3,000 people listening to speeches and chanting slogans.

The protest had originally been scheduled for 1 pm on “the day after America begins bombing,” according to the e-mail and text messages circulated in advance. Events began early when a few hundred students from the tony American University in Cairo (AUC) made their way to the Omar Makram mosque on the far edge of the square, about as close to the US Embassy as anyone was allowed to go that day. The students were soon joined by a small contingent of Muslim Brothers who conducted a symbolic prayer overseen by their Supreme Guide Mamoun al-Hodeibi. Security forces closely hemmed in what looked set to become the usual symbolic demonstration.

But the crowd managed to burst through the cordons toward the main square, where they met other groups of leftist and Nasserist activists. The result was a surprisingly ecumenical demonstration that featured the stylish AUC students, hardened activists, Islamists and passersby. Aside from a few scuffles on the edges, the protest remained peaceful, as anti-regime slogans filled the air. “Mubarak! Leave! Leave!” chanted protesters. “Alaa [Mubarak’s son], tell your dad that millions hate him!” Other chants accused the Egyptian government of failing to take the long-term implications of the war in Iraq seriously. “Mubarak, wake up! Tomorrow the bombing will be in Bab al-Luq,” demonstrators shouted, referring to a nearby neighborhood.

State security officers witnessing the demonstration affirmed that they were allowing the anti-regime tenor of the demonstration, and that the seeming takeover of the square was in fact part of their plan to gather small, disparate demonstrations under their supervision. “Our policy is to collect them in one place and control them,” he said. But several times throughout the day, hundreds of demonstrators broke off from the main group and marched down the streets toward the US Embassy. When they encountered the cordons of riot police, they began tearing up pieces of pavement and throwing rocks, while chanting “Close down the embassy, take down the flag!” and “There is no god but God, and Bush is the enemy of God!” In the small side streets about a block from the embassy, the march was met by more riot police and a water cannon. Eventually, the marchers were dispersed and allowed to rejoin the main demonstration, which continued to occupy the square until almost midnight.

Running Battles

These confrontations were harbingers of the next day’s events, when security forces locked down Tahrir Square with massive numbers of troops to prevent it from being occupied again. Instead, smaller, roving groups of demonstrators ran through downtown, neither “collected” nor “controlled,” and periodically clashed with police. The demonstration on March 21 began in Islamic Cairo at the al-Azhar mosque. Following a quick sermon by the state’s leading cleric, Muhammad al-Sayyid Tantawi, in which he spoke vaguely about solidarity with the Iraqi people in the face of their hardships, the chants and slogans began immediately. Riot police immediately blocked the main doors and refused to allow worshippers to leave, trapping them in the small vestibule. Worshippers responded by breaking up furniture to trade blows with the batons of police and throw their shoes, all the while chanting, “With our blood and soul, we will sacrifice ourselves for Islam.” In Egypt, that particular chant usually references Palestine or Baghdad.

While the melee at the mosque doors continued, however, bystanders gathered in clumps of vocal protest in the streets around the mosque. Soon up to three distinct crowds waving banners and loudly denouncing the US invasion of Iraq — as well as the Egyptian regime — confronted police. The small groups were ruthlessly broken up with attack dogs and water cannons, sending individual demonstrators fleeing into the narrow alleys of the nearby market. Modifying a well-known chant at soccer games, onlookers declared, “Stop! Look! Egyptian is beating Egyptian!” Eventually, one large group of several thousand protesters remained about 100 meters up the street from al-Azhar. After burning makeshift American and Israeli flags, they turned away from the security forces and headed toward downtown, approximately an hour away at a normal walking pace.

All the while, groups of police clashed with the marchers and herded them toward the wide European-style boulevards and squares which lead to Tahrir Square, close to the Nile River. The way to the square, however, was blocked and soon masses of angry youth were surging through downtown, crashing into one wall of riot troops after another. Several different groups converged on the Nile from different directions, and some 10,000 protesters spilled out of the downtown streets into the area just north of Tahrir Square between the Ramses Hilton and the Egyptian Museum. There the demonstrators overwhelmed units of riot police and set fire to a water truck busy reloading one of the water cannons. Marching along the Corniche, they stopped to torch the poster of Mubarak outside the ruling party headquarters and burn all the foreign flags outside the Nile Hilton. They even attempted to march on to the US Embassy before being scattered by a massed phalanx of riot police. “Today wasn’t like yesterday at all,” said one activist, surveying the smoldering remnants of the water truck and the squads of police rounding up the remaining demonstrators. “Security was definitely not in control of the situation, because people were not willing to give up.”

