Thursday, April 27, 2006
Band Camp Meets Boot Camp – It's the State versus the People Again
Judging by the news headlines, the last few weeks in Egypt have been fairly tumultuous. Let's make a list of events: A fatal stabbing in an Alexandrian church, followed by tri-partite riots between Christian youths, Muslim youths, and State Security; The continued harrassment and incarceration of two of the country's top judges; The continued harrassment and incarceration of the country's more 'problematic' journalists; A triple bomb attack in the Sinai resort of Dahab, rapidly followed by what seemed like impromptu suicide-bombings on Multinational forces further north; Unconfirmed reports of shooting and rioting in the Delta.
Not bad for the "Land of Peace", eh? None of these events are, in themselves, especially surprising or unusual here. You could pluck similar stories out of just about any newspaper archive from the last twenty or more years. And yet, the leprous Mubarak regime lumbers on. So it isn't surprising either to have turned up at the Journalists' Syndicate on Wednesday night, camera in hand, to find an immense (we are talking at least 1000 troops) security presence. CSF (Central Security Forces – or State Insecurity as I like to call them) trucks were parked two-deep on Ramses Street, and in the smaller streets surrounding the syndicate lurked lines and lines of uniformed CSF to back up the ranks already in front of the building.
What eminent threat were they there to guard against? About 60 mostly middle-aged Kifaya! and other assorted 'opposition movement' groups (and the ever present guy-in-the-wheelchair) gathered on the steps to shout the usual anti-regime slogans. The immediate context is the arrest and 'hearing' of charges against Mohammad Mekki and Hisham al Bastawissi, two judges who happened to be overly critical of the government's handling of the 2005 election count. The wider context is that Kifaya! (means "Enough!") and a fairly motley assortment of Islamists, Nasserists, Liberals and intellectuals have been staging street protests of varying size for the past two years. The judges' hearing is just the latest in a long line of injustices perpetrated by the state. So they get together and shout "Down with Mubarak" and "Down with Habib al-Adly" (most-hated vizier of the Interior), and sometimes a more amusing slogan, something like "Hey Condoleeza, Get Mubarak A Visa", referring of course to a fond but hopeless wish that the ageing dictator would just abdicate to the States, the only place where he seems to be appreciated.
[Prominent film producer Sabry al Samak rouses the assembled dozens]
The familiar atmosphere of cameraderie and badly organised 'outrage' pervaded, as the chief chant-leaders vied for control of the megaphone. Everyone knows each other by now - some of them even like each other. And all of this noise and friendly clamour watched over by the hoards of glowering, illiterate grunts picked up from the dusty backroads of Upper Egypt, none of them having a clue what's going on, looking fairly miserable. It's band-camp meets boot-camp.(see shots below)
[Protestors sit it Out facing State Insecurity]
[Badly paid, badly equipped, miserable farmers' third sons pressganged into coralling protestors in Cairo]
[More of same. Multiply this by several, perhaps tens thousands and you have the face of state control]
You could say that the authorities of the state were taking extra precautions to ensure public order in a particularly tense and emotional period of public life. Or you could say that, as usual, they were using a hammer to crack a nut –it's the only way they knows.
As the evening wore on everyone was waiting for the biltagiya (a particularly unpleasant face of state-insecurity, un-uniformed thugs wearing plaid-shirts and a miasma of B.O. hired for the evening to tag-team some unsuspecting Kifaya chant-leader in an alleyway). A small side-demonstration, outside the main cordon, ended up in a couple of arrests and some hysterics among the honking traffic by the High Court. Two guys with some axe or other to grind get baton-charged by the fey-looking CSFs (below).
[Run Away! Run Away!]
In the end, the demonstrators were dispersed one-by one by the biltagiya. As there were so few of them, it didn't apparently take long. As a movement that expresses the anger and discontentment of Egyptians with their government, Kifaya is a noble, but ineffective rump. It's not surprising. I was told of how the CSF deliberately pick on new recruits, to discourage others from joining. They have a narrower and narrower platform, if they ever had one to begin with. One Kifaya activist noted later in the Greek Club (a shabby, moth-eaten memorial to some liberal, intellectual era now long passed) that the judges are all they have left. The others have either been lost (the election) or are almost without hope (the Emergency Law). Even the official opposition has mostly been either imploding ( Wafd) or spending rather a lot of time in Jail (al-Ghad).
If all you could see in Egypt was the bombs and the headlines and the massive ranks of CSF, you might judge that the regime was in its death-throes. It has, after all, been twenty-six years. But to stand and appreciate the flaccidity of the opposition is to realise that no matter how sclerotic the regime may be, it's probably going to be around just as long as it wants to be.