Mass protests in Egypt fail to live up to the hype

Activists from various political groups and social movements demonstrated throughout Egypt on Monday (April 6) - highlighting what they say are failed economic and social policies of President Hosni Mubarak. The rallies, dubbed the "The Day of Anger in Egypt," were called by the April 6 Movement, a group of young activists that formed after rallies over soaring prices and stalled wages resulted in a violent police crackdown on protests held in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla el Kubra in 2008.
Members of the 1.2 million strong security force dispatched throughout Egypt to suppress protests. © AFP

BEIRUT/ALEXANDRIA/CAIRO, April 6, 2009 (MENASSAT) - Egyptian police and security forces were out in force on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and in places throughout the country on April 6, as minor protests erupted against what demonstrators called "bad government policies, corruption and price hikes."

This year’s protests were called to replicate 2008 protests in the Nile Delta city Mahalla el Kubra, that prompted a security clampdown against textile workers protesting low wages and rising food costs.

Three people were killed, 100 injured, and 400 were reported arrested in the Mahalla during the April 6 general strike last year.

This year police were given the order to arrest anyone taking part in demonstrations, and extra security forces were deployed around sensitive sites in Cairo and throughout the country, a security official told AFP.
Official Egyptian press was dismissive of the days actions, calling them largely "symbolic" protests that "reduced to nothing the promises made by the organizers."

The organizers - the April 6 Youth Movement - had called for protests from a wide cross-section of trade unions, student groups, and opposition parties like the Muslim Brotherhood.

But in the days leading up to the protests, sources told MENASSAT that Egyptian security had conducted a focused campaign of intimidation against protest organizers and activists.

State repression

Egyptian activists provided updates about the strike through the micro-blogging tool Twitter, reporting that the main Cairo rallying point - the Egyptian Federation for Trade Unions in downtown Cairo – was under a complete “police siege.”

Police armored vehicles also surrounded the headquarters of the Egyptian state TV building. 

Egyptian activist Mina Zekry told MENASSAT that the security presence was massive with high-ranking officers planted in Cairo’s Tahrir square and surrounding areas.

Three-hundred students held a peaceful demonstration at Cairo University, and hundreds of demonstrators clashed with security forces at Cairo's Helwan University.

Elsewhere, Egyptian security also clashed with Muslim Brotherhood students and April 6 movement youth at Ayn-Shams University, arresting 9 students the Cairo paper Al-Masri Al-Youm reported. A security official told AP that more than 47 people were arrested on Monday.

Some 100 legislators in the 454 seat parliament walked out in solidarity with the protest.

As was the case in 2008, the April 6 Youth movement had called on Egyptians to not go to work, to hang black banners from their balconies, and to participate in rallies at several locations around the country.

But as one Egyptian activist in Alexandria told MENASSAT, this meant that many who showed solidarity in April 2008 lost there jobs, or had their wages docked.

Among the protester demands was a raise of the national minimum monthly wage from roughly 250 Egyptian pounds per month (~$43) to 1,200 Egyptian pounds (~$213), a move 22-year old student Mohammed said had galvanized a broad group of civil society groups, trade unions, media workers and activists.

The April 6 movement also called for an elected governmental body to draft a new constitution that would restrict the presidential term limits to two terms.

Mobilization for the rallies was orchestrated in large part through the social networking site, Facebook, and through SMS text messages. And as was the case last year, dozens of activists were arrested in preemptive strikes ahead of the planned protests.

More than 30 people were reported arrested over the weekend, including two young female students, for distributing flyers calling for the day of action.

In the Egyptian city of Fayyoum, 25-year old Muslim Brotherhood blogger Abdel Rahman Fares was taken into custody for handing out flyers for the strike.

Fares, who moderates the blog "My tongue is my pen," was taken in on suspicion of distributing literature promoting the Brotherhood's ideology and promoting citizens to strike, according to a report by Reuters.

The Muslim Brotherhood is Egypt’s largest opposition movement and an officially banned group in Egypt.

“Young people who love Egypt”

April 6 Youth was founded last year by young activists who claimed not to belong to any political parties or groups.

The movement, going under the slogan “young people who love Egypt”, began attracting wide support over the Internet as various political groups in Egypt called for a general strike on April 6 last year.

Over 60,000 people signed up as members of April 6 Youth’s group on Facebook; a development that has sparked a lively debate both in mainstream and independent  Arabic and English language media outlets about the real-world impact of online activism.

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 last year’s 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.

According to the Cairo based NGO the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Al-Swisi had previously been threatened by security agents and told to leave the April 6 movement.

Many political groups chose to stay out of last year’s rallies but that was not the case this year. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Al Ghad party, which is headed by the prominent dissident Ayman Nour who recently was released from jail, announced they would be taking part.

“The Egyptian people are angry. The divisions about the demands and expression of anger even among the April 6 group is a mirror of the state of Egyptian society,” said Nour.

The Muslim Brotherhood urged people to participate in the strike "using all peaceful channels and abiding by constitutional and legal restrictions while safeguarding public and private property from damage during these peaceful activities."

Egypt’s large secular opposition movement Kefaya, or “Enough,” was also scheduled to participate along with local human rights groups and numerous leftist opposition groups.

But both groups failed to show up with the kinds of numbers that were expected.

Pre-emptive strike

Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), headed by the 80-year old Mubarak who has been in power since 1981, launched a “youth giving” initiative on April 5 in what April 6 organizers said was an attempt to counter the strike.

While the strike was welcomed among the majority of rights activists, some remained skeptical over its organization and outcome.

Egyptian blogger Sandmonkey ranted about the strike and it’s Facebook couch-activism component.

Hossam El-Hamalawy, moderator of the blog Arabawy, said the protests were unsuccessful because the nation's largest labor unions didn't participate.

El-Hamalawy wrote in a blog post that he had been in touch with labor leaders and they apparently had never planned to conduct any serious strikes in industrial plants or in Mahalla.

Prominent Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas was in Alexandria on Monday. Although he supported last year's call to action, he told MENASSAT that this year, the April 6 movement failed to reach the right people.

“Most Egyptians were not motivated by the call to protest. And the April 6 movement did not create a coherent method for moving the virtual into a mass movement on the streets,” Abbas said.

Abbas also suggested that the media over-hyped the planned strikes, “Giving the (April 6) group's leaders more importance to the Egyptian government than was actually the reality.”

“It was media hype the might have been intended to hollow the movement,” he said.

Meanwhile, recently released leader of the opposition Ghad (Tomorrow) Party, Nour, told the BBC Arabic Service that it was premature to judge the strike, adding the intent of the strike was spot on.

"[Change] is desperately needed in Egypt after more than 30 years of one-person rule. Egypt deserves much better than that," he said.

Egypt has been under a state of emergency since the 1981 assassination of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.