Cairo: Young activists prep for change


Due to events in Egypt Newsnet Scotland has withdrawn the personal details of our reporter from this articleevening in cairo


Three flights up in a faux-marble building in downtown Cairo, dissent is being primed.

In a modest office lined with photos of banner-wielding protesters, a buzzing, youthful crowd listens to speeches, holds impassioned discussion and taps intently at mobiles and laptops.

The next day – January 25th – has been dubbed Police Day by Mubarak’s government. But for opposition activists Tuesday is ‘the day of rage’, when some 80,000 Egyptians have made an online pledge(1) to take to the streets.


“We’re trying to put an end to a three decade order of despotism, corruption and degradation – to return to this country its dignity and place in the world,” says Ahmed Salah, a veteran activist formerly of the Kefaya movement(2), who teaches tactics and co-ordination to protesters.

The events, called ‘a day of revolution against torture, corruption, poverty and unemployment’, were prompted by calls from two opposition groups, one dedicated to Khaled Said – beaten to death by police in Alexandria last year – the second, 6th April, named after an uprising in a Nile Delta town two years ago. Demands will include the sacking of the interior minister, the cancellation of Egypt’s emergency law and a new term limit on the presidency, a post Hosni Mubarak has held for 30 years.

Demonstrations have brought together a broad and unlikely coalition; youth activists, secularists, industrial workers, football fans and hard left groups and – after a last minute turnaround – members of the Muslim Brotherhood(3), aka the Ikhwan, Egypt’s popular, though officially outlawed, opposition.

Mohamed El-Baradei, former head of the international Atomic Energy Agency and possible contender in this year’s presidential election, has backed the protests though won’t be taking part. Police Day in 2010 saw a mere 100 protesters in central Cairo. Tuesday’s organisers hope to bring demonstrations to five or six parts of the capital as well as at least 10 other cities. The Mubarak regime is said to be organising counter-protests under the banner ‘Mubarak: Egypt’s security’.

The recent uprising in Tunisia has fuelled a cautious optimism that Egypt’s time for democracy may be at hand. ‘If Tunisia can do it why can’t we?’ says a comment on the event’s Facebook page, just one of the signs of ‘an explosion of [Egyptian] political activity, entirely disconnected from the official mechanisms of government’ noted by the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. Tunisians have said they will hold their own protests in solidarity and many Egyptians are planning on carrying Tunisian flags.

Whether this will translate into mass mobilisation is another issue. A key demographic are Egypt’s legion of frustrated, underemployed youth, those experiencing a period that a UN study termed ‘waithood'(4), reliant on piecemeal work or family support and unable to afford marriage or life outside the parental home. By some estimates they make up 90% of Egypt’s unemployed.

A ubiquitous security apparatus and deep-set cynicism about the possibility of political change have largely kept politically unaligned shabaab (youth) from mass protest, but there’s a chance Tuesday could be the turning point. A spate of self-immolations – 12 in the last week alone, many seemingly prompted by poverty – have been grim symbols of the desperation felt by workless, disenfranchised Egyptians.

Also potentially restive are industrial towns in the Nile Delta such as Mahalla, a hotbed for successful industrial action over the last five years, and where strikes are also planned tomorrow. The linking of this kind of politicised workforce with online activists is, note some analysts, the government’s nightmare.

“You can’t calculate a social phenomena,” says Haitham Gabr, of the Socialist Renewal Current(5), a left-wing group also participating in the protests. “In some cases a harsh regime can lead to revolution, in others nowhere. It’s all about circumstances.” Another member notes that the overthrow in Tunisia, thought mainly due to economic conditions, justifies the Leftist emphasis on social demands.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the one group with the support that could bring hundreds of thousands on to the streets has been cautious. After initially refusing to participate, leading to criticism in the press and online, it announced on Sunday that some members would take part under a wider Egyptian – and not specifically Ikhwan – banner.

“The Egyptian people are waiting for change – and the Ikhwan wants to be part of this change,” says Mohammed Abbas, the protest committee’s representative for the Muslim Brotherhood Youth. “We have a common interest in Egypt, not in any other ideology.” Critics, however, note that their participation – Abbas mentions about 1,000 protesters – is mainly symbolic.

Matching the 80,000 turnout registered on Facebook may be doubtful – security crackdowns, fear and misinformation are expected to have an effect – but, publicly at least, many organisers are optimistic.

“Relying on what we’ve heard, tomorrow will be a very strong day. But security is not absent and they’re trying their best to sabotage [the events],” says Ahmed Salah, pointing to recent arrests in the Nile Delta.

One Ikhwan member is even more confident. “Tomorrow is different,” he declares. “Tomorrow is a life-changing event.”

1. take to the streets