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Enough is not enough

A new dynamic was in the air at the Kifaya (Enough) movement's third and largest demonstration, reports Amira Howeidy

Eighteen-year-old Asmaa, a Cairo University first- year dental student, stormed out of the campus's massive iron gates with a group of students, ecstatic that security forces had allowed them to join an anti-Mubarak demonstration that was taking place right in front of their university. "Freedom! Freedom," they chanted.

It was Asmaa's first encounter with political activism. "Enough," she told Al-Ahram Weekly, "we've been silent for too long; it's about time people heard something other than 'yes'." The government, she said, likes "to tell us that 99.9 per cent of [voters] said yes [to Mubarak]. Well now they're hearing something different, and I think today we got the message across."

On 21 February, three political groups -- composed of leftists, Islamists, Nasserists and secularists -- joined forces to stage a public demonstration opposing the renewal of President Hosni Mubarak's presidential term for a fifth time. While there is no consensus on the precise number of demonstrators, it appeared to be the largest anti- Mubarak demonstration that had ever taken place. Approximately 500 protesters, including activists, politicians, intellectuals, journalists and students, were on hand. As with the vast majority of demonstrations since 2000 (when, for the first time since the 1970s, public protests denouncing Israeli occupation took to the streets), this one was disorderly, often breaking into two or three mini- demonstrations at the same time. But then the entire group would come together again to chant their by- now famous line -- " kifaya " (enough).

As always with demonstrations, thousands of anti-riot police and dozens of high-ranking police officers had surrounded Cairo University, its vicinity, and the areas leading into it since 8am. The demonstration was organised by the Egyptian Movement for Change, also known as Kifaya (Enough), the Popular Campaign for Change, and the National Front for Change (opposition parties and the Muslim Brotherhood were conspicuously absent). The date -- 21 February -- was chosen to mark International Student's Day and the Egyptian nationalist student movement's struggle for Egypt's independence from British occupation in 1946. A memorial facing the university's main entrance was constructed to honour the victims of those clashes, and Cairo University remained a venue for significant political demonstrations following the 1967 defeat and throughout the 1970s.

While Monday's demonstration was in front of, rather than inside, the university, tens of students managed to break through the lines of anti-riot police. Their insistence on climbing over and rattling the chained iron gates finally persuaded police to let them out to join the demonstration. "Build higher, higher walls, tomorrow the revolution will come and leave no one," they chanted. "We want a free government, life has become impossible."

The demonstration began at 12.45pm and lasted until just after 3pm. It picked up when the students were allowed to exit the university at around 2pm.

Standing on the staircase of the granite memorial, veteran left-wing activist Kamal Khalil, who often led student demonstrations in the 1970s, was shouting, "despite the police, no to extension, no to succession". His chant was an improvised mix of satirical political sloganeering and street poetry. "Oh, Egypt, you still have a palace, you still have slums, tell those who live in Orouba [near the president's residence], we live ten in one room."

Taking over, Nasserist activist Kamal Abu Eita screamed out words like "poverty", and "torture", to which the crowd chanted back, " kifaya !" Abu Eita's list went on: corruption; unemployment; QIZ; normalisation; Mubarak; Gamal Mubarak; the NDP; privatisation... The crowd's answer was always the same: " Kifaya !"

Activists like Wael Khalil of the Egyptian Campaign for Change gauged the demonstration "successful", attributing the modest turnout to the armies of anti-riot police. While they did not prevent people from joining, police made a point of shooing away those who tried.

The protest seemed livelier than both the 4 February Kifaya demonstration at the Cairo Book Fair and the first demonstration held on 12 December in front of the downtown Supreme Court. At Cairo University, police were relaxed, if not covertly friendly. There was also relatively major local and international media presence.

Khalil said he wasn't satisfied, telling the Weekly, "we need to find ways to subvert police presence, and have more people join in." Critics of the Kifaya demonstrations said the movement's founders would be incapable of mobilising enough people to support their ambitious demands, which include changing the way the president is elected; modifying the constitution; and getting what they say are 20,000 illegal detainees out of prison. Others argue that criticising the president in public might be brave, but it is also totally fruitless.

The movement's spokesman, Abdel-Halim Qandil, editor of the Nasserist Party mouthpiece Al- Arabi, disagreed with both assessments. "These demonstrations are a form of gradual training, so to speak, for first-movers in Egypt, to get people used to the notion of protests. We seized the right to say enough to the president," he told the Weekly, "and this is important as a first step towards realising more freedoms." The Kifaya movement was not created just to organise demonstrations, Qandil said, "but beyond that -- to holding conferences and introducing a modified constitution that achieves radical political change."

Qandil said that Kifaya would announce the names of a presidential candidate and his vice- president as a symbolic gesture. He said the group approached former judge Tareq El-Bishri, who declined the offer.

Qandil denied that the demonstration was staged in solidarity with detained MP Ayman Nour, head of the Ghad opposition party. "We demand freedom for Nour, but we categorically disagree with his political platform."

When asked where the movement was heading, Abul-Ela Madi, founder of the Wasat Party (which was denied a licence by the government), said that, "no one can really tell at this point." He told the Weekly there were three options for reform: "those demanded by external parties; the government's non-existent reform efforts; and the third option, which is this demonstration. It is the only one."

As the demonstration came to an end, the protesters chanted their own sort of anthem, tailored to sound like the Egyptian National anthem, but with the words "Kifaya, kifaya, kifaya, we have reached the end," instead of "My country, my country, my country, you have my loyalty and love."

Thirty armoured police vehicles were lined up in front of Cairo University, all the way to the famous Nahdet Masr (Egypt's Renaissance) statue in front of the Giza Zoo. The statue depicts a traditional Egyptian peasant woman resting her hand on a sphinx that is about to rise, symbolising the country's renaissance.

"There has to be hope," Qandil said, "because if there isn't, this country will fall into a deeper abyss."

 

March 2005

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Originally published by
Al-Ahram

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