A good offence is the best defense, as we all learnt yesterday. As I drove through Talaat Harb square at around 9 am, the scene looked all too familiar: at least a dozen state security trucks, hundreds of riot police equipped to the tee with helmets, batons and related riot paraphernalia; not to mention the hundreds of plainclothes agents who, one reporter told me, would come up to random citizens standing in an unusually barren Tahrir Square to ask why they were there. As I write this column, the newswire services and our own journalists have already reported that the much-hyped April 6 general strike, calls for which have been circulating for at least two weeks on the internet, through text messages and on Facebook, has been nipped in the bud. The foiled plan of staging a kind of civil disobedience was propagated by anti-government groups urging people to hold protests or stay home from work altogether on Sunday, to avoid shopping for food, wear black clothes and hang the Egyptian flag from windows and balconies to show support for the strikers. By noon our correspondent, who had gone to Mahallah to cover the Ghazl El-Mahallah textile factory strike which triggered the nationwide calls for protest action against skyrocketing food prices, inflation and the dire economic situation of the working class and civil servants, was already on her way back to Cairo. (It was only a matter of time before people would take to the streets again. Amid a bread crisis that led to over 10 deaths the UN’s World Food Program had said this month that average household expenditure in Egypt had risen by 50 percent since the beginning of the year.)”Strike didn’t happen; back to Cairo now, our reporter wrote to me in a text message. And back in Cairo, the streets were generally emptier than usual. My daily trip from Heliopolis to Dokki took a record 30 minutes and it was clear that the interior ministry’s intimidations had hit the nail right on the head.Threats of “immediate and firm measures against any attempt to demonstrate, disrupt road traffic or the running of public establishments and against all attempts to incite such acts made headline news in state-owned newspapers, where “provocateurs and illegal movements were accused of having “spread false rumors and called for protests, demonstrations and a strike on Sunday. It was going to be business as usual at public institutions, including schools and state-owned factories . whether you liked it or not. Those who didn’t like it couldn’t muster the courage to stay home and the few who really didn’t like it but had nothing to lose ended up barricaded in front of the Lawyers’ Syndicate, screaming out at the top of their lungs words that have been falling on deaf ears since December 2004 when Kefaya staged its first protest.Of almost 16 million living in Cairo, about 1,600 gathered to express their anger at deteriorating economic conditions. The arrest of at least 30 Kefaya leaders and members of the March 9 movement at universities, and of course the intimidation of state security and riot police had taken their toll to such an extent that some people even contemplated staying home just to stay out of harm’s way. not in protest, but out of fear of a perceived threat to their livelihood that is nothing more than a paper tiger.So did this unprecedented call for a form of Ghandi-esque passive resistance fail altogether? Or is there a spark of hope that April 6 will become the seed of wide-ranging movement that will unleash itself after the initial fear barrier is broken? But even if it does gain traction, how long will workers be physically able to stand their ground? How many days can they afford to live without food for their children or enough to pay for private lessons, doctors, and medicine in a country whose basic state institutions have crumpled beyond repair? Just yesterday morning the Central Auditing Agency published a damning report on the dire state of public education which highlights that 266 collapsing schools were closed down because they jeopardized the lives of their students.Would a popular movement in this vein lift the masses living under the poverty line from destitution, or will any act of protest, no matter how passive, simply backfire in this state of emergency? Will it be yet another pretext for mass detentions, muzzling press freedom, sweeping privatization of state assets and ensuing lay-offs that would leave thousands more unemployed?TV footage of the protest showed a Kefaya activist with a sign that read “freedom and bread. The question is, how far can we sacrifice bread for the sake of freedom and a dignified life? How many amputated dreams will it cost before we make it?
Rania Al Malkyis the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.