The anatomy of a downtown demo

Daily News Egypt
12 Min Read

“But they are my grandchildren’s age, were reportedly among the last words uttered by 72-year-old Ahmed Mustagir, geneticist, philosopher and poet, and one of Egypt’s greatest contemporary scientists, as he watched the televised coverage of the Israeli devastation of Lebanon from what was to prove to have been his deathbed. Yet again Arab children were being killed and mutilated, their homes destroyed, their brief lives robbed or shattered irreparably in the midst of untold horror.

And, if anything, the “civilized world looked on with even more callousness than usual. It was with similar feelings of identification that, a few weeks ago, I joined several hundred others in Tahrir Square, at the heart of downtown Cairo, to protest the Israeli attack on Lebanon. The outrage was heartfelt and profound; the identification with the pain and suffering of the Lebanese people was shared by millions of Egyptians and other Arabs everywhere. And yet I could not shake off a sense of the surreal that seemed to hang like a dim veil over the downtown demonstration, rendering me more an observer than a participant.

The fact that I’m a very infrequent demonstrator was certainly a contributing factor to this feeling of detachment (the last demonstration in which I’d taken part was in 2000, at the outset of the Palestinian Intifada); and so was my formative experience of protest demonstrations. This was way back in the seventies when to even contemplate going out on the street you had to count on a minimum of 10,000+ demonstrators, and – dare I say it – an abundant and readily accessible stockpile of stones; these are never in short supply in our great city – perennially, a work in progress.

The wave of downtown demonstrations of the past few years has, therefore, continued to strike me as more theater than politics. A few hundred people, mobilized via text-messaging and e-mail, surrounded by 10 or 20 times their number in anti-riot police; often left to their own devices; and occasionally, and wholly unpredictably, pounced upon in paroxysms of police frenzy – none of it seemed to ring very true.

This is not to disparage the energy, genuine courage and sheer persistence of this core of activists, who, in 2005, captured the attention of the world media by their determined battle for democracy. Yet, for all that, I could not help but feel that the downtown demonstrations were not so much a function of the expansion of the democratic right to free expression and peaceful protest, as they were testimony to the protracted disintegration, over the past quarter of a century, of the very space in which such rights can have any meaning – that is, of politics. It’s not that more democratic rights have been won since the seventies; they had merely been rendered insignificant.

“How many people do you think are gathered here? the foreign TV reporter was asking my old friend, a fellow veteran of the ’70s student movement and a leader of the Kefaya (Enough) movement that shot to international renown last year. “A few thousand, my friend answered unabashedly, to my utter amazement. I had estimated something in the order of 5 to 700 – an estimate which I would have thought the reporter, with a camera crew at her back, could have made for herself.

I had already discovered that this was an ‘invitation only’ demonstration. At last, I felt, I had uncovered the full subtleties of the police counter-demonstration strategy. It was brilliant in its simplicity. Huge contingents of anti-riot police laid a tight siege to the demonstrators, who, squeezed into a small corner of the “square, were surrounded by wider circles made up of hundreds of civilian-clad and uniformed policemen. The encirclement was nearly 10 tight circles deep.

Meanwhile, what must have been several thousand other policemen were spread out everywhere: reserve contingents of anti-riot squads placed hither and thither, (occasionally being rushed from one spot to another, for no easily discernible reason); high ranking police officers, their shoulders heavy with stars, eagles and crossed swords; little congregations of the slick, civilian-dressed officers of the State Security Investigations department, cynical smiles perpetually plastered on their faces, as if in gleeful contemplation of the day they will have you in one of their torture dens in nearby Lazoughly – and every kind of rank-and-file policeman you will have ever come across, or handed a tip in lieu of a parking ticket, in their myriad of equally grubby uniforms. A birds’ eye-view would probably give the impression of a middle-ages battle taking place below.

The “invitation only police strategy works this way. As you approach the tiny spot in which the early arrivals have been squeezed already, dozens of police officers will rush you along – and away from the site of the demonstration. When you insist on veering toward the demonstration in any case, you are told in no uncertain terms that it is “prohibited to go there. “But I want to go there, I say, pointing to the spot where portraits of Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nassrallah, nervously joined by red and Lebanese flags, could be seen over the helmeted heads of encircling anti-riot police. A ranking officer then gives you a penetrating look, presumably assessing whether you belong to the “ordinary masses (and thus have no business there) or to the self-styled “political elite, which does. Evidently, I passed the test. My trump card, which happens to be my ID, outdatedly identifying me as the editor of Al-Ahram Weekly, remains snug in the wallet in my back-pocket. This process is repeated several times, and finally you come up against the wall of anti-riot police encirclement. Again, you are to seek, and be given, permission to wade through.

It is thus that the seeming anomaly of an “invitation only demonstration is made. Once inside the ‘inner’ circle, I found a wholly secularist crowd, chanting themselves hoarse in praise of Hezbollah, Nassrallah and Hamas. Possibly half were women, but the ubiquitous head-scarf was hardly in evidence. The svelte young woman in tight jeans, with a green Hamas bandana pulled around thick, flowing dark hair, proclaiming “long live the Islamic resistance, struck me as an apt metaphor for the incongruous position in which Arab democrats and secularists constantly find themselves by virtue of Geroge Bush’s endless “war against terror.

The chants go on and on, seemingly endlessly, even as “the masses, or at least those among them who have ventured downtown of an evening, presumably for shopping or the cinema, look on curiously as they are being hurried along to mind their own business. The demonstrators have only the besieging policemen to communicate with. This is done alternately by trying to provoke them, or to convince them of the justice of our cause. Occasional scuffles break out, but tonight there are no orders to strike.

I’m not a chanter – never have been, even in the glorious seventies; even when I liked the slogans being chanted, which on this occasion I did not. Back then I would have been concerned with the leafleting side of the affair (unknowingly training for what was later to become my profession). Now, I busy myself by conducting what, in my mind, I have called an anatomical study of a downtown demonstration – hence the title of this piece. I wade in and out of the encircling police, each time having to seek and get permission to do so. I decide to try and get a definitive answer to a question that had been bothering over the past few years: “why the civilian-clad anti-riot contingent?

Initially I had believed that these, slightly better fed and considerably more vicious members of our Central Security Forces, were to play the role of “angry citizens, incensed by the demonstrators’ verbal attacks on our beloved president or the leaders of friendly countries such as Messrs Bush, Blair, Sharon and now Olmert. But over the countless demonstrations of the past couple of years it became glaringly obvious that no such pretense was even being attempted. I went up to one of them and
asked him. He gave me a wolfish kind of smile in reply: “the better to beat the —- out of you, my dear, it seemed to signify.

Philosophically, I fell back on an answer I had reached earlier, after some thought. It was merely an affirmation of lawlessness, of brute force unbound by law, or the trappings of law that uniforms presumably signify.

Two or three hours later, I waded through for the last time. The more hardy demonstrators were still shouting slogans, still alternately trying to provoke or convince their besiegers. The gap between our feelings of anger, empathy and solidarity and our ability to express them at all fruitfully yawned as widely as ever. As I walked away I recalled the lines from the beautifully haunting poem, the Testing Tree, by Stanley Kunitz. Some 10 years ago, following the first Qana massacre, I had had them printed out on a piece of paper which I then placed under the glass top of my desk. It got lost when I moved out last year. But not forgotten: “In a murderous time the heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking.

Hani Shukrallah is a consultant for Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and is the former Editor of Al Ahram Weekly. He writes a weekly commentary for The Daily Star Egypt.

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