Anatomy of a Protest: In Cairo, One Camp Is Soon Two

A protester shouts slogans against the government and President Hosni Mubarak during yesterday's rally in Cairo. Others chanted religious sentiments.
A protester shouts slogans against the government and President Hosni Mubarak during yesterday's rally in Cairo. Others chanted religious sentiments. (By Aladin Abdel Naby -- Reuters)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 21, 2005

CAIRO, July 20 -- The whistle was blown at 5:45 p.m., a call for the crowd assembled Wednesday in the stately Egyptian Lawyers' Syndicate to head for the door and gather along Ramsis Street, one of Cairo's busiest.

Within minutes, the scene was one of those indelible images of the change that the Bush administration says is underway in the Arab world: hundreds chanting for freedom; protesters with placards facing phalanxes of helmeted, baton-toting riot police three rows deep; banners draped across the building that read, "Freedom and change is the demand of all."

But an image says only so much today in Egypt, where one person's demand is another's fear, and one person's chant is another's threat. The protest was organized by the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest Islamic group. It pledged unity with liberal and secular forces, but in time, the protest divided into two camps -- one religious, one not. The organizers lamented the ineffectiveness of the demonstrations. And few had anything good to say about the United States, even as some acknowledged, quietly, that only with U.S. pressure were such shows of dissent possible.

The anatomy of a protest in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous state and still one of its most influential, reveals, like much in the Middle East, a more complicated picture of change. Change is one of the few things everyone seems to agree on.

"One movement, one hand, one issue -- freedom!" the crowd chanted, along a street lined with more than 40 police trucks. "Shame, shame, shame! For the imprisonment of the honorable and free," others cried. "Freedom for everyone!" some shouted.

A few held up pocket-size Korans, opened over the crowd. Others carried the banner of the Egyptian Movement for Change. "Kifaya!" it read, "Enough!" -- the motto and nickname for the movement. A few wore tags pinned to their shirts that declared, "No to Mubarak."

Perhaps most remarkable in the past year of dissent in Egypt is the degree to which fear has been shattered. Under President Hosni Mubarak, the country's longest-serving ruler since Mohammed Ali, the founder of modern Egypt 200 years ago, Egypt escaped the totalitarian absolutism of Iraq and, to a lesser degree, Syria. But through Mubarak's era and those of his predecessors, intolerance ebbed and flowed. At its worst, it gave rise to the joke that the only place Egyptians could open their mouths was the dentist's office.

Now, there's a sense of crossing long-acknowledged red lines sometimes simply to prove they can be crossed.

When an Egyptian security service chief, Nabil Ezaby, pushed into the crowd Wednesday, protesters surged toward him. "Get out of here!" the crowd began shouting. And so he did.

When riot police began pushing protesters, they shouted, jabbing fingers, "Where are the journalists? Here's terrorism!" Chants recalled the old and new. Some invoked Sheik Imam, a blind and beloved protest singer who died in 1995: "They live in the latest-style home, while we live 10 in a room." Others spoke to the moment: "Down with Mubarak! We want a free government!"

The Brotherhood is renowned for its ability to turn out crowds. What it sought Wednesday was a modest show: probably 2,000. That far outstripped most protests of the past year in Cairo but still paled in comparison to recent demonstrations in Lebanon or Central Asia.

Gripped by years of stagnation that many Egyptians find painful, the country's political life is undergoing a startling effervescence. Virtually every profession has a reform movement (Journalists for Change, Doctors for Change, Intellectuals for Change, Writers for Change and Youth for Change). Cairo's exuberant taxi drivers have become the equivalent of agitators. Newspapers now criticize not only Mubarak but also his sons and wife, breaking an old taboo.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company