Sparks of Activist Spirit in Egypt

by Paul Schemm | published April 13, 2002

For a few days in October 2000, near the beginning of the second Palestinian intifada, it looked as though Egypt's student movement had finally found its voice again after years of quiescence. Students at Cairo University and other schools demonstrated daily and even clashed with security forces during attempts to march on the Israeli embassy to show their solidarity with the Palestinians. When this movement petered out soon after it began, most observers sympathetic to the student movement shook their heads and lamented the loss of Egypt's activist spirit.

Today, October 2000 looks like a dress rehearsal. A year and a half later, the universities have exploded again as the war of attrition in the occupied Palestinian territories has taken a new and more awful turn. Minor protests occurred throughout the month of March, in advance of the Arab League summit in Beirut. But when the West Bank city of Ramallah was invaded on March 29, large demonstrations began in earnest. Two weeks later demonstrations are still going on daily. Though the protests may lack their initial fervor, the current round of student unrest represents the longest period of activism in Egypt since the 1990-1991 Gulf war, if not before. The militant tone of many of today's rallies and marches seems qualitatively different from earlier rounds of protest under President Husni Mubarak.

The demonstrators' slogans started out condemning Israel, but not long into each rally, the Egyptian government came in for criticism as well. "I've been an activist for years," said one student, "and I've never seen them attack Mubarak so directly." The usual chants reviling Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon or lamenting the absence of Arab armies from the Israeli-Palestinian battlefield are now regularly supplemented with: "Mubarak, you coward, you are the client of the Americans" or "We want a new government because we've hit rock bottom." Even as demonstrations subside following the shooting death of Muhammad Ali al-Saqqa, a student in Alexandria, militancy and anger remain in the student population—which has now taken the opportunity to organize and network. "The objective conditions for another outburst are there, but you never know when the spark will come," said the long-time activist.

Competing Forces

The glory days of the student movement in Egypt came in the early 1970s, when demonstrations of hundreds of thousands filled the main square of Cairo. Students were ostensibly urging then-President Anwar Sadat to go to war with Israel to wrest back occupied Arab land, but after the 1973 war the protests continued, focusing more on Egypt's lack of democracy and economic hardship. In 1979, the government clipped the students' wings by passing a new university law which forbade political activity by students—effectively confining student demonstrations to the campuses. Battles between students and police were no longer fought in the main streets of the capital, but at the university gates—usually far away from the rest of the population.

Since the 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood has become the strongest force on the Egyptian campus. Usually the Brotherhood has been more interested in spreading its influence by providing social services and encouraging its particular brand of public morality than in stirring up protest on the street.

For this reason, it appears to be a fledgling movement of campus "socialists," and to a lesser extent supporters of the old-guard, secular Nasserist party, who have been galvanizing the students this time around. The Brotherhood can mobilize more students to create a bigger demonstration, but they won't clash with police.

"The Line Not to Cross"

The most militant demonstrations have been at Alexandria University, long considered a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood. On April 9, a demonstration of 9,000 turned tragic when at least one student, al-Saqqa, was killed and over 260 were wounded as police broke up the march with rubber bullets and buckshot.

"The police stopped the students in the street outside the university and the students starting throwing things and destroying cars," said Muhammad, an officer with the State Security, Egypt's plainclothes security service. Different reports have claimed that the demonstrators were heading for an American cultural center or the new Alexandria Library, where a conference of oil companies was underway. The State Security officer maintained that Brotherhood activists could not have been leading the demonstration. "There is no religion in all of this. The religious groups are very smart; they know the line not to cross." He attributed the violence in Alexandria to "communists."

Others familiar with the student movements concur—the Brotherhood activists are under strict instructions not to face off with police and often coordinate protests with security officials ahead of time to make sure that all goes without incident. The socialists, who describe themselves as Trotskyites but insist that they are not affiliated with any international movement, believe that a more confrontational attitude is necessary. Their slogans target the Mubarak government directly, asserting that reform must happen in Egypt before Palestine can be saved. "The road to Jerusalem runs through Cairo," as one activist explained. The Brotherhood believes that criticism of the regime must take a back seat to a united front against Israel.

What probably happened in Alexandria was that a demonstration originally organized by the Brotherhood was taken over by socialist (or independent) students who accurately read the crowd's temperament and led them out to the streets. Security forces were unable to control the 9,000 students with their conventional weapons of tear gas and police cordons, and resorted to firearms. With the inauguration of the new Alexandria Library approaching on April 23, the authorities did not want any event there disrupted.

