On yesterday's Egypt protests

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it was back in May that there were two demonstrations in the center of Cairo a few days apart. One, mostly led by trade union activists, took place peacefully without many clashes with riot police. The other — I think held on May 4, Mubarak's birthday — was led by political activists and members of parliament. They were treated much more roughly, because their message was not a general one about wages or government policies, but about who ruled Egypt.

I kept thinking of that after catching to the news of the last few days (I was and still am away from Cairo, so am relying entirely on press reports) and, particularly, the recent anti-Mubarak protest that gathered some 600 activists yesterday in Cairo, and more in Alexandria and other cities. Amidst all the different small protests that have taken place, these seem different. First of all, because it seems that it's been a while since 600 people participated in a specifically anti-Mubarak protest. Secondly, because the way the police handled the demo seems unusually heavy-handed: 

The demonstration was scheduled to take place in front of Abdeen Palace, the former residence of Egypt’s King Farouk, in downtown Cairo, but hundreds of riot police surrounded the area from Mohamed Farid Square to Abdeen Square, closing off all the main routes leading to the palace and preventing many protestors from reaching the location.

The underground metro exits were also blocked by riot police, described by activist Ahmed Samir as “an Egyptian army.”

Many protestors were beaten and detained for hours by riot police to prevent them from reaching the location of the demonstration and several reporters were also prevented from going through.

“The police started surrounding the area at 3:30 pm. The violations and detentions started at 5 pm. Kefaya headquarters, which is near Abdeen Square, was completely surrounded by riot police and a number of activists were detained near Bab El-Louq on their way to the demonstrations,” general coordinator of the Kefaya Movement for Change Abdel Halim Qandil told Daily News Egypt.

. . .

According to Ramy Raoof, a volunteer with the Front for the Defense of Egypt's Protestors, 14 were arrested in Cairo, 29 in Alexandria and 10 in Port Said. Protestors from Cairo and Port Said were all released before 2 am Wednesday morning. Although Raoof said he expected that all activists were released he couldn’t confirm the same happened to those arrested in Alexandria.

Qandil had earlier estimated that 30 activists were arrested on Tuesday.

Some were later released on the desert road between Cairo and Ain Sokhna, others in Al Moqattam and on the Cairo-Ismailia road.

I would venture that these protests are taking a slightly different significance for both participants and the security services in the current political context. For activists, they are the first major protests since the launch of the poster campaign for Gamal Mubarak last month, and may represent a revival of the trend of frequent large protests that we saw in 2005 in the run-up to the presidential elections. In this charged political atmosphere, it makes sense that activists will redouble their efforts and that more people might be drawn into participating in these protests: there is something more tangible to protest against today, since a Gamal Mubarak campaign now exists in public.

For the police, this might indicate new instructions to send a strong message to participants that such protests (not long ago largely tolerated and kept under control) will be handled more firmly from now on. The dumping of people on the desert highway is quite unnecessarily petty, for instance, and the rough handling of MPs unusual (although it also happened last May.)

This brings to mind something that I've been thinking about for a while: what if, in the run-up to the succession many expect to happen in the next year, Egypt sees a considerable tightening of political space? After all, in recent years, even as elections were rigged the regime could always claim to have considerably more political space than many other Arab countries. It tolerated a lot of protests, direct public criticism of the president, and many other things unthinkable in, say, Tunisia or Libya or Syria. What if it tightens the noose now? What if the recent troubles the Orbit satellite channel is said to be having, the purchase of al-Destour by the Wafd's al-Sayed al-Badawy, its editor Ibrahim Eissa's rumored booting from his talk show on Naguib Sawiris' ON TV, and many other measures point to the limited space that exists in Egypt being reduced further?

It's worth keeping this in mind, because we're not in 2005: Egypt's domestic politics are not a major part of US foreign policy, the world is not watching.

[Michael Dunn has some thoughts on the recent protests too.]

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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.