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Tahrir: One year on
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 25 - 03 - 2004

On the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, protestors took to the streets of downtown Cairo demanding an end to the US-led occupation. Yasmine El-Rashidi reports
Cairo's downtown Tahrir Square looked sadly surreal last Saturday. Hundreds of people strolled apparently aimlessly in the middle of the usually congested streets. Every so often they would be turned back, blocked off by the 5,000 police- manned barricades encircling the square. At the heart of the police web, hundreds of demonstrators gathered as part of the continued global outcry against the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. They chanted for an end to both the plight of the Iraqi people and the daily strife of Egyptians.
"This demonstration is about building bridges and propelling change," Yehia Fikry, an organiser and member of Haraket 20 Mares (the 20 March Movement) and the Egyptian Popular Committee in Solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "The idea is not only to put pressure on the US, but to build on and preserve the legacy of last year's 20 March Movement. Saturday marked the resurgence of an energy that had diminished with the fall of Baghdad. This new energy needs to gather momentum and to continue."
The gathering appeared to comprise an approximate total of 600 protestors, but news agencies have tallied the figure at a reported 2,000 to 3,000. In the heat of the midday sun, protestors waved banners ridiculing the United States. "No WMD, but 20,000 Iraqi civilians killed ... This is Bush's democracy!" and "US go home!" were among the slogans displayed.
As the American flag was set on fire, protestors chanted slogans condemning US and Israeli aggression, declaring that supporting the resistance movements is the only path to securing the legitimate rights of the Iraqi and Palestinian peoples. "Baghdad stand strong, make America miserable," some of the gathered chanted.
"Who do they think they are?" 26-year-old computer engineer Akram El-Wakil told the Weekly. "The US administration is attempting to slowly take over the world. They claim to be seeking what is in the best interests of the people and to put an end to dictatorship. But what exactly is it that they are doing themselves? Is this not dictatorship? Is this not massacre?"
Anti-American sentiment was strongly felt amid the crowd, but while the fervour was clear in the force of the demonstrators' voices, the gathering marked only a sliver of last year's turnout -- reported at 20,000 -- and a fraction of anticipated figures. "This is definitely the largest turnout we've seen since the demonstrations last year," Fikry said, "but we expected there would more people. The police did such a good job closing the area off that it was impossible for people to get in."
Although police by far outnumbered demonstrators, there was little indication that those outside the barricaded area were attempting to find a way in. For the most part, the bystanders only murmured amongst themselves about how to get to work, asked each other what exactly was going on and opined on the folly of staging protests that throw the city's transport routes into disarray.
"In a case like this, given what happened last year, we have to take the most severe precautionary measures," police officer Mohamed Shazly, who was patrolling one of the numerous streets around the square, told the Weekly. "Even if we are told that only 50 or 100 people will turn up, one has to be prepared."
"This protest may not make an immediate difference," Fikry said, "but it creates a platform of unity, a way for people to find each other, and network. The move towards democracy needs that sort of unity, whether we're talking about the liberation of the Iraqi people, or of the Egyptians from their economic woes and lack of political rights. This protest serves as a platform on which to build a move towards democracy and towards basic human rights."
While the skyrocketing prices and dire poverty levels are crippling issues faced by the majority of Egyptian people -- with over half the population currently falling beneath the poverty line -- the crowd last week was more taken by the anti- US mood. Words condemning the reality of the widening gap between the rich and poor were just a murmur amidst the staunch anti-US mantras.
The US-drawn plan for a Greater Middle East (GME) has only intensified bitterness in recent weeks, fuelling irritation towards the state that has positioned itself as the imperial centre of the world. "America wants to create US clones around the world," said one angry young woman who asked not to be named. "They want to impose their culture and values on us. Bush is like a virus, trying to infect every country. There is no bigger dictator than him. He is destroying the world in the name of democracy!"
The fury at US imperial policies was what fuelled the other hundreds of thousands of protestors around the world. The Cairo protest was just one of over 45 worldwide. To name but a few of the thousands of protests that took place on Saturday, a reported one million people marched in Rome; in New York City, 100,000; in Japan, 120,000; in Madrid, 100,000; in Greece, 10,000.
"This is a good start," Fikry said. "Change comes slowly and takes work and patience. We have other protests and events scheduled for the coming few months. The important thing is to maintain this global network and to maintain the momentum."

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