Friday, August 04, 2006

Anatomy of a Protest

I don’t visit Islamic Cairo on Fridays. Every Friday for hundreds of years, devout Sunnis have assembled in any one of the dozens of mosques spread across Islamic Cairo to listen to readings from the Qur’an and hear the various Sheikhs deliver their sermons. In the past four weeks, the services, which begin around 12:30 and last for about an hour, have spilled out into the streets in the form of intense anti-Israeli protests. I avoid these protests, especially, because of the direct religious connection they have and because they are known to be among the biggest protests in the city. I am still waiting to hear news as to whether there was another round of protests today following the services that ended less than two hours ago. The size, duration, and intensity of these protests are somewhat of a gauge of sentiment in the city.

While I avoid these protests, there is enough civil unrest in the city that continued avoidance is practically impossible.

In the middle of last week there was a pretty major protest in Midan Tahrir, the city’s central plaza. Surrounded by the likes of the Egyptian Antiquities Musuem, the Nile Hilton, the Mugamma (a massive government building), the AUC, and the beginnings of some of Cairo’s most major streets (like Talat Harb and Qasr il-Nil), this really is the heart of the city. On my way to meet some people at the American University in Cairo, I took a taxi to within a couple blocks of Midan Tahrir and elected to walk the rest of the way given the Midan’s infamous traffic. About two blocks from the Midan, I passed a brigade of riot police. This only raised my eyebrows a little bit because in Cairo I am used to and appreciative of seeing massive police forces. Oftentimes in the city, I’ve seen a confluence of forces and have passed without ever understanding their purpose. The only thing that brought about suspicion was that these police seemed on high alert, instead of the lazy ambivalence of the forces who know that they’re probably superfluous.

I walked on and was further surprised to see two more brigades on alert. They took up vast chunks of the sidewalk and were lined up in unusually strict formation. Each man was wearing a black uniform (unlike the usual white uniforms donned typically by police officers), and each wore a helmet with a large clear face guard, and each carried a wooden club.

When I arrived at the Midan, everything became clear. On one of the big islands between several of the many major roads cutting through the Midan, there was a vast gathering of men waving signs and chanting, sometimes in unison and sometimes in disarray. While many of these men held signs and banners, almost all of them waved the Lebanese flag, with the unmistakable cedar tree in the middle, as a show of solidarity with the people of Lebanon. These people, a thousand strong at the height of the protest, were the nucleus of the whole circus show.

Surrounding the protestors was a thick layer of riot police. I imagine that one strategy employed by the government is to contain the protestors to such a point that they cannot move. I saw how the riot police had formed a ring around the band of flag waving men and were pushing up close so as not to give them any breathing room. This layer of police was about four men thick. Rather than being given an area, the protestors take an area and the riot police seem to use the full strength of their numbers to contain people within that area.

Beyond the riot police is a nebulous area that envelopes the protest. It is filled with members of the regular police force, who control the car traffic, as well as the infamous plainclothes thugs that work for President Mubarak. These thugs turn away would-be protestors in order to insure that protests never become too big. They also push and shove those who stop to watch the spectacle, telling them to move on in order to keep the sidewalk traffic flowing. I have heard that these thugs often become violent, smashing cameras and crushing toes when they need to. Because of their apparently high status in the security forces apparatus, the regular laws of decency don’t apply to them.

Beyond this layer is an amazingly well choreographed interplay between the various brigades of the riot police. On the outskirts of the Midan they move quickly purposefully around, sometimes relieving the police who are up against the protestors, other times merely repositioning to stay prepared for every eventuality. I must have seen a dozen of these brigades, each thirty or so men strong, moving, shifting, preparing. This is a really well-oiled machine.

As I approached the AUC, I was still a bit away from the protest. As I closed in on the last couple dozen feet before the entrance, an unusually kind policeman stopped me to suggest that I go around the back way to the University. As he and I were in mid-conversation, a man who was no less than 6’3” tall and weighed no fewer than 250lbs. came up in his standard slack and button down shirt and stood next to the policeman. His crossed arms and his angry gaze were enough to persuade me to turn around and zip into the other entrance at AUC.

When I returned to Midan Tahrir on Monday, there was another protest going on, and the same interplay between all the various cogs seemed to be exactly the same.

Protests in Cairo have a strange feeling about them. In many ways, they’re just like any other protest anywhere in the world, but there’s something about a protest in a police state that gives pause to foreign onlookers. There’s something amazingly organic about protests in free countries; ten or twelve years ago, when the Cuban side of my family headed downtown in New York to protest outside Fidel Castro’s hotel, there was something very real about it, even if nobody expected a great change in policy to result from our efforts. In Buenos Aires last year, when protestors stormed the theater where we had come to hear the first lady of Argentina speak, there was something refreshingly spontaneous and intense about it. But here in our police state in the northeast corner of a continent filled with police states, there seems to be that certain spark missing from these frequent gatherings.

In the United States, our right to protest is protected by the Constitution, in part because it expressly grants us that right and in part because it puts checks on the powers of our leaders to prevent them from trying to curtail that right. In Cairo, a protest is allowed to proceed at the pleasure of the President. The protests in Cairo have not only been anti-Israel, they have also been anti-Mubarak. There is a strong feeling in the streets that Mubarak is failing to represent the interests of the Egyptian/Arab people in his stance on the Israel-Lebanon conflict. The local newspapers I have read detail the anti-Mubarak elements of the protests, describing the signs and chants in which people denounce him.

And herein lies the strange element of Egyptian protests. That in an authoritarian state, members of the national security force will pile in layers upon layers to allow people to criticize the government, creates a strange sensation of falsehood for the whole spectacle. In a sense it seems that Mubarak allows the protests just as a way of releasing a little steam from the kettle. Give the people a little bit of state run, highly controlled protest, and they’ll feel as though they do have freedom and it will prevent the kettle from exploding. But to an outsider looking in, these protests seem to be another big movie set, arranged by the government, and staffed by enthusiastic but hopeless activists.

1 comment:

Peggy said...


That last paragraph in particular is a very interesting and astute observation.