Protest against Mubarak's rule

I've just returned from the first demonstration ever to take place against Mubarak's rule -- a significant milestone in the evolution of Egypt's pro-democracy movement.

There were some 500 activists, mostly from left-wing groups and human rights organizations, who gathered near the highest appellate court in the land in Downtown Cairo -- the same place that overturned the verdict against Saad Eddin Ibrahim a couple of years ago.

As usual, they were surrounded by an incredible number of black-clad troops from Central Security, the riot-control police, who must have been in the thousands around the demo and in the surrounding streets.

The demo lasted a couple of hours and was mostly silent -- I think they didn't want to escalate things and let it get out of hand with the topic being so risky and so many troops around. Most of the time, they stayed silent with some protesters wearing stickers over their mouths that said "kefaya" -- Arabic for "Enough."

That has become the slogan of the people calling for Mubarak to step down -- as can be seen on websites such as kefaya.org and others. The main slogan when they did shout something seemed to be "Haram! Kefaya!", meaning "Shame! Enough" At one point, they also broke into a heartfelt and moving rendition of "Biladi", the Egyptian national anthem that celebrates the movement led by one of Egypt's early nationalist leaders, Saad Zaghloul, which demanded representation at the Versailles peace conference.

Although the demonstration was small and mostly uneventful, this group of people -- which calls itself the "movement for reform" and was also behind the recent petition calling for Mubarak to stand down -- just crossed a major red line. As far as I know, this is the first demonstration specifically against Mubarak that has ever been held. People did shout anti-Mubarak slogans during the Iraq war or pro-Palestinian protests, but they were never about that issue.

I spoke to Abdel Haleem Qandeeel, the editor of Al Arabi who was kidnapped and beaten up in the desert last month, who was the main organizer of the demo. He explained that the main idea of the movement, besides specific aims like constitutional reform to change the way the president is elected, was to make sure Mubarak was not elected for a fifth term and did not install his son Gamal, who has grown hugely influential over the past few years. He also stressed that the movement did not represent any of the official opposition parties but was more closely allied to illegal groups like the Egyptian communist party, the revolutionary socialists and other left-wing trends who have led the opposition to the Iraq war and support for the Intifada over the past few years.

But he said the movement was open to everyone who wanted to participate. One of its most discreet backers, for instance, is the Muslim Brotherhood, which sent a few token representatives. The Brotherhood is obviously not throwing its full weight behind this -- if so there would be tens of thousands of protesters and very possibly a huge clash with security forces -- but it is keeping its options open.

Nawal Saadawi and her husband Sherif Hetata were also there, as well as a smattering of prominent left-wing intellectuals. These people are often dismissed as irrelevant and without popular support, which is largely true, but at the same time you have to admire their balls for taking considerable personal risk and coming forward. I didn't see any of the prominent liberals there, for instance. If these people don't start taking the risks that the "loony left" has taken over the years by defending poor people and victims of police brutality, for instance, they're going to be hard to take seriously.

I've just received a phone call this very minute saying that one of the opposition headquarters in the Giza district of Cairo is being surrounded right now by armored vehicles and a bunch of top army brass. It looks like Kamal Khalil, their leader, will be arrested. More on this when I can. I will also post some pictures and videos of today's demo in a few hours.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.