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
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
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,
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
When asked where the movement was
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."