Critical Period Past

Though the Egyptian regime is wary of all types of organized protest, it will intervene most forcibly to channel popular anger over the Iraq war and other regional issues away from the government. Mubarak’s own statement upon the outbreak of war on March 19 focused on Saddam Hussein’s role in bringing Washington’s wrath down upon his country. His statement provoked a response almost as rare as rioting in the capital, when 26 intellectuals signed a counter-statement in the Nasserist weekly al-Arabi blaming the war on US “colonialist aggression.” Most of the signatories are sufficiently prominent that they won’t come to harm, but nonetheless it is an unusual step for Egyptian intellectuals to directly contradict Mubarak in a major publication. Intellectuals, however, are not the ones to lead street demonstrations and already, a week after March 20-21, there is a sense that momentum is being lost.

“There is no continuity, there is no enlargement,” said Abd al-Moneim Said, director of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “Obviously there is no core organization working with the demonstrations.” If there had been, the authorities moved quickly to neutralize it, first by surrounding the Lawyers’ Syndicate on March 21 and arresting activists inside, and then by going after well-known activists in their homes over the next few days. According to those involved in the protests, the opportunity to build on the spontaneous explosions of anger was squandered. Whether helped along by state security intimidation or internal disarray or both, the critical period passed. “By being a little bit disillusioned and confused and not knowing what to do, the leadership decided to resort to conferences and seminars to figure out what to do,” said one activist who preferred to remain anonymous.

Maturing Street Politics

Still, the takeover of Tahrir Square and even the government-approved demonstration on March 28 are part of a slow expansion of the purview of Egyptian street politics — which had been moribund for most of the Mubarak era. Since the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada, demonstrations (though often small and encircled by large security presences) have become an almost weekly feature of Egyptian life. Under Egypt’s 1981 emergency law, recently renewed for another three years, public assembly of any kind is prohibited. Occasional demonstrations have mostly been penned inside mosque or university premises. Today, however, there is talk at the Interior Ministry of allowing organizers to obtain permits for demonstrations, a measure never before discussed. Emad Shahin, professor of political science at AUC, considers the regularity of street protest itself a significant development. “The continuity of demonstrations will teach people,” he says. “People are maturing politically.”

Two weeks before the March 20-21 protests, while the government was holding its own rally to hail national unity, a little-noticed knot of 150 people protested the renewal of the emergency law half a block from the Parliament building. Traditionally, protests in Egypt have concerned regional politics, whether Israeli incursions into the Occupied Territories or sanctions and war upon Iraq. During Israel’s major invasion of the West Bank in the spring of 2002, crowds in Cairo and Alexandria added to a wave of pro-Palestinian protests across the Arab world. But the protesters on March 5 represented a public mobilization over a domestic political issue. The 150 activists were surrounded by twice as many riot police, with plainclothes officers on hand to prevent bystanders from joining in. Their numbers seemed insignificant compared to the hundreds of thousands bussed in by the ruling party to applaud the government, as well as say a few words against the war in Iraq. However, the explicitly anti-government message expressed outside Parliament — its fire directed at Mubarak and also at his son Gamal — probably could not have been heard publicly a year ago.

The state appears determined to stop nascent anti-government dissent in its tracks, as shown by the arbitrary campaign of arrests and the decision to coopt protests emanating from al-Azhar by bringing in the Muslim Brotherhood. For their part, the Brotherhood are only too happy to raise their profile in society and do something that slows the relentless campaign of oppression against them. On February 27, the Brotherhood, together with a few other opposition parties, staged a rally of 140,000 at Cairo’s main stadium that was markedly devoid of anti-government slogans, as was the procession starting at al-Azhar on March 28. Mubarak himself has gone out of his way in recent speeches to affirm that Egypt is not aiding George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” in its war effort — something that crowds in the region, especially Syria, do not believe. For now, anti-war demonstrations are back within the relatively safe confines of university campuses or are carefully orchestrated with the government’s blessing. But as the war in Iraq drags on — exactly what the Egyptian regime feared would happen — and anger grows at images of Iraqi casualties, street politics may take over Cairo on subsequent occasions.

Paul Schemm is editor of the Cairo Times. Above article first appeared in Middle East Report Online and republished here with permission.