The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Kifaya's Latest Outing

Yesterday, along most every other journalist I know, I attended the latest Kifaya protest. Pictures I took can be found here. Another first-hand account of yesterday's demo is from Manal & Alaa's blog.

The protest was scheduled to be held at Egypt's Supreme Court (Dar al-Qada' al-Uliya) off of Ramsis street, downtown (Perhaps, a symbolic reference to the ongoing judges' protest against the state). I met a gang of reporters at 11am for a coffee and chat. Even though the protest was not due to start until 1pm, it is good to get there early incase traffic gets cut off.

We arrived at the Court around 1245pm. There were more security than at the last protest I covered in February. We tried to cross the street to enter the barricade to get pictures and whatnot. We were not warmly greeted. One person I was with, who was a protest organizer at University, was recognized immediately. Upper security officers came over calling him by name. When he explained his protesting days were over and he was a reporter for the international press, they backed-down but were adamant that we were not getting into the security cordon. While they were not being rude, security was being very aggressive in how they worded things. Security was much more aggressive at the Court than they had been at Cairo U.

They moved all the press to the other side of the street. It is not a big deal for all the photographers with long zoom lenses but a bit annoying we were all boxed off together. When everyone was settled, a large green security truck used to carry al-Amn al-Markazi (Central Security Forces - CSF) conscripts was moved to block the press's view. The press shuffled down the street and the truck moved when everyone settled to block the view again. The press corp was pissed at such a move - the security officers just smiled. One photographer went around the corner and said that plain-clothes officers were putting potential demonstrators in taxis and getting rid of them.

Phone calls were made and the Kifaya people were moving the protest to the Journalist syndicate (about 200 meters away). We headed off there. The street was locked down with (at least) a thousand CSF, Mukhaberat (Sec Services), some Generals, security trucks and a water cannon. Also, the head of Cairo security Nabil al-Ezabi was present and walking around flanked by about 10 uniformed officers with notepads. One journalist approached him for a comment. He remarked that he was "only there to protect the safety of the those expressing their opinions."

So we filed onto the steps of the protest. I would guess there were maybe 300 protesters (there was also about 30 journalists which is considerable given the protester's numbers). It was - as before - a who's who of the Kifaya movement in Cairo. Other sympathizers of the movement were there such as MP Hamdeen al-Sabahy (former Nasserist, head of the proposed al-Karama party project) and former MB Abu `Ala Madi (head of the proposed al-Wasat party project). Yet, they have been at such protests before. The new face to me was Egyptian Novelist Sonallah Ibrahim. He is a famous writer who in the Fall 2003 refused a literary cash prize and award for his work. He refused because the Egyptian government was the award's sponsor. He said he could not accept such a prize from a government so utterly un-democratic (or something like that). On a lighter note, Kermit the frog also made an appearance. The significance of this, however, is unknowable.

I spent most of the day taking pictures and talking to different Kifaya people. Some of the slogans are getting better and much more personal.

For example (keep in mind these rhyme in Arabic):

Freedom, Freedom where are you?
Mubarak is between me and you.
(in this one, they sometime insert Emergency - as in the laws- instead of Mubarak)

Hey Alaa Hey Alaa (president's son)
tell your father
the Egyptian people hate him

Hey Suzanne, Hey Suzanne (president's wife)
ask the bey
how much he sold the country for

Hey Gamal, Hey Gamal (other president's son)
tell you daddy
to ease up on the down-trodden people (al-Sh`ab al-Ghalban)

There were also the the usual calls "Asqut Mubarak" (down with Mubarak), Down with Bush, Down with Blair (in English)

The other chants list the Kifaya demands: "Kifaya Mubarak, Kifaya new term, Kifaya inheritance, Kifaya emergency laws" - you get the idea.

Yesterday's protest was billed to be a nation-wide multi-city/governate protest. Initially, it was supposed to go off in 13 governates. This number was said to have increased to 15 at one point in the day. Arab government-leaning Al-`Arabiya said that it only went down in 7 governates. And AP and BBC have conflicting reports about how widespread the demos were. There is no way to be sure. Kifaya is a loosely organized structure - good for democracy, but bad for information.
There were various reports at different times. Al-Jazeera was saying that 52 were arrested (high majority - like 98% were outside of Cairo). Then there was a report that 30 people were being detained in the Gamal Abdel Nasser Metro Station.

