Middle East

Middle East

As War Continues, Tensions Rise in Egypt

Egyptians protest the war in Iraq
Demonstrators in Cairo protest the war in Iraq, March 21, 2003 (Photo: Andrew Sultana).

Early in the morning on March 20, bombs began falling on Iraq. The allied invasion had begun. Hours later, demonstrations erupted on university campuses around Cairo. At noon, protesters converged in downtown Cairo’s bustling Tahrir Square in a demonstration that continued for 12 hours. Protesters dubbed the area the “liberated territories” of Tahrir, which itself means “liberation.”

The demonstration was largely peaceful until riot police unleashed water cannons on stone-throwing demonstrators attempting to march to the fortress-like U.S. Embassy nearby. As night fell, demonstrators continued chanting, lighting candles, and singing “The Street Is Ours,” an old Egyptian song.

The next day, Friday, observant Muslims gathered at the Sayeda Zeinab Mosque—one of Cairo’s largest and oldest. Set among crowded tenement blocks and street markets in an impoverished neighborhood, it has been home to large protests against U.S. Middle Eastern policy in the past. That Friday, the day after the bombardment had begun, Sheikh Mohammed Hammad recounted Islam’s early military victories but made no direct mention of the war in Iraq. Following congregational prayers, worshipers lined up to offer a prayer for the souls of deceased Muslims in “America’s war,” as it is known here, but there were no impromptu demonstrations outside.

A nearby café was broadcasting Al-Jazeera, the Qatari satellite news channel, reporting that an estimated 50,000-55,000 protesters were rallying at Al-Azhar Mosque, the traditional seat of Islamic learning. Al-Jazeera’s cameras showed images of security forces turning water cannons on the demonstrators. Organizers had planned the protest to begin at Al-Azhar and make its way to Tahrir Square in the afternoon. That day, Al-Jazeera reported, the interior minister had decreed that no demonstrations or rallies were to take place in public squares or major thoroughfares.

Security forces had cordoned off Tahrir Square early on, but demonstrators began gathering in the surrounding streets. Along Talaat Harb Street, a major thoroughfare leading into Tahrir Square, riot police armed with sticks, dogs, and water cannons charged at demonstrators. The water cannons were used first. As demonstrators fled into nearby buildings and alleys, security forces chased them, often beating, slapping, and striking protesters as they retreated. This reporter witnessed one security officer strike a protester in the back with a heavy board. The youth, screaming in pain, could not stand, and was carried to a waiting ambulance. Another man was struck in the eye with a stick, slapped around, and dragged away.

“Go home if you know what’s good for you,” threatened a plainclothes security official.

“There will be other demonstrations,” a woman answered back.

There were—that day. Growing in number, demonstrators began marching down Talaat Harb Street, shouting slogans, whistling, yelling, and burning an American flag. Bystanders followed along. Met by a single line of security forces in riot gear, the crowd turned onto a side street. One protestor held up a small copy of the Quran, waving it in the direction of riot police. Opposite Tahrir Square, demonstrators took control of a fire engine used for its water cannon and set it ablaze.

In a nationally televised address the day before the start of war, President Hosni Mubarak had faulted Saddam Hussein for making war inevitable. “My hope is that the Iraqi government will realize the seriousness of the situation in which it put itself—and us—in,” Mubarak told viewers.

Many viewers were apparently not convinced. “Leave, Mubarak, leave,” many shouted for the first time at the March 21 demonstrations. Protesters have increasingly criticized the Egyptian government for its handling of the ruined economy, widespread corruption, and the Feb. 23 renewal of Egypt’s draconian emergency laws that have been in effect almost continuously since 1967, in addition to the now-old complaints about U.S. support for Israel and the war against Iraq.

“That’s the danger of using brute force [to suppress demonstrations],” said one protester when questioned about the new willingness to risk criticizing Mubarak in public, “it brings the enemy close to home.”

A wave of arrests quickly followed on March 21. The number and whereabouts of those arrested is still not known. To date, 68 people, including at least four children under the age of 16, have been charged. A March 26 report from the New York-based watchdog group Human Rights Watch found that detainees had been beaten and tortured, and that female detainees had been threatened with rape during interrogation.

