The monster in Egypt's box

Egyptian authorities are masters at containing protests -- but street rage at Israel and the U.S. may surge out of control.

By Issandr El Amrani
Published April 4, 2002 10:53PM (EST)

Since Israel began its military incursion into Ramallah and the West Bank, the government in neighboring Egypt has had to walk a fine line between appeasing public opinion and satisfying U.S. pressure to keep discussion channels with Israel open. Students, intellectuals, opposition politicians and average citizens have taken to the streets in throngs to protest what they see as Israeli atrocities and to vent anger at their government's impotence. Demonstrators from across the Egyptian political spectrum -- moderate and radical Islamists, atheistic communists, socialists, liberals and even the apolitical -- are calling on their government to cut ties with Israel.

That, however, may be asking for the impossible: The stability of Egypt, in the midst of deepening economic crisis, depends to a large extent on the lifeline extended by U.S. economic aid and other forms of international economic assistance. These, in turn, are only assured by the fact that President Hosni Mubarak has made Egypt a key moderate player in regional politics and has enforced the spirit of the 1979 Camp David accords with Israel.

In an attempt to appease the growing radical factions, Egyptian minister of information Safwat Al Sherif -- known here to opposition groups as "Safwat Goebbels" -- announced Wednesday that Cairo would scale down diplomatic contacts with Israel. "The Egyptian government had decided to suspend all contacts with the Israeli government except for diplomatic channels which serve the Palestinian cause," he said through the official Middle East News Agency.

However, that is seen by some as a smoke screen, since Israeli diplomatic staff in Cairo will remain in place. "What does this mean?" exclaims Hisham Kassem, a human rights activist and an astute observer of Egyptian politics. "That the agricultural attaché will not get his calls answered by the ministry of agriculture unless he wants to talk Palestine?"

This move will likely do little to quell the growing anger toward Mubarak that was on display Monday. While the protests started peacefully and within the boundaries of the controlled demonstrations the state prefers and sometimes encourages, protesters soon broke free of Cairo University's main gate, taking the protests into the streets. It also then became clear that public anger was directed not only at the Israelis, but also at Mubarak.

"Oh Mubarak, you coward, you are a client of the Americans," shouted the protesters. Another favorite was "Oh Alaa [Mubarak, the president's notoriously corrupt son], tell your father that millions hate him." But perhaps the most telling slogan was "Oh Mubarak where are you, the blood of Ramallah separates us."

These chants, unusually daring for a country where most are apolitical, gave the green light to Central Security forces, a ragtag contingent of riot police clad in black and wielding bamboo batons, to take more serious action. At Cairo University, the center of the protests, police fired tear gas canisters into the crowd and used water cannons to push back protesters. But government forces, perhaps caught off-guard by the size of the protests, were unable to control what had essentially become a riot. Despite the tear gas that made protesters (and journalists covering the events) unable to see or breathe, and despite the blue-dyed water coming out of fire trucks that many suspected contained skin irritants, demonstrators marched toward the nearby Israeli Embassy, stopping just 50 yards from its gates.

On the way to the embassy, protesters wrecked a McDonald's and a KFC. When I asked one protester why he vandalized the restaurants, he explained that they represented "American imperialism." Since then, other American franchises (90 percent of whose profits, ironically, go to the Egyptian company that runs them, Americana) have come under attack and a nationwide campaign is underway to boycott American products. Generally, there was a lot of antagonism against America. I was often asked if I was American, but with my fluent French, I was able to get away with saying I was Belgian. Another American journalist who was more candid was roughed up by some of the protesters.

Upon reaching the police cordon that separated them from the embassy, protesters began shouting, "Israeli ambassador, out of the land of the Nile." The call for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to Cairo, Gideon Ben-Ami, has now become a main rallying point for protesters, who still gather every day around Cairo, although in lesser numbers.

Pressure to expel the ambassador is also coming from other fronts. Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian minister of planning and one of Arafat's closest aides, spoke to Egyptian foreign minister Ahmad Maher on Tuesday, urging him to take "practical steps" rather than issue denunciations at an upcoming meeting of Arab foreign ministers scheduled to take place in Cairo on Saturday.

Speaking at a press conference, Shaath said that Arab states should take a strong stand against Israel's recent actions and that Egypt and Jordan -- the Arab countries with the closest relations with Israel -- should cut off relations. Shaath added that the "vast majority" of Arab foreign ministers would come to Cairo for Saturday's meeting, and urged them to confront Israel with "deeds and acts."

There have also been protests outside the Egyptian Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, calling for Cairo to end its relationship with Israel, which officially began 23 years ago when then President Anwar Al Sadat signed the Camp David accords, making Egypt the first country to make peace and have normal relations with Israel.

But, according to human-rights activist Kassem, that is unlikely to happen. "It would really damage the regime abroad," he explains. "It's survived for 20 years on the grounds that it is one of the two countries with full relations with the Israelis. And it's not going to appease the demonstrators either -- they will just push for more."

The protests in Cairo and Beirut, and today's scaling back of Egyptian-Israeli relations, were the latest signs of just how quickly and severely the situation in the Middle East has deteriorated. Just one week ago, the regional situation as seen from Cairo seemed to be taking a turn for the better. Arab heads of state were gathering in Beirut, and, for the first time, the world seemed to care. Never had a gathering of the Arab League -- arguably the world's most inept regional organization -- attracted so much international attention. The United States had endorsed Prince Abdullah's peace proposal, and while it seemed that a few Arab leaders were not too happy about the Saudis putting forward the plan without prior consultation, it looked like too much was at stake to sabotage it.

