January 25 witnessed widespread street protests in Egypt. 90,000 Egyptians came out in seven main squares in Cairo while tens of thousands more came out in Alexandria, Mahalla, Suez, and several other Egyptian cities. The protests continue today in downtown Cairo as I write.
The popular uprising was first proposed on Facebook via the “We are all Khaled Said” page, a group with more than 400,000 members dedicated to the memory of Khaled Said, a young Egyptian activist from Alexandria who was brutally tortured and fatally beaten into a pulp by local police last year.
17 opposition groups, as well as a number of prominent intellectuals and celebrities officially endorsed and joined the uprising. The Muslim Brotherhood did not officially endorse the protests though members likely joined in their individual capacities.
Demands of the January 25 Uprising
After decades of autocratic rule, state propaganda, institutionalized government corruption, police brutality, and suppression of basic freedoms, frustrated Egyptians are taking to the streets seeking change and demanding democracy, dignity, and civic reforms.
The uprising made the following specific demands:
- An increase of minimum wages in Egypt to 1200LE (US $200)
- An end to the special emergency laws
- An end to police brutality and the resignation of the minister of interior
- A two term presidency (never elected by the people, Mubarak has been in power for over 30 years)
- Free and transparent elections
- A government that represents the people, respects its citizenry and acts as a caretaker, not usurper, of Egyptian civil rights.
Government Response: defiance, violence, and attempts at sabotage
The uprising was organized and carried out by ordinary Egyptians from every walk of life as a non-partisan, non-ideological, peaceful push for reform. Yet the large number of protesters who at first were allowed to gather and chant with minimal police harassment were soon met with unprovoked violence by the massive droves of heavily armed security forces. Water hoses, more than 60 cannons of tear gas, rubber bullets, and even live ammunition according to some reports, were unleashed later in the day to disperse the crowds who had vowed an overnight sit-in at Cairo’s main downtown square, Tahrir Square.
Yesterday the government shut down Twitter. It disabled the country’s main three mobile networks in the downtown area where the protests were taking place to stifle communication between protesters. Today, it shutdown Facebook. There has been little objection from the US (more on that later).
From the state controlled media side, the response was equally predictable. For the most part Egyptian media tried hard to turn a blind eye to the protests in order to minimize their influence on audiences. Egyptian radio, TV, and satellite dished out the usual diet of football, music, soap operas, and game shows, steering well away from any reports or analysis of the uprising. This morning’s newspaper headlines were also as predictable: the government blamed the uprising on its favorite arch-nemesis the Muslim Brotherhood (who neither organized nor endorsed the protests) and then dismissed the calls for reform as coming from “a bunch of clueless kids” (Muslim Brotherhood or clueless kids?)
View from the Streets
The thousands of mostly educated protesters seemed anything but a bunch of clueless kids. Virtually every segment of Egyptian life was represented: young and old, professionals and laborers, men and women, religious and secular, Muslim and Christian.
At its zenith, Cairo’s downtown protests reached 60,000 people. It began with a few thousand who were later reinforced by thousands more coming out of side streets and crossing bridges over the Nile. Despite the peaceful and civil nature of the protests that chanted the Egyptian anthem and slogans demanding democratic reforms, things started to get ugly.
Policemen in plain clothes and hired thugs were dispersed into the crowds to instigate chaos. They beat up protesters with sticks and chains while the security forces fired tear gas cannons, rubber bullets, and opened water hoses. Over the next few hours, much of the crowds dispersed. A few of the younger protesters responded by throwing rocks, burning police cars in at least two instances, and scuffling with soldiers.
The few thousand protesters who remained defiant took to the side streets and continued their chants while the experienced riot police closed off all the exits to the main roads. As we marched through the narrow streets of Souk el Balah and Sabteya, the chanting crowds urged people to come down and join. Despite the 3:00AM time, many did, with others applauding the marching crowd from their windows and balconies.
Women played leading roles in the protests; one could often hear a high-pitched voice chanting slogans followed by the crowds roaring the slogans back. “Egyptians come down now, march for your rights,” “Mubarak, enough is enough, resign now,” “No to dictatorship, yes to democracy,” “We demand respect and dignity,” “We are Egypt, we will not remain silent anymore,” went some of the chants.