My sense is that the demonstrations did not happen in all the governates the organizers suggested. For example, I was speaking to a Kifaya organizer from Monsura (in the Delta). His story was that at 230am the night before, security sieged his house awaking his wife and children -terrorizing the children. He receives a call from his wife. He speaks with the security officers and they order him to come in. He agrees. They detain him until 930am and then he is released, grabs all the Kifaya banners and whatnot. He darts down to Cairo. He notes that people were detained in the tube stations and then it was a miracle that he joined the demonstration. I asked him directly, "So are demos happening in Monsura?" He said, "Well, the people are scared". I asked again. He looking more uncertain says, "he did not think so."

I also sat in on an interview with one of Kifaya's secretariat organizing members. He made some good points such as "the state is doing everything to prevent Kifaya from spreading throughout the country but by documenting it though arresting people everywhere, they prove we have a presence throughout the country." As he is finishing this quote, another person brings him a new note with the names of those arrested. I see there is Suez, Minya, Qena, and Alexandria.

The protest was energetic in the beginning and then was a bit boring. Occasionally the CSF would prevent someone from entering the blocked street to join the protest and they would chant "Leave him be" but the rest of the time Kamal Khalil and Kamil Abu `Eta kept their rhymes and chants going.

Eventually, it was decided that they were staying until all those detained were released. One reporter asked me, "Do you think they will release them?" I said, "No." It was warm outside and the CSF soldiers looked bored, hungry and thirsty. The demonstrators started to give them sweets and water since they were not getting it from their side.

After about 4 hours, a group of us took the decision to leave. As we stood on the security side of the protest, Kamal Khalil suggested a choice would be put to public vote to determine Kifaya's next move. His suggestions were "We stay here until everyone is released" or " We leave now and come back the day after tomorrow". The steps broke out in chit-chat. One of the officers (not a conscript), responding to the latter choice said "the day after tomorrow is a day-off" (agaza). The vote was taken. The protesters voted in favor to stay the course. As soon as it was announced, you could feel the CSF conscripts and security officers frustratingly but collectively moan. It was almost like they saw what they were doing as a waste of time.

Tired, Hungry, and ready to go - I left the scene with my friends. I don't know if they stayed or how long they stayed. There were scattered reports that detainees were being released. But this means little - you can always release someone and re-arrest them (a common practice here), say you have released someone when you have not, or release one person and arrest other activists. It is sort of a revolving door policy for arresting people.

In a country currently witnessing political problems in the urban centers and economic problems in the countryside and non-urban based factories, it would seem something has to give.

Politically, the prospect of what would surely be perceived humiliating "inheritance of power" - be it to the president's son or a chosen successor - continues to empower Kifaya without necessarily increasing their numbers (in Cairo Demonstrations at least). Economically - the sons of former Bashas' are reclaiming their lands and kicking peasants off in places like Surad and Sarando (both Delta - by Tanta and Damahour). It is making a situation ripe for the discontented and marginalized to join the opposition against the regime.

The question is....can they connect the two strands in to a bigger movement? Kifaya has been in the making for a long time. Beginning with the Palestinian intifada, empowered by the US's internationally illegal war in Iraq, and focused on Mubarak's every move - it seems that there are more cities signing up but the numbers don't seem to increase.

The Kifaya organizing member I spoke with yesterday remained defiant. He spoke of his credentials as a protest leader since his university days. He said, "I have protested Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, Israel. We are not going to stop now. We know that change is not going to come without pain or blood. But we have to lead the change. Everyday that the regime fails to change, it does more damage to the country's future than they can inflict on our protesters and the movement. Don't worry though....the world has tired of these repressive Arab regimes and change is coming. Change is definitely coming." With a brief thought of Fouad Ajami and George W. smiling in my head, I thanked him for his time.

I watched all six-hours of the Mubarak interviews and I did not feel like I was listening to reality - or, at least, to a reality in which I pretend to live. Yet, speaking to the Kifaya people, I oddly get a similar feeling that I am not listening to reality.

Sympathies aside, I feel like I live in a different reality where no struggle is taking place. Neither the regime nor the opposition present viable alternatives. Instead, Mubarak is for this and for that and Kifaya is against this and against that.....