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Dissent's qualitative shift?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 30 - 12 - 2010

Low wages, Palestine and politics were reason enough for hundreds of protests in 2010. The trend is unlikely to wane, writes Amira Howeidy
The demonstrations, protests, sit-ins and strikes that have been a characteristic of the last four years showed no signs of abating over the course of 2010. While there are no final statistics for the number of protests over the year the Land Centre for Human Rights, which monitors dissent functions, says that at least 300 took place in the first half of 2010 alone. The actual number could be anything between 900 to 1,000, maybe more, say activists.
In March, anti-Israeli demonstrations broke out in more than 16 universities in protest against Israel's decision to list two mosques -- the Ibrahimi and Bilal bin Rabah -- as Jewish heritage sites. Chanting "Down with Israel! Down with Obama!" the students, mainly supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, also shouted slogans against Arab regimes for failing to take any effective measures to save what remains of occupied Palestine and Al-Aqsa Mosque. Security forces responded by arresting 180 students affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Consistent with its strategy of taking to the street only for issues related to the Palestinian question, the Brotherhood staged the largest demonstration of the year, in both Cairo and Alexandria, in solidarity with the Turkish led flotilla of ships that attempted to break the siege of Gaza in May. The largest vessel, Mavi Marmara, was attacked by Israeli special forces who killed nine peace activists at point blank range, triggering an international outcry. In Egypt the Brotherhood promptly organised massive street demonstrations. In Alexandria they marched in thousands waving Palestinian and Turkish flags, chanting for Gaza and Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In Cairo the statement was even more powerful with at least 5,000 protesters massing in Al-Fatah Mosque in central Cairo, screaming "Tayyip Erdogan! Tayyip Erdogan!"
Other than these two events Egypt's largest opposition force maintained a cautious approach to public protests. Individuals from the movement made a strong showing in several demonstrations throughout the year but always in small groups. The 2 May protest to raise the minimum wage to LE1,200 (approximately $200) in front of the cabinet headquarters in downtown Cairo was one such case. The protest, planned and organised by various labour and activist groups, developed into a large political rally, attracting workers, public servants, politicians from across the spectrum and members of the general public. The turnout -- estimated at 30,000 despite a tight security blockade -- came as a surprise to observers. A handful of Brotherhood MPs showed up but that was the extent of the movement's involvement in an event that several of the participating politicians later identified as signalling a "shift" in the mode of dissent, combining as it did opposition forces, trade unionists, pension union members, professional and workers syndicates and workers who travelled from various governorates to the capital specifically to demand an increase in the minimum wage.
The 2 May demonstration -- erroneously termed a strike, which wasn't -- came against the backdrop of an unusual development in dissent tactics. Since February a mosaic of disgruntled members of the public, including Ministry of Agriculture employees, physically disabled people and workers from the Tanta Flax and Oils Company amongst others, began a sit-in on the narrow pavement in front of the People's Assembly. Although their presence was ignored by MPs, more groups and individuals joined them. The sit-in turned into a permanent pavement camp and which remained until the end of May when police forcibly removed the protesters days after some of them had attempted to enter parliament after failed talks between workers and the minister of manpower over working conditions and wages.
Working class dissent might have seemed to end there but it was only a pause. By early December the drivers of 70,000 heavy goods vehicles were on strike in protest against new traffic law regulations they deemed detrimental to their business. The protest action turned violent as some truck drivers were attacked by their colleagues for breaking the strike which remains ongoing.
Perhaps the most significant anti-government protests of the year came in response to the death of Khaled Said, a 28-year-old Alexandrian beaten to death by two police officers. Although not the first of its kind, Said's case provoked a storm of protest after photographs of his mutilated body circulated on the Internet and social media websites. Local and international rights groups have repeatedly criticised Egypt's human rights record but nothing, they said, matched the powerful impact of Said's case.
"Said's case stood out because it was the first time that the masses, rather than rights groups, acted in support of a human rights issue," says Dina Shehata, a researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
Shehata, who co-authored The Return of Politics: Egypt's New Protest Movement, which appeared in early 2010, believes dissent underwent a "qualitative shift" during the course of the year as more and more players got involved. This was apparent in what she dubs "trained anonymous activism" on the Internet, best presented by the Khaled Said Facebook page whose administrator remains anonymous. The page has over 350,000 members and contains posts on dissent, politics and topics that are not directly related to Said.
"This is a new type of activism," says Shehata. Also new are the three-people demonstrations, a common sight this year. "We've seen how a tiny group will wear T-shirts with a statement and protest on a bridge or something without having to wait for public mobilisation or any of that."
Said's death sparked a series of demonstrations in his home city and also in Cairo, which were eventually met with harsh security measures -- including some violence- and mass arrests.
Observers attribute much of today's dissent to the Kifaya (Enough) anti-Mubarak movement which was established in 2004.
Kifaya arrived on the scene amid a political mood that allowed for taboo-breaking dissent, something opposition parties singularly failed to embrace. Marred by internal divisions blamed on security interventions, decades-long stagnation and political calculations that brought some of them closer to the regime, political parties appeared to fade into the background.
Kifaya spearheaded a dynamic that saw dozens of movements for change surface, sometimes on a weekly basis. Many of them were short lived, and if the process has slowed recently it has not stopped. Today, it would take a team of researchers to monitor their numbers, ideological affiliations (if any), names, mandates, and connect their many offshoots. While many appear to be a re-branding of earlier movements, comprising the same players, they are also attracting more members and expanding their reach even when they appear fragmented.
Shehata detects a lessening in fragmentation. Workers, for example, were more "unified" in their demands this year, as seen during the 2 May protests over the minimum wage.
Following the first round of November's elections in which the opposition was effectively eliminated from parliament the Muslim Brotherhood and Wafd Party responded to what they said was "widespread rigging" in favour of the ruling National Democratic Party's candidates by pulling out of the run-off polls. This immediately placed both parties in a low- level confrontation with the government. Brotherhood and Wafd leaders have announced they will unite with other opposition groups in an attempt to delegitimise the mandate of the incoming parliament. In a rare demonstration of unity in front of the Supreme Court on 12 December Brotherhood, Wafd and Nasserist former MPs joined in an anti-government protest of 2,000 people. Earlier this week, Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie told Reuters that the group will "take to the streets" alongside the opposition after they were "rigged" out of the elections.
Protests and reasons for demonstrations, strikes and sit-ins will undoubtedly spill over into 2011. But this is also a presidential election year. Shehata, like many others, believes "the security apparatus will not be tolerant of dissent because of the coming election".


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