Security forces also stormed the offices of the Lawyer’s Syndicate, a civil-society group, beating and arresting virtually everyone inside. Independent MP Mohammed Farid Hassanein was badly beaten by elite police in front of the syndicate’s offices. He is now under arrest in a hospital bed.

Although protected by parliamentary immunity, independent Nasserist MP Hamdeen Sabahi, a prominent figure in the antiwar movement, was arrested March 23, and charged, along with dozens of other protest organizers, with preparing for an illegal demonstration. Sabahi refused to be questioned and is not cooperating with the investigation. Prosecutors ordered that Sabahi and Hassanein be detained for 15 days.

Egyptian authorities further plan to deport poet, activist, and Jordanian national Tamim Barghouthi, who was taken into custody on March 23, following antiwar demonstrations over the previous weekend. Tamim, the son of the renowned Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti and the acclaimed Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour, was seized by security officials, who did not produce a warrant, from his parents’ home just before dawn and taken to an undisclosed location. Ashour was one of 28 prominent Egyptian intellectuals, academics, writers, and journalists who signed a hand-written statement objecting to Mubarak’s March 19 address blaming Saddam Hussein for the crisis. The signatories charged the world’s sole superpower with pursuing a colonialist policy directed against the Arab world.

While daily demonstrations continue to draw thousands of students on university campuses, the security forces’ iron-fisted policy seems to have stopped unsanctioned street protests for the moment.

One organizer, who asked not to be quoted by name, said he was hesitant to plan any more demonstrations. “Our meeting to organize may become a trap used by the State Security Investigations,” he said. “We don’t know how far they will go.” Street demonstrations are not allowed to take place without government approval, which is granted only if protesters agree not to mention the emergency law, detainees, inflation, or Mubarak.

Café Arzaq

On Sunday evening, I sit at the Arzaq (Subsistence) café on Maglis Al-Madina Street in Shubra Al-Kheima, a working class district of Cairo. Images of dead and captured American marines in the 507 Maintenance Company, a supply convoy ambushed southwest of Baghdad, were rebroadcast on Al-Jazeera from Iraqi television. No one in the café seemed to savor the grisly affair, only to observe that the captured servicemen look terrified. Neither did they view the Iraqi resistance as reason to believe that Saddam Hussein’s regime would somehow emerge victorious. Iraq, after all, faces a showdown with the world’s greatest military powers.

A marine, a private from Kansas, is asked, “You come to kill the Iraqi people?”

“No, I come to fix broke stuff. I told to shoot only if I shot at. They shot at me, so I shoot back. I don’t want to kill anybody.”

Asked why he is in Iraq, he said, “I was told to come here. I just follow orders.”

A café patron turns to me and asks, “Are they American?” Yes, I nod.

“If this was ever shown in America, it would create a fury,” commented another middle-aged Egyptian.

The clientele at Arzaq agree that as the war seems likely to drag on, civilian casualties will only continue to mount. I expect excitement at Iraq’s unexpected resistance. No one comments on this. They are less absorbed with “geopolitical” issues than with the human suffering. Al-Jazeera regularly shows images of dead and wounded Iraqi civilians, many of them children—the fallout of what had been billed as a surgical, hi-tech, and “painless” war. The images have plainly touched people.

“The American order has been exposed before its people and the world,” says Mohamed Kaher, who runs a small Internet café in the neighborhood of Saqr Quraish, on Cairo’s outskirts, as he volunteers to e-mail me caricatures lampooning the U.S. president.

Customers complain that Al-Jazeera’s Web site had been attacked and that an American flag had been placed on the homepage. Kaher has figured out a way to get around the inconvenience, and periodically guides his customers to the site.

At another noisy, smoke-filled café in a posh suburb of Cairo, the television is fixed to Al-Jazeera. I ask the man sitting next to me for his thoughts on the war. Pointing to Al-Jazeera’s footage of the wounded in Basra, he spits back: “Can’t you see? What is there to say?”

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