The Streets of Cairo


“Show me what democracy looks like!” begins a chant often heard at recent U.S. antiwar demonstrations. “This is what democracy looks like!” comes the reply. People in the streets, marching, fired up with righteous rage, determination to stop the imperialist juggernaut and faith in the possibility of a better world. This is what we are now seeing, too, in the Arab world.

The neocons steering the Bush administration have emphasized their intention to promote “freedom and democracy” in the Arab world. Maybe they’re succeeding, but not as they intend. Their criminal assault on Iraq is serendipitously driving the Arab masses into political life, the genuine politics of the street, heated debate, and the empowerment that grows out of confrontation with power. Peaceful rallies meet with cordons of baton-wielding police, tear gas, water cannons, bullets and mass arrests. The people respond by directing their fury, not only at U.S. imperialism, but the pro-U.S. governments that seek to deny them the democracy of street protest. The democracy that might start to look like revolution.

The corporate media has provided some minimal reportage on these demonstrations, which have occurred throughout the Arab world, from Rabat and Casablanca to Beirut and Amman. Rarely in citing the numbers do they note that in most parts of the Arab world such demonstrations are illegal and that those who participate are often putting their lives on the line; nor that the U.S. government wants them to be illegal, and applies pressure on Arab governments it subsidizes (notably Egypt) to continue to suppress anti-U.S. dissent.

The biggest demonstrations (aside from those in Baghdad) have taken place in Sana’a, Damascus, Cairo, Khartoum, Casablanca, Rabat, Manama and Beirut. They’ve occurred in countries aligned with the U.S., such as Egypt and Morocco, and those dubbed “terror-sponsoring” by the U.S. (Syria, Sudan). But the most significant, arguably, have taken place in Cairo. This metropolis of 17 million is the cultural capital of the Arab world, and the capital of Egypt, which dependent on $ 2 billion in U.S. aid every year, is a classic case-study of a client state. What happens in Cairo may determine whether the Arab antiwar movement will deal serious blows to imperialism and its loyal (if often nervous) satraps, or succumb to the fascist repression those satraps must deploy in order to retain the good will of their masters.

Western “analysts” in the service of imperialism, who are concerned with order and stability rather than democracy, seem smugly assured that the satraps will prevail. A senior Western diplomat with 20 years of Middle East experience told Reuters, “I do not think [the demonstrations] could threaten the regimes, because the security forces remain firmly in control, and are behaving in a very controlled manner.” Recent events in Cairo (and in Sfax, Sana’a and elsewhere) challenge that assessment.

Following the historic international conference in the city December 18-19, sponsored by the Popular Egyptian Campaign Against U.S. Aggression on Iraq (a gathering that had been banned by the Mubarak regime), small demonstrations took place in Cairo, meeting with brutal repression, but culminating in a massive rally of about 140,000 in and around Cairo Stadium February 27. The latter event was permitted; those since have been met with repression. On March 20, the day following the all-out assault on Iraq, about 500 (ranging from communists to members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood) met in Tahrir Square. Police erected barricades to prevent other demonstrators from joining them; and while the police swung at some heads, the protesters broke through. The rally grew to 2000, as the crowd chanted their opposition to the attack on Iraq but also the Egyptian leadership. “Down with Arab leaders!” “Leave, leave Mubarak!” Thus began a twelve-hour occupation of the square.

Later, according to Nadia Abou el-Magd of the Associated Press, 1000 demonstrators, mostly students from the American University in Cairo, hurled stones and metal barricades against riot police as they attempted to march on the U.S. embassy, protected by high cement walls. “We want the flag down,” a 21 year old student told the press. “We don’t want America here at all.” 150 broke away from the march to block traffic near the Egyptian Museum, demanding revolution. They were bloodied and dispersed by police. Some returned a second time to the U.S. embassy, meeting police whom they pelted with stones. Meanwhile in Zagazig, 10,000 university students protested the war, as did thousands of their peers nationwide, from Alexandria in the north to Aswan in the south.

“Today’s demonstration(s) in Tahrir square, garden city, boulaq and downtown Cairo were wonderful,” wrote a student named Amira on Thursday. “I heard many people say they’re very ‘proud’ to be Egyptians and even more proud that Cairo witnessed the strongest and most powerful demonstrations against the war in the Arab world. Everyone who participated today deserves to feel this way. Never in my life did I see that many demonstrators in Tahrir, blocking the square, traffic and taking control. Despite the violence of the riot police, I think we all experienced what we’re capable of, which is a lot.”

Another wrote: “Many I’ve met, young and old, had the same comment, coming from an old song written by Salah Jahin, they told me, El Sharei Lena—the street is ours. Even one young woman commented: ‘I never understood what that meant, now I do.’ The street was ours, and were not finished yet, the days ahead are crucial, we can make Tahrir Intifada our own Seattle, and out of it comes a movement the can challenge those rulers and there falling regimes.”

Our own Seattle! I feel some rare stirring of pride in being American.

On Friday, the Cairo protests continued. 5,000 students gathered at Al-Azhar University. “Oh Arab army! Where are you?” they chanted, appealing to Arab states to engage U.S. forces attacking Iraq. After prayers at Azhar Mosque, 50,000 protesters clashed with police before proceeding to Tahrir Square. It was sealed off, so they assembled it, facing tear gas, attack dogs and fire engines used as water cannons, two of which, by one account, were appropriated by the demonstrators and torched. Police and hired thugs attacked; protestors told Middle East Times that 80 were arrested. These included the international activist Nada Kassas. Hamdein el-Sabahi, a member of parliament, was bloodied, a Nasserist Party member’s arm was broken; he was arrested Sunday, presumably because of his involvement in the demo. An al-Jazeera correspondent filming the police riot was attacked and her camera and handbag stolen.

According to AP, 35 demonstrators and 8 police were injured. Meanwhile, police and agents of Mabaheth Amn El-Dawla (State Security Investigation or SSI) raided the offices of the Lawyers Syndicate, beating and arresting tens who were hauled away in vans. (For photos, see http://www.alshaab.com/altahreer.htm and http://www.alshaab.com/Azhar%20Entefada.htm)
On Saturday, according to the Saudi daily Arab News, “In Egypt…thousands of students staged anti-war rallies at universities…amid tight police security. But unlike the past two days, there were no initial reports of violence or clashes with police.” CNN reported that 15,000 students demonstrated at four universities.

Of these events Amira wrote, “But despite everything, most people I met are not antagonized. They’re angry and they’re not willing to allow the government to suppress the people that way. And for those who might be intimidated by reading this—don’t be. They can’t do this every day and if we keep the momentum, we’ll win.”

Shoukran, brothers and sisters in Cairo. The whole world is watching, hoping for your victory.

GARY LEUPP is an an associate professor, Department of History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian Studies Program.
He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu


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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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