Africa, Arabs Rise for Rights, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

EGYPT: Political Energy Powers Exhausted Protesters

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani

CAIRO, Feb 7 2011 (IPS) - Tens of thousands of protesters continue to occupy Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand the ouster of longstanding President Hosni Mubarak. The regime is waging a war of attrition aimed at exhausting demonstrators – and the population at large. But the protest is holding firm.

Tanks and people in an uncertain standoff in Cairo. Credit: Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani

Tanks and people in an uncertain standoff in Cairo. Credit: Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani

Since early Sunday morning, army tanks deployed along the fringes of the ongoing demonstration have attempted to make gradual inroads into the square. Protesters – whose numbers continue to swell as more people stream in from all over Egypt – are adamantly refusing to give ground.

“They are literally sleeping under the tanks,” Ahmed al-Assy, a 32-year-old demonstrator who spent Sunday night in the square told IPS. “If the army tries to take any more ground, they’ll have to run over us.”

“The government is using economic siege to tire out protesters and turn the public against the revolution,” Ahmed Maher, general coordinator of the 6 April protest movement, which has played a leading role in the uprising, told IPS. “They are depriving the Tahrir protesters of badly needed provisions while blaming the ongoing demonstrations for price hikes and supply shortages.”

Since Jan. 25, Egyptians have hit the streets countrywide in unprecedented numbers to demand the departure of Mubarak – who has ruled the country for three decades – and his unpopular regime. Demonstrations have been marked by almost daily clashes between police and protesters, in which hundreds have been killed and thousands injured.

Since the beginning of the uprising, demonstrators have converged on Cairo’s centrally located Tahrir Square, which they continue to occupy in vast numbers. On Friday, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered at the square on a “Day of Departure” – for Mubarak.

They are now calling for a “Week of Steadfastness” during which they plan to remain in the square until Mubarak’s unconditional resignation. Police violence and intimidation have so far failed to dislodge them.

“They’re terrorizing the demonstrators,” said a 26-year-old activist who took part in Friday’s “Departure” protest. “Pro-government thugs on the square’s outskirts throw stones at the protesters, while freedom of movement is completely curtailed.”

Over the course of the last two weeks, the regime has employed a variety of techniques aimed at wearing down protesters’ resolve and dampening public support for the uprising.

On the fourth day of protests on Jan. 29, following the withdrawal of police from the streets of Cairo, state media disseminated rumours about roving gangs of looters and criminals going house to house terrorizing residents – there were even scattered reports of rape. Although the rumours later proved unfounded, they succeeded in driving a significant portion of the Tahrir protesters – fearing for their families and property – back to their homes.

Authorities appeared unable to prevent Friday’s “Departure” protest due to the sheer numbers involved. But they did what they could to make life as difficult as possible for participants by depriving them of access to food, water and basic facilities.

One day earlier, security forces raided the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, a Cairo-based human rights organization with offices located not far from Tahrir Square. Along with mobilizing activists via Internet and mobile phone, the centre had planned to help re-supply protesters with needed medical supplies.

“Security forces seized most of our equipment and arrested the activists working there,” Mohamed Adel, 6 April press director told IPS. “And in the two days before the protest, the army, along with government thugs, prevented the entry of any food or medicine into the square. We watched as the army seized and destroyed all the medicine that people tried to bring in to the protesters.”

Demonstrators who ventured out from Tahrir into adjacent neighbourhoods seeking food and supplies were no more fortunate.

“We tried to buy some food from a nearby shop, but we were threatened by a pro-Mubarak thug who pulled a knife on us,” said one 34-year-old demonstrator who camped out at Tahrir Square on Friday night. “He accused us of trying to steal food before ordering us to go home.”

Life for Cairo’s general populace, meanwhile, has been made much more difficult by evening curfews (imposed every day since Jan. 28), general supply shortages and bank closures. Many have complained about abrupt price hikes and the inability to find basic commodities.

“For at least one week now, lines for subsidized bread have stretched around the block,” Rasha Mahmoud, a 31-year-old housewife from Cairo’s low- income Sayyeda Zeinab district told IPS. “To get a canister of gas for my oven, I practically have to sleep outside the outlet where they’re sold.”

State media has deftly used the situation as a propaganda weapon, placing all blame for the turbulent state of affairs on the ongoing demonstrations.

“When will these demonstrators return to their homes and stop causing these problems?” asked one agitated caller on state television’s Channel 1. “With all the banks closed, I can’t get the money I need to buy food.”

The strategy has not been without effect.

“I stopped participating in the Tahrir Square demonstrations on Jan. 1,” Moatez Mohamed Gamil, 29-year-old sales director at a private Cairo-based company told IPS. “Prices are going up and now it’s difficult to find gasoline and certain other products. It’s paralyzing the country; it’s affecting everyone.

“Mubarak has said that he wouldn’t run for a sixth term as president. The uprising has accomplished one of its main objectives,” Gamil added.”It’s time to go home.”

Amr Mohamed, a 31-year-old coffee shop employee who likewise participated in the first few days of protests, voiced similar concerns.

“I only found a job three months ago after being unemployed for almost one year,” he said. “Now I’m afraid that, if the demonstrations continue, I won’t find work again for a long, long time.”

Yet despite these fears of economic uncertainty, protesters at Tahrir remain steadfast, calling for million-strong protests every Sunday, Tuesday and Friday until their demands for the president’s ouster are met.

“We will remain in possession of Tahrir Square until Mubarak goes,” Maher asserted.

“For these people it’s do or die,” said the 26-year-old activist, preferring anonymity. “They believe that if they abandon Tahrir now, they’ll be arrested or tortured. The fear in the square is palpable – but their spirits are high.”

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