Usual Practice

Security forces have been much more restrained in Cairo, partly because there have not been any demonstrations in the streets by 9,000 people. With notable exceptions, protests in Cairo have been fairly small, limited to a few hundred people. As per usual practice, police have arrived in large numbers, separated the demonstrators from the general public and then allowed them to exhaust themselves chanting.

The April 12 demonstration at al-Azhar mosque in the heart of Islamic Cairo was an excellent example. Since it was well-known that a demonstration would occur after Friday prayers, the authorities were prepared. More than 2,000 black-clad Central Security policemen, in riot gear, were on hand. While at one point 10,000 people massed protesting inside the mosque, they were unable to get out as a group. Instead protesters were allowed out in small groups and then swiftly ushered away from the mosque. Only around 200 were able to gather and shout slogans in front of al-Azhar.

The previous week, a similar small demonstration in front of al-Azhar was reinforced by several hundred people marching up from nearby Ataba square. On April 12, several lines of security blocked traffic and cut off pedestrian access to al-Azhar from any direction.

Caught by Surprise

This elaborate routine contrasted vividly with the Cairo University demonstration of April 1, which caught security forces by surprise. Until that point, there had not been such a large rally so soon after an Israeli incursion into Palestinian-controlled areas. The demonstration was originally organized by a group called the Popular Committee for Support of the Palestinian Intifada, comprised of various NGO activists and representatives of the different opposition political parties. Their rally was reinforced by some 10,000 students who suddenly left the university campus, broke through the security cordon and headed for the Israeli embassy down the street. Police eventually beat the protesters back with tear gas and for the rest of the day, a fairly quiet standoff simmered at the main gate of the university.

Meanwhile, at a side gate near the Faculty of Commerce, a small force of Central Security men was caught between several converging demonstrations, including one composed of high school students and one from the university. During the running battles that resulted between about 1,000 students and police, protesters smashed several symbols of "America"—including an entire Kentucky Fried Chicken store and its accompanying street advertisements. Students threw rocks at police and at one point overwhelmed and pummeled a police captain who strode into their midst and tried to arrest a stone thrower.

It wasn't until the police began throwing rocks themselves and drove the students back inside the university that order was restored. The next day, there were similar clashes between police and students around the university, but since then violent demonstrations in Cairo have ceased. At an April 8 demonstration at Cairo University, only several hundred students gathered outside the front gate, too few to contemplate a dash through the security cordons. The demonstration was mostly characterized by squabbling between the political factions over which slogans to chant. Later it turned out that plainclothes security elements on the campus had prevented students from joining the demonstration.

While security seems to have now found the trick for strangling protests and there hasn't been much active support from Egyptians off the campuses, the students did affect government policy over the last few weeks, if only in symbolic ways. The state announced it would downgrade government-to-government relations with Israel (though not diplomatic ties) and also halted Egypt Air flights to Tel Aviv. These gestures came in response to the street protests. The sheikh of al-Azhar, Muhammad al-Tantawi, recently reversed himself on the issue of suicide bombings. Once he called them wrong, but now he is saying that Palestinians who perform them are martyrs.

"Not the End of the Story"

According to activists, the student leaders and political parties are working to sustain the movement of the last two weeks. Political parties have been trying to take credit for the students' sudden activism as well as lead their own protests, but for the most part these have been small affairs and Egypt's small opposition parties remain cut off from the militants. Most socialist students expressed scorn for Tagammu', Egypt's legal left-wing party.

The Lawyers' Syndicate, however, has re-emerged over the last few weeks as a center of political activism. Once this body was considered the political bellwether of the nation. But when the Muslim Brotherhood won the syndicate elections, the government suspended the board and appointed regime loyalists in their place. The sequestration was lifted two years ago, but Egyptians had already stopped looking to the syndicate for leadership.

With the onset of the latest crisis in Palestine, the syndicate began holding rallies and seminars on current events. As the universities are riddled with informers and encircled by vigilant security, the syndicate grounds have become a kind of "liberated territory" for student activists. Here student leaders from different universities meet to get to know each other as well as activists from older generations. Students are coming not just from traditionally activist institutions like Cairo University and Ain Shams University, but also from the polytechnic colleges and secondary schools.

"The real politics start after the demonstrations end," said one activist who says that a political movement born out of the demonstrations of October 2000 and the past two weeks is starting to form. He didn't count out the possibility of further unrest in the country, despite the increasingly heavy security crackdown. "This is not the end of the story," he declared. "The public mood right now is a lot more militant than in October 2000."

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