As we came up to a major security blockade with hundreds of lined-up soldiers in riot gear, the crowd came to a halt and deliberated which way to go. I decided to walk over to the police to have a chat. I asked the head police officer, rather tongue-in-cheek, “why are you blocking our way?” He ignored me and walked in the other direction while soldiers surrounded me and pushed me around. “This is a peaceful protest,“ I said, “it is the right of our citizens to express their demands peacefully on the streets when there is no other way,” I said to no avail. I sensed I had to walk back to the crowds before the soldiers got overly excited and let their fist and batons speak the only language they knew.
A few minutes after I had walked back, the files of soldiers started to march towards us, yelling a loud and coordinated “Hoo Haa” that echoed into the night. A few steps later, they begin to fire tear gas and rubber bullets. We ran down the street trying to avert the popping sounds by our feet and the smoke. I had two close shaves.
The Significance of January 25
The January 25 uprising constituted the single largest day of popular uprising in Egypt in the 30 years of Mubarak’s dictatorship. It showed that the people have a voice that can be directly expressed at a grassroots level without outside intervention. In the past, protests depended on a handful of strongmen for organization and guidance. It showed the government that Egyptians were finally willing to break the decades-long silence and fear, to take risks, and make sacrifices in order to claim what is rightfully theirs: a fighting chance at a dignified future.
Four people died and close to 100 were injured. The hope is that their sacrifices are not lost on the rest of Egyptians who need to keep the momentum pushing for an end to corruption and the dawn of a new day.
The Way Forward
Egyptians must recognize that while revolution may be obtained from the streets, true lasting reform never is. For that to happen, all Egyptians, government and people, must undergo a serious paradigm shift in the local political culture. It must be recognized that true reform is more about processes than personalities. Egyptians must move away from the personality cult, learning to accept that no single person is the problem and no single person is the solution, that exchanging one autocratic leader for another, or one autocratic party for another does nothing for the cause of freedom and reform. We must recognize that we are all part of the problem and we are all part of the solution. For true reform to happen, Egyptians must change the system itself to ensure the following:
- Constitutional reform that is entrusted to a fully independent supreme court whose judgment is binding
- A true democratic multi-party system with free, transparent elections
- The complete independence of the parliament and the judiciary from the executive branch
- The supremacy of the rule of law
- Fair and equal treatment of all citizens regardless of faith, gender, class, or ethnicity
- A merit-based open free market of goods, services, and ideas
- The end of exceptionalism, nepotism, and cronyism
For Egyptian protests to succeed, the following should be observed:
- They must remain peaceful, non-ideological, non-partisan
- They must remain open and inclusive of all Egyptians from all walks of life
- They must remain hopeful with a focus on the future, on a fresh vision, and not vengeful with a focus on the past
- They must remain focused objectively on the key demands for democracy and reform and not on a coup or a power grab or simply venting anger
- They must galvanize wider audiences by tapping into the existing organized bodies like the actors guild (who would give good exposure and publicity) the football ultras (who would give great manpower) and the Friday prayers (that would help with logistics since large numbers are already gathered)
Between a Nightmare and a Dream
I spoke to an old man who works on a school bus by day and a taxi by night 7 days a week. Spend one hour in Cairo’s extreme traffic and you get a hint of how much this man suffers. What does he get in return? Less than $200 per month to feed his family of seven. I spoke to young men who have been looking for jobs for over six years, despite working hard to obtain their degrees.
Egyptians everywhere complain from the overbearing bureaucracy, the double standards that differentiate between the well-connected and the not-so-well-connected. Wages remain the same while prices, especially food, continue to sky rocket.
Businessmen connected to the government obtain land for “pennies,” they build apartment complexes where a single unit could average 1 million L.E. They make hundreds of millions while an increasing number of Egyptians live in squalid conditions unable to afford the basic costs of living.
Egyptians feel that their government has only one goal: to maintain power. It spends all its resources working towards that goal while neglecting planning and governance that benefit the people.
In the last parliamentary elections which were intensely rigged, the government’s ruling party supposedly won a whopping 97% of seats, despite the presence of a healthy and popular opposition.
And yet Egyptians remain hopeful.
“We believe in ourselves, we believe in Egypt. This government thinks it owns us, it thinks it owns the country. It does not. They are just rogue employees. We will have a government that truly represents the people, that truly answers to us, and when we do we will rise again,” said Nabil, an engineer.
“We dream of a day when we can invest our energy trying to reach our potential in science, the arts, sports, and culture, and not trying to fight oppression and simply survive. Egyptians know what we are capable of, we just want a chance to prove it to ourselves and to the world. We won’t rest until we see that day,” said Maryam, a protester.
Egyptians, it seems, just want to be competitors in the family of democratic nations.