Written by Memri
Egyptian Opposition Call Again for General Strike, Civil Revolt
May 3, 2008
By E. Glass
In light of the escalation of the economic crisis in Egypt, which has been marked by a shortage of staple foodstuffs, Egyptian opposition groups, youth movements, as well as Kifaya and the Muslim Brotherhood, are again calling for a civil revolt and strike on May 4, 2008, the 80th birthday of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The Al-Arabiya website reported on April 3, 2008 that Egyptian opposition groups had called for a general strike and a civil revolt on Sunday, April 6, 2008. The groups, which call themselves "The National Forces," have spread their message via Facebook and via millions of emails, urging the Egyptian public to "stay home and refrain from going to work" on April 6. The message stated, in colloquial Egyptian Arabic, that the following sectors and groups would be participating in the general strike: The Al-Karama party; the Kifaya, Al-Wasat and Al-'Amal movements; the real estate tax officers' association, civil servants and education system employees; the attorneys' union; and the flour mill workers' association. The message also stated that the strike and civil disobedience are intended to express a demand for salary raises, improved public transportation, and better health services, and to protest against price rises, favoritism, and corruption.
The Egyptian daily Al-Misriyoun reported that the security apparatuses were making intensive efforts to prevent the strike and demonstrations.
The message calling for the strike read as follows: "[On April 6,] stay home or join [our protest] in the squares... We want education for our children. We want transportation fit for human beings. We want hospitals to take care of our [health]. We want medicine for our babies. We want a fair judicial system. We want security. We want freedom and honor.
"We do not want price increases. We do not want favoritism. We do not want bullies for [police] officers. We do not want torture in police stations. We do not want taxes. We do not want corruption. We do not want bribery. We do not want arrests. We do not want [convictions on] fabricated charges. Tell your friends and family to stay home from work, and to participate in the strike on April 6."
Egyptian MP and Al-Karama party head Hamdin Sabahi told the Al-Arabiya website that his party was fully committed to the general strike, saying: "I call on all Egyptians not to abandon their brothers, the workers, on the day [of the strike], since [the striking workers'] voice the needs of the entire Egyptian [public]... We want [the protest to take the form of] peaceful civil disobedience. We [strike] to demand our rights, since this is our only way to express our anger, before it bursts out in a spontaneous explosion..."
Criticism of the Initiative
Dr. Wahid 'Abd Al-Magid, a strategic analyst and deputy director of the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, criticized the initiative and the movements behind it. He told the Al-Arabiya website that these movements' only goal was to gain prominence, and that their activity was haphazard and ineffective, since it was based on unfocused anarchist thinking that lacked political or social insight. He said: "Basing this strike on [the notion of] 'civil disobedience' is inappropriate. Whoever thought up [this strike] does not really understand the meaning of civil disobedience or how it is implemented. This is evident from the fact that [the organizers] want public demonstrations and gatherings in the street, but the slogan of their [campaign] is 'stay home.' So who is supposed to take to the streets and who is supposed to stay home?" 'Abd Al-Magid added that [conditions] were not ripe for civil disobedience, and that the general strike would not develop into riots like those of January 18-19, 1977.(1) He also expressed doubt that the strike would actually materialize, assessing that people will probably go to work and follow their usual routines.(2)
Government Countermeasures to the Initiative
The Egyptian Interior Ministry, however, was not prepared to take any risks regarding the protests. On April 3, 2008, when Al-Arabiya first reported about the planned protest, the Egyptian daily Al-Misriyoun published a list of measures the Egyptian security apparatuses were planning to implement to thwart the initiative, including mass arrests of Kifaya and Muslim Brotherhood activists. The arrests were to begin right away (on March 3), to preempt the strike by disabling its organizers. In addition, company directors and heads of government institutions were instructed to warn their employees about the serious sanctions to be implemented against anyone participating in the strike, including dismissal and delayed promotion. University heads were likewise asked to urge faculty members not to take part in the strike, and it was suggested that exams be scheduled for that date to keep the students from taking to the streets. School principals were ordered to keep students and teachers from participating in the protests, by threatening dismissal or withholding of wages.