Yet, a week later -- after a sabotage of peace prospects by Palestinian suicide bombers and Ariel Sharon -- the situation looks drastically different. Getting back to Prince Abdullah's proposition seems almost as remote as the all-but-forgotten Oslo peace accords.

For Egyptians, the first sign that the wind was changing direction came when their president decided to stay away from the summit. Everyone I talked to in Cairo was perplexed by Mubarak's decision. Of course, as is often the case with the Egyptian media, rumors abounded. Was the president jealous that Prince Abdullah had usurped his leading role as regional peacemaker? Had the Americans warned Mubarak ahead of time of Ariel Sharon's decision to reoccupy the West Bank and raid Yasser Arafat's headquarters?

While the reasons Mubarak did not attend the summit are likely to remain a mystery, the effect of the decision was instantly felt by most Egyptians. Many felt ashamed that their leader -- a key regional figure whose presence would have lent greater weight to the summit's outcome -- had dodged the meeting. As the week went from bad to worse and Israel began the assault on Arafat's headquarters, that shame sublimated into anger -- anger at Israel for its actions and at the United States for its inaction, but also at the sheer helplessness Egypt and the Arab world showed in reaction to the Israeli response and American silence.

That frustration was apparent at a three-day hunger strike organized by the Egyptian Lawyers' Syndicate, which began on March 27. Since the mid-1970s, one of the few ways civil society in Egypt can organize independently from the government -- which otherwise dominates public life -- is in professional syndicates. As such, opposition parties and Islamist groups have been able to gain some influence. The government occasionally tries to impose its own people onto the boards of these organizations. The Lawyers' Syndicate called the strike in solidarity with Palestinians, leading protesters in chants of slogans against Israel, as well as the Mubarak government.

"The strike is a rejection of a humiliated life," said one of the protesters, drawing parallels between Palestinian and Egyptian impotence. Other demonstrators shouted anti-regime slogans -- an extremely rare occasion in a country that has made stability its calling card -- accusing the leadership of not supporting the Palestinians and being cowardly. That demonstration last week, however small, was violently repressed by security forces. But it set the tone for the much larger demonstrations that followed Monday.

Like most demonstrations in Egypt, Monday's protests were centered around university campuses, with the largest taking place at Cairo University. In the past, demonstrations have tended to be organized and dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group. Although banned and persecuted by the government, the Brotherhood -- a moderate Islamist movement -- has vast grass-roots networks that have successfully infiltrated (and in some cases taken over) university departments, professional organizations and other civil society forums.

But the relationship between the Brotherhood and the regime is not straightforward. While the security forces regularly crack down on Brotherhood members, particularly during elections, the government also has accepted that the Brotherhood will not go away. Over the years, the two sides have reached an understanding of sorts that they cannot defeat each other (at least not in the immediate future). As a result, Brotherhood leaders coordinate with security forces when they organize public activities such as demonstrations, drawing clear lines as to what is permissible and what is not. The regime gets controlled unrest that allows people to let off steam, and the Brotherhood gets to maintain a high profile. In many ways, Egyptian security forces have become masters at organizing "protests in a box," which allows the regime to show the outside world it has a public opinion problem to contend with, but without taking any risks.

Hisham Kassem feels that the most recent protests, unlike previous ones, have no clear leadership. "They're a monster without a head," he says, arguing that this will make them all the more difficult for the government to control.

"One thing that is beginning to backfire is the lack of populist leadership. Those kids out there don't really have any leaders -- so there is no way to turn the protests off," Kassem says. In the 1970s, when protests were more frequent, the government could always deal with party leaders and others who held sway over the demonstrators, he explained. The successful depoliticization of the country in the past 20 years has however left no one to mediate between the regime and the masses.

There were also signs that the government was encouraging demonstrators. From last Friday, when Israel began its offensive against Arafat's headquarters, Egyptian TV's normally tame programming -- a tepid diet of soap operas, soccer matches and epic historical dramas -- was replaced by virtually nonstop coverage of the Palestinians' plight. Melodramatic music videos featuring footage of the shooting of Muhammad Al Durra, the child killed by crossfire between Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers at the beginning of the intifada, were suddenly played between every program. Heartthrob crooner Amr Diab -- Egypt's answer to Ricky Martin -- sang "Al Quds" ("Jerusalem") with a backdrop of crying Palestinian children. On another channel, a star-studded cast of Egypt's top singers sing "Hilm Al Arabi" ("The Arab Dream") with very much the same dedication with which Quincy Jones and friends sang "We Are the World" 20 years ago.

News coverage, of course, was completely dominated by Palestine. One 30-minute news show covered it from a Palestinian, Egyptian and Arab perspective. The only non-Palestinian item on the show was a 30-second report on the death of Britain's queen mother.

But Egyptian television's most original contribution to the current Egyptian outrage over the situation was the phrase "Zio-nazism," a term coined by TV talking heads last week and since then repeated during demonstrations to describe Israeli policies. Channel One commentators, with a backdrop image combining a Star of David and a Nazi swastika, said that "to get rid of the Palestinians, Israel has opted for the final solution used by Hitler's Germany to exterminate the Jews." Another explained that Zionism stands for "the supremacy of the Jewish people," much like "Nazism advocates the supremacy of the Aryan race." While the comparison between the two is not new -- newspapers have made it a staple of political cartoons -- it is the first time TV has featured such provocative statements.

It is tempting to interpret Egyptian television's aggressive programming as incitement. After all, Egypt, like other Arab governments, has often used the excuse of public opinion for not supporting U.S. initiatives in the region, as was evident with the reluctance Mubarak showed in helping the United States after Sept. 11. But it may just be that, faced with public outrage on an unprecedented scale, the regime had to follow opinion rather than try to direct it.

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo writer.

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