Monday, May 01, 2006

The Full Force of the Law

On Thursday last week, in the wake of the Dahab bombings, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced that he would fight terrorism with the "full force of the law." Early yesterday morning, Egyptian security troops reportedly shot dead three men in North Sinai during a counter-terrorism operation. Yesterday afternoon, Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif announced that the government would 'ask' the People's Parliament to extend the operation of Emergency Law by two years. Emergency Law, which denies Egyptian citizens basic rights, has been in force solidly for twenty five years. In the last week dozens of demonstrators - who have been protesting against the state's prosecution of two Cassation Court judges – have been arrested by the security services, and many have just been beaten by the plain-clothes rent-a-thugs who are becoming all too familiar in downtown Cairo.

[The sartorial sign of impending trouble - the biltagi boys line up]

Today, a demonstration was scheduled for 5pm outside the Talaat Harb St branch of the Omar Effendi department store. The venue was intended to be symbolic of the state's corrupt sell-off of public companies. No such demonstration materialised, although there were a handful of Central Security trucks parked at the end of the street just in case. It soon became evident that a 'demo' was taking place on the balcony of the Nasserist Party offices slightly further up Talaat Harb St. Cue for the assembled ranks of CSF troops and biltagiyya to jog lazily up the street and barricade the half-dozen or so noisy Nasserists into their building.

[An afternoon jaunt for State Insecurity]

At this point the Central Security hierarchy, hardmen and hired help began to usher journalists, cameramen and passers-by up toward the end of the street in the usual semi-threatening manner. When the middle-aged men in white uniforms and gold brocade start to clumsily urge foreign journalists away from any particular spot, it is reasonable to assume that something grim is in the pipeline. But today it was hard to see exactly who the hardmen would actually be picking on. A lot of standing around was happening, a lot of self-important posturing from over-muscled and under-brained goons with pistol belts. Perhaps there was a hardened core of trouble-makers just round the corner, waiting to pitch the Egyptian state into turmoil.

[The charm offensive begins - in a black ribbed tank-top]

Or perhaps there was a ragtag gang from the Nasserist party, offering the usual fayre of noisy nostalgia for a man (and an Egypt) that has been dead for nearly thirty-six years. Just in case they should explode forth from their HQ with hitherto undemonstrated vigour, the entrance was surrounded by troops for over an hour. It's hard to imagine the Nasserist party posing much of a threat to public order, but it was May Day after all, and things can easily get out of hand, so perhaps it was best to pen them in for a while.

[Nasserists going nowhere]

About a fifty metres away, above the panelled environs of Groppi's cafe, the Ghad party's efforts were in full swing. But the interior of the Ghad party's HQ was plush, and dusty, and empty. Is this really the party that produced the runner-up in last year's Presidential election? Or is it that Ayman Nour produced the party, and now that he is languishing in prison, his creation is rapidly falling apart? I met with a Nasserist party sympathiser who was just standing on the Ghad balcony for the view, making up the numbers. Those that were present (about a dozen, by no means all party members) were making an effort to arouse the interest of passers-by below, and to rile the bemused inhabitants of the State Security wagons parked on the square. They were marginally more successful with the latter than the former.

[The lonely beat of a Ghad flag-waver]

On the street below, the police chiefs and security managers were conducting affairs with a fairly calm, workaday attitude. The management of small-scale public discontent has become business as usual over the past couple of years for these individuals. And a small service industry has sprung up to cater to their needs. Tables and chairs appear on the street, and cold drinks and tea are served to police and CSF staff without much fuss. A waistcoated waiter was even seen ferrying chilled water and other assorted beverages to the walkie-talkie men as the evening wore on. Despite the large numbers of troops, and the reports of beatings, and the arrests, public dissent in Egypt is not even close to the point where the authorities are really rattled. They can just sit back, have some tea, and wait for it all to go away.

[A Central Security control centre, today]

So in the light of terrorist attacks, mass arrests, and the very real and visible retrenchment of the state into the old dictatorial patterns, it has to be said that the secular opposition in Egypt is in a very parlous state, if this is the best they can muster. The official channels of protest (i.e. the parliament) are still as ham-strung as they have ever been. Protest in those chambers at the actions of government are even more symbolic than banners on the streets. But now, in 2006, it seems that not even those banners can be assembled in any great number, and that apathy, defeatism and the long arm of the Police State has pummeled the secular opposition into near-submission. The Emergency Law has been remarkably effective at keeping Mubarak in government. And judging by today's non-event, the opposition parties are hardly able to raise a whimper in response.

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