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.
Yet, chants like "People of Egypt, join us!" usually turn out just dozens, who are far outnumbered by riot police drawn from Egypt's poorest and least educated people. Even before the protest began, the officers stood shoulder to shoulder, backed up by water cannons and enough trucks to snarl traffic along Ramsis Street.
"They'll permit protests here and there, and plenty of yelling, if we can call it that, but they still do as they want to do," said Mohammed Habib, a Muslim Brotherhood leader. "Yell as you like, and we'll do what we want.' "
That sense of resignation spans the opposition movement, divided as it is between religious and secular forces -- leftists, Trotskyists, Arab nationalists and liberals. The question some ask themselves: So the lines were crossed, but where did we end up?
"Crisis is looming," said Mohammed Sayed Said, a leader of Kifaya. "The big issue that we failed to resolve -- I wouldn't call it apathy -- but obviously passivity on the part of the public is amply clear. We communicated the message, we expressed the need, but that's far from saying people support Kifaya and engage in the struggle in any real numbers."
George Ishaq, another opposition leader, blamed the passivity on more than five decades of authoritarianism -- what he called "monotone speech by one party, one government, one person" that has dominated the media since the monarchy was toppled in 1952.
"Give me the television for 24 hours, and I will change Egypt completely," he said in an interview.
For its part, the Brotherhood worries that protests like Wednesday's might perpetuate the government's hold on power, offering an example of tolerance and dissent, even as Mubarak remains in control.
"It uses them to improve its image and clean its face in front of the world," Habib said.
The protest was touch and go from the start. It was called by the Brotherhood for last week at Abdin Palace in downtown Cairo, then delayed when the Kifaya movement organized its own demonstration there. This week, the Brotherhood moved it to the Lawyers' Syndicate. Kifaya leaders were angry that the Brotherhood failed to turn out numbers for their protest last week. They decided not to formally support Wednesday's gathering. Both sides try to keep decorum -- their refrain is that alliance is necessary for change -- but suspicion reigns.
Founded in 1928 as an underground movement, the Brotherhood, which formally renounced violence in the 1970s, stands as the single most powerful opposition group on the Egyptian scene today, despite withering crackdowns by the government. It has turned out hundreds of thousands of supporters for funerals of its leaders, and its decision to take a more aggressive stand in confronting the government was hailed by other groups as a potentially decisive turn for the fledgling opposition.
Secular activists were reassured by a new emphasis in its language: less talk about Islamic law and more about democracy. At the Brotherhood's office along the Nile, a caption under a photo of a demonstration reads, "Freedom is the way to real political reform."
But speculation is rife that the Brotherhood is less interested in wholesale change and more interested in striking a deal with the government, under which it would be recognized formally (it remains technically banned) and perhaps brought into a coalition.
"I want to ask them if they are really serious," said Ishaq, the Kifaya leader. "I don't think they're clear enough yet, and I don't understand them exactly. We need them to show us exactly what they want."
The Brotherhood, in its statements, says it wants what Kifaya and others want: free and fair elections, pluralism, public freedoms, an end to elements of martial law, the release of prisoners and a campaign against corruption. It insists that no change is possible without all political forces in Egypt coming together. But at times, it hints at a fact acknowledged by many: These days, only the Brotherhood has the numbers, organization, history and discipline to exert concerted pressure on Mubarak.
"The government knows well that the current that enjoys popularity and speaks the language that attracts support in the Egyptian street is the Islamic current," said Ali Abdel Fattah, a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman.
As the protest dragged on Wednesday, differences erupted in the open. Abdel Fattah said the more secular groups had agreed not to insult the president, and Brotherhood followers had pledged to refrain from religious chants.
The deal lasted about a half-hour.
"Down, down, Hosni Mubarak!" leftists began shouting.
The Brotherhood followers stayed silent, then erupted: "With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, Islam."
Others joined in, trading chants. Leftists called Mubarak a coward and an American lackey. The Brotherhood followers answered that there was no alternative to Islamic law. "Jihad is the solution," some intoned.
The Brotherhood followers stayed in place, packed inside the cordon of security forces. Leftists marched down the street to the Journalists' Syndicate as Abdel Fattah and others made fervent efforts to close the ranks.
In an irony for a Bush administration promoting reform, the common denominator for both is a distrust of U.S. intentions.
Much of the organizing among secular groups came about in support of the Palestinian uprising and against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. An endorsement of U.S. policy -- even the perception -- is almost a sure way to destroy credibility. At one protest in June in the lower-middle-class area of Shubra, participants recalled, the appearance of protesters in Western clothes and men with long hair irked some residents. Afterward, activists suggested sprinkling in more anti-American chants to bolster their credentials.
While many acknowledge that U.S. pressure has provided crucial space for dissent, resentment lingers over past American support for Mubarak. There is suspicion, too, that calls for reform go only so far: Many argue that the United States wants a more benign government in the mold of Mubarak rather than a full-fledged democracy that would bring to power the Brotherhood and others.
"Whoever serves American interests, they'll put him on the throne," said Maged Hassan, a 26-year-old engineer.
By 7:15 p.m., the crowds began to disperse, as the Brotherhood declared the protest over. Within a half-hour, columns of riot police, some double-timing it, returned to their trucks. Those who remained tightened their cordon around dozens of leftists still chanting. Traffic surged along Ramsis Street, and leaflets littered the sidewalk. "Yes to national reform," one torn poster read.
As dusk settled over Cairo, pierced by the muezzin's call to prayer, a group of about 30 youths set off down the street for downtown. They were boisterous, exuberant and sure of their conviction. A knot of white-uniformed police suspiciously tailed them.
"Even the police are coming with us to say, 'No to Mubarak!' " they shouted as they pressed ahead.