Egypt: the failure of the virtual protest movement?

Egypt's April 6 protest movement has joined with Egypt's largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood in calling for a nationwide "stay at home" strike on May 4 to protest president Hosni Mubarak's government - on his birthday. The May 4 protest is set against a year-long series of failed protest actions called for by the April 6 movement. MENASSAT's Ismail Alexandrani looks at how a police state is successfully silencing the dissident masses.
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A small group of anti-government demonstrators protest at the Lawyer's Syndicate building in downtown Cairo, Egypt, May 4, 2008. © AP

CAIRO/ALEXANDRIA, May 4, 2009 (MENASSAT) - Young Egyptian activists like Salma Mahmoud are hoping the Muslim Brotherhood's support of a May 4 "stay-in-home" protest against the Egyptian government will translate into numbers. "The Brotherhood's pledge will definitely give people more support," she told one source.

Thus far, such pledges have not mattered.  Three protest calls by the April 6 youth activist movement have failed to generate significant ground-level actions in large part because Egypt's security force is massive.

And while the May 4 protest has the added symbolism of being against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's policies - on his birthday - the majority of Egyptians affected by government policies will likely still remain reticent to act out against him.

What's more is that various sectors in Egypt react differently to the government's skewed policies. Egyptian farmers have proven to be largely passive to government policies, whereas workers from trade, manufacturing or coastal industries have proven more prone to act against threats to their livelihoods.

Thousands of industrial workers in the Nile Delta town of Mahalla Al-Kubra took to the streets to protest high food prices and low wages on April 6, 2008, resulting in a violent police crackdown that killed 3 and injured more than 100.

Chronology of subversion

There are historical precedents to the Mahalla demos, but nothing in the last two years has failed to generate the street presence that occurred on that day in April.

In fact, it's safe to say that since Egypt's second president Jamal Abdel Nasser died in 1970, successive presidential regimes have honed state methods for humiliating their opponents.

If Nasser executed his Islamic opponents in mock trials, Anwar al-Sadat publicly discredited Sheikh Ahmad al-Mahlawi, an eminent religious figure in Egypt.

Under Mubarak, military-style courts like the Tanta Emergency State Security courts have been used to target civilians who speak out against the current government. This includes 22 people serving jail terms of between 3 and 5 years for their participation in the Mahalla protests.

Part of the problem here is that Egyptians have traditionally looked at their leaders as father figures, and since Nasser's presidency, opposing the president has been equated to a betrayal of the father's demands for the country.

Given the defamation laws in the books since Mubarak declared a state of emergency in 1981, the state's policy of legal retribution against dissidents speaking or acting out against the "father" has been legion.

Egypt's prisons are filled with people that have spoken out against government abuses of power.

Analyzing the protests

It is through the lens of state oppression that one can frame the failure of the April 6 movement to mobilize mass protests like those in the Mahalla.

Discontented Egyptians are forced to confront the vaunted mechanisms of the state's security apparatus, and pro-regime media actively report on "police crackdowns" and "prison sentences" for demonstrators or against dissident actions by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Going back to the April 2008 demonstrations, Egyptians were well aware of the casualties, injuries, arrests and chaos that resulted after protesters clashed with Egyptian security forces the year before.

Pro-regime media had made it explicitly clear that Egypt's security agencies could open "security files" on Egyptians openly criticizing Mubarak's policies.

In late March 2009, the Egyptian authorities preemptively arrested two activists, Sarah Rizk and Amina Taha, at their college campus as a means of inflicting a form of psychological terror on young activists eager to make their mark.

Several affiliates of the April 6 movement were subjected to arrest for their activism. Ahmed Maher, one of the key people in the movement, said he was arrested and tortured over his role in the April 2008 strike.

30-year old Esraa Abdel Fattah, who originally started the Facebook group for April 6, was detained ahead of the planned rally last year.

Abdel Fattah was subsequently jailed for three weeks and only released after her mother made a personal appeal to the Egyptian Interior Minister, Habib Al-Adli.

In an interview with the National newspaper, Abdel Fattah said that she didn’t support this year’s rally. But, she added, she would be participate symbolically from her home.

“I’m objecting to the upcoming strike. Last year, people were united in their anger at raising of the prices (for basic goods). This year, they are calling every group to air its grievances, which is not the same, that’s why I don’t expect it to succeed this year. But my objection to it doesn’t mean I won’t participate symbolically: I’ll wear black and will hang the Egyptian flag on my balcony,” she said.

Most recently, Egyptian security forces picked up April 6 activist Rami Al-Swisi in a March 2 pre-dawn raid and temporarily detained him.

On another level, the government has consistently made moves to paralyze average Egyptians into worrying about where their next meal was coming from or how they would pay their rent.

After the 2007 Mahalla protests, for example, the Egyptian government agreed to raise wages - a demand of the Mahalla workers demonstrating - and then proceeded to raise the prices of basic goods as a result.

What most Egyptians are asking themselves on the eve of the May 4 call for protests is whether such calls for protest actually have any affect.

If the general aim for the protests in April and May 2008 and in April of this year was to change things, was there any change? And if it occurred, was it for the better or the worse?

The verdict is still undecided.