How to Protest in Egypt
European protesters took over our streets last week. In a show of solidarity with Gaza's inhabitants and to protest against all sorts of injustices and blockades, European demonstrators marched through our streets, picketed our public squares and told us what they thought of the wall we're building on Gaza's borders.
Several hundred protesters came from 42 European countries to take part in pro-Gaza protests. So what did we do? We sent our security forces to contain them. We also prevented them from going to Gaza. Interestingly, the protesters refused to be intimidated. Instead, they picketed the French Embassy, they marched around the Giza Zoo, and they even stood guard at the famous steps of the Press Syndicate.
Curiously enough, the police did not prevent them from demonstrating in front of the Israeli Embassy. But clashes took place, and in some instances the Europeans had a taste of what Egyptians regularly experience at the hands of the police and their karate- trained auxiliaries.
During the past few days, Egyptians had proof that our police can act humanely, but only with foreigners. In front of the French Embassy, I saw a foreign man standing alone, surrounded by three circles of policemen. He was carrying a picket sign, but the police refrained from harming him in any way.
The Europeans came all the way to express their views, peacefully and orderly. In doing so, they gave us a rare glimpse into the working of peaceful resistance. And they stood for what they believe in. They vented their anger at a policy of blockade into which some Arab countries have become actively involved, either out of fear or desire to placate the Israelis.
The demonstrators slept in the streets and the squares. They occasionally obstructed traffic. And they sent to the Egyptians, Arabs, and the world a clear message, one which television stations relayed without delay across the world.
In this country, we don't have a culture of protest. In this country, protest is treated as an act of sabotage, as a challenge to law and order. This is why we missed a rare opportunity to expose Israel's crimes. How hard would it have been to let the European demonstrators walk into Gaza? Why did we fail to give them the chance to come face to face with an Arab nation living under occupation?
In Egypt, we don't know how to encourage protest marches against Israel. But we know how to come up with lame excuses for building a controversial wall on our borders with Israel. Are we really worried about our own security, or are we protecting Israel?
In this country, it is wrong to protest. It is even wrong to be different. This is why our government gets so angry when opposition parliamentarians demand an explanation for the wall. Even in a parliament that prides itself on being a leader of all Arab parliaments, the opposition is demonised and abused for asking the right questions.
Worse still, our Islamic Research Council found itself pressured into issuing a statement in support of the wall. You would think that Sharia has nothing to do with security walls, but no. Our leading clergymen have decided to call anyone who opposes the wall an apostate. Don't ask me why.
Many may ask what's the point of it all. Did the Europeans achieve anything by marching in our streets? If you ask me, they achieved a lot. For starters, they sounded the alarm bells for the entire world, which is more than what our governments and nations have done so far. The protesters not only put Israeli actions on the line, but also underlined our own failings.
© 2010 Al-Ahram Weekly