Friday, March 25, 2005

Routinizing the Right to Protest

For the fifth week in a row, relatives of detained al-Arish residents protested their incarceration in connection with the October 7 Taba bombings. al-Jazeera reports that demonstrators chanted "Down with the Interior Ministry!" al-Ahram Weekly has a follow-up report on the events in the Nile delta town of Sarando, with a breathtaking lead (for once) by the article's author; citing figures from the Land Center for Human Rights, the article cites 49 farmers dead, 328 injured and 429 arrested in land-related violence since tenancy Law 96/1992 came into effect in 1997.

Anyone following Egyptian events for the past few months can't have failed to notice the regular, almost cyclical outbreak of protests and demonstrations in both large cities and smaller towns. From the Cairo pro-democracy demonstrations (Kifaya, Ayman Nour's supporters, Hizb al-'Amal members) to the Arish anti-police brutality protests to student demonstrations coinciding with the Algiers Arab summit to demonstrations marking the second anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq, street protests have emerged as almost routine expressions of public frustration and anger at public authorities. In the capital city, Tahrir square in front of the Stalinesque al-Mugamma' has morphed into a de facto gathering place for all demos, in addition to the highly symbolic sites of Cairo University and the High Court Complex on 26 July street.

If we want to date this phenomenon more precisely, then it goes back to the outbreak of al-Aqsa Intifada in fall 2000, which unleashed a wave of pro-Palestine demonstrations and solidarity committees across Egypt, cresting with the spring 2002 reinvasion of the West Bank by Ariel Sharon's government and the spring 2003 American invasion of Iraq. Back then, knee-jerk cynics dismissed these massive outbursts of student-led public anger as "safety valves" used by the government to deflect criticism of its policies, conveniently and predictably ignoring the on-the-ground dynamics of the protests, where protestors mouthed witty and biting anti-government slogans as frequently as they condemned the American and Israeli governments; let's not forget the ripping off and burning of the huge Mubarak poster from the NDP headquarters in March 2003 (NDPers had the good sense not to put up a replacement). Only recently, beginning with Kifaya's December 12 demo, did they 'discover' that Egyptians do actually protest domestic issues. A ubiquitous Egyptian commentator in the American press does an admirable job of touting this comfortable, false conventional wisdom here.

But before the cynics and know-it-alls come up with some other lazy, dismissive 'explanation' for how the regime has 'allowed' these protests, let's get one thing clear: aside from the government-permitted and Ikhwan-organized protest in February 2003 and the pro-Mubarak counter-demo earlier this week, all other protests have taken place despite and not because of the government. This seems like such a basic point to me. The interior minister's remarks before a parliamentary committee earlier this week (fulminating against those who "curse state leaders" in the demos) and the pathetic pro-Mubarak demo are both indications that the regime is responding to and not dictating the public's incremental actions over the past five years. Those incremental actions have routinized street protest in the face of one of the most obsessively policed cities on earth. It's no longer a matter of allowing demonstrations or not (unless you're a pusillanimous opposition party leader who still asks the government to please please allow their demonstration); it's a matter of how you're going to manage protests. Hemming in demonstrators inside campuses or cordoning them off from passersby with three rows of Amn al-Markazi recruits is the preferred method. I'd give an arm and a leg to take a look at one of Amn al-Dawla's elaborate plans for policing protest, and to see whether and how it has changed in the past five years.

Let's give credit where credit is due: routinizing the right to protest would've never happened without the countless, anonymous students who braved the rubber bullets and tear gas to make the exceptional routine. And it would've never happened without organizers extraordinaire like Kamal Khalil, the man with the patterned sweater at the literal center of most every Cairo demonstration, coining on-the-spot slogans and rhyming chants. Khalil is the picture of a kind, humble Egyptian citizen; when I met him, the phrase "salt of the earth" finally made sense. The way his ever-present smile reveals his scraggly teeth is one of the most endearing traits I've ever seen. One blindingly sunny winter afternoon, in a coffeeshop tucked away in a windswept alley, Khalil vowed to make this the year of snowballing protests. It's late March, and the hail of snowballs shows no signs of abating.