All hell breaks loose in Cairo

Demonstrators riot and try to close the U.S. Embassy in a country where protest has been mostly banned for 20 years. Hosni Mubarak has to hope the war ends soon.

Published March 22, 2003 11:31PM (EST)

Egypt has rarely seen the level of public fury that has erupted since the war with Iraq began Wednesday. Although Cairo's demonstrations Thursday and Friday were smaller than in European and American capitals, there was unprecedented rioting and violence, hundreds were arrested, and the trouble may still be mounting for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Egyptian activists began circulating an e-mail at the beginning of the week, urging anyone against the war to show up at Cairo's central Tahrir Square, a traditional spot for demonstrations that is close to the U.S. Embassy, at 1 p.m.

On Thursday, after the first strike aiming to "decapitate" the Iraqi leadership was fired, over 2,000 demonstrators occupied the square, blocking traffic and trying to reach the nearby U.S. and U.K. embassies. The protests attracted a wide variety of groups, from conservative supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most important fundamentalist movement, to nationalists, socialists, anti-globalization activists as well as ordinary citizens. Many of them were trendy and well-dressed students from the nearby American University in Cairo, where Egypt's elite gets a Western-style, liberal education.

"Take down the flag," an angry crowd shouted as it tried to force its way through police cordons protecting the American Embassy. "The American flag desecrates the land of Egypt!"

Last week, the online mouthpiece of a banned Islamist party urged that as soon as a war starts, demonstrators should surround the embassy and demand that it be closed -- an increasingly popular demand in the antiwar camp here.

But it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the protesters to get near either of the embassies, which were surrounded by four concentric rings of riot police, armed personnel carriers and trucks carrying water cannons. Riot control police, almost matching the protesters in number, used water cannons to repel the protesters, and at times hit them with bamboo sticks. In return, protesters threw stones at police, although there were efforts on both sides to calm the situation down and avoid escalation. Overall, about 100 police and protesters were reported injured during the confrontation.

On Friday, the size of the crowd nearly tripled. The protests began at the historic Al Azhar mosque in the medieval part of Cairo, where, as they do every Friday, Muslims had gathered to join in the week's most important prayer. The sermons at Al Azhar have often been political in the past two years, particularly when fighting between Israelis and Palestinians intensified. Central Security, the branch of the Egyptian police usually assigned with riot-control duties, has become expert at diffusing protests that begin at Al Azhar by letting out prayer-goers in increments, thereby preventing any demonstrations from gaining momentum.

But this time around, the usual tactics did not work. Soon, an angry group of about 5,000 people, almost all of them men, began marching around the mosque; fighting broke out with the black-clad security troops wearing Darth Vader-like helmets and wielding bamboo batons. Using water cannons, the troops managed to push back the protesters, but protesters later regrouped in central Cairo to try to march to the U.S. Embassy again, in a repeat of the previous day's riots.

Some of the more intense rioting occurred around Tahrir Square, where security forces were determined not to allow protesters to roam freely as they had the previous day. As well as well-armed security troops, baltagiya -- thugs hired by police as "muscle" in demonstrations -- and police dogs were used to quell the protests. A group of activists tried to attack the Nile Hilton hotel on the bank of Nile, and brought down the foreign flags posted at its entrance and burned them. A bit farther down the street that runs along the Nile, a fuel truck was set on fire.

Overall, several hundred protesters and police were injured and at least 500 people were arrested and taken to a Central Security base outside of Cairo, according to antiwar activists.

Although perhaps relatively small when compared to antiwar protests in Europe, and less violent than those in other places such as Yemen, these protests have been extremely unusual for Egypt, an important U.S. ally whose key feature has been its stability in an often tumultuous region.

Emergency laws in place since the assassination of President Anwar Al Sadat in 1981 make it illegal for more than five people to gather in a public place, and allow easy repression of dissent. Prior to the beginning of the hostilities in Iraq, aside from a few "official" staged rallies, antiwar protests never gathered more than 1,000 people. Now, it is conceivable that demonstrations could become a daily occurrence as the war goes on, and they may attract more and more people.

This will be worrisome for Mubarak, whose country is facing the worst economic crisis in a decade, a crisis that is unlikely to get better as the war drives away tourists from Egypt's antiquities sites and sunny beaches. Already Mubarak has requested President Bush to help him weather the impact of the war -- but the $2.3 billion the administration said yesterday it is prepared to give Egypt is far short of the $10 billion Mubarak's government says it will lose.

Protesters are already angry at Mubarak because of the perception that Arab diplomacy has failed to avert war. Indeed, Mubarak early on said he had "little hope" a war could be averted. On the eve of the first attack on Baghdad, he laid the blame for the war squarely on Saddam Hussein, deploring "the absence of any true Iraqi effort to deal with the crisis of confidence" that emerged after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

"Mubarak, Mubarak, where are you?" was a common slogan expressing frustration at the lack of Arab leadership in the Iraqi crisis. Many others were more visceral, accusing him of "subjugating to U.S. dictates." A minority of protesters even suggested that "to liberate Baghdad, first Cairo must be liberated."

The Egyptian regime, while a past master in dealing with dissent, seems to have been taken off-guard by the fury of the protests. The current situation is far from an uprising, and for the moment does not threaten the stability of the country in any significant way. But Mubarak's daily appeals for an end to the war in Iraq certainly show he does not want the situation to linger. Should the situation continue, and Cairene TV screens be inundated with pictures of the victims of "shock and awe" tactics, there is no telling what he will end up having on his hands. Like many people at the White House, he will be hoping this war will be a quick one.

By Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo writer.

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Iraq War