In addition, members of the ruling NDP party were told to campaign against the initiative on March 5, 2008, by approaching people and persuading them not to participate. The government papers were called to join the effort with a media campaign maligning the organizers and depicting them as agents of foreign elements.
In terms of practical security measures on the ground, the Egyptian authorities raised the alert to the maximum level, and cancelled all time off in the security apparatuses, so that their plan to prevent the protest from gaining momentum and spreading throughout the country could be implemented. Under the plan, on strike day police would be posted in the main squares in Cairo and Alexandria to block the thoroughfares leading to them. Undercover police would be stationed in areas frequented by Muslim Brotherhood members, and in all central locations where mass demonstrations might be held.(3)
Coverage of the Strike in the Egyptian Press
The general strike took place April 6, 2008. It lasted one day, and on several locations was accompanied by protest demonstrations. The action got out of control only in Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra in the Nile Delta, where rioting went on for three days. Egyptian media reports of these events were contradictory: the oppositionist papers claimed that the initiative had fulfilled its objective, while government papers tended to minimize its significance.
Reports by the government daily Al-Ahram purported that life in the country had proceeded as usual, announcing on its April 7 front page that the entire Egyptian people, without exception, had refused to take part in the strike. In the announcement, the paper claimed that at various government institutions, employee absenteeism had been lower and productivity higher than usual, adding that there had been no protest demonstrations in Cairo streets and squares or in any other Egyptian province. Classes in schools and universities had proceeded as usual, with full student and teacher attendance. The announcement concluded by stating that foreign news agencies had reported that the oppositionists' call for a general strike and civil revolt had failed to achieve its objectives.(4)
The government daily Al-Akhbar likewise described the strike and attempts at incitement as "failed." Its April 7, 2008 report, which also appeared on the front page, stated that the call to Egypt's citizens for a strike and civil disobedience, which was issued by "inciters motivated by dubious considerations," had come to naught. According to the report, workers had reported to factories, companies, and other work places as usual, and that classes in schools and universities had proceeded according to the schedule. In contrast to Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar reported that a limited number of student rallies had actually taken place, as well as a demonstration by 50 lawyers in front of the attorneys' union offices in Cairo. Also according to Al-Akhbar, the intelligence apparatuses had arrested 43 people who had distributed fliers inciting the public to take part in the strike and protests.(5)
The picture presented by the oppositionist press was completely different than the one painted by the government press. The oppositionist paper Al-Misriyoun attempted to show that demonstrations and civil revolt had indeed taken place. A report titled "Rebellion Strikes the Heart of Cairo with Semi-Paralysis" stated that many citizens had answered the call to civil disobedience and stayed home. According to the report, citizens had not gone to work, and a large number of students had stayed home from school and university classes. Streets had been practically deserted, since people feared violent clashes and other dangers. Security apparatuses had stationed an unusually large number of forces all over Egypt, particularly in Cairo, where forces were especially numerous in front of the journalists' association building and the attorneys' union building. There, hundreds of people demonstrated to protest against the government's economic policy.(6)
In a similar vein, the oppositionist paper Al-Masri Al-Yawm reported that a large number of citizens had stayed home and had also kept their children home from school, fearing violent clashes between demonstrators and security apparatuses. The paper further stated that hundreds of students from Cairo and Hilwan universities had held two large demonstrations, and had refused to attend classes. Student attendance at Al-Azhar University had also been very poor.(7)
Al-Masri Al-Yawm described in great detail the demonstration in front of the attorneys' union building in Cairo, stating in a special report that despite the "security blockade," hundreds of activists from the National and Kifaya movements had managed to stage a protest there and to declare April 6 "the day of civil and national revolt against the escalation of prices and the cost of living." The demonstrators insisted that April 6 marked the beginning of a revolution, calling on the government to stop the price increases and to find a solution to the unemployment problem. They also protested against the arrest of nearly 140 activists for participating in the strike.(8)
A Demonstration in Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra
Egyptian security apparatuses considered the industrial city of Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra, situated approximately 100 km north of Cairo in the Nile Delta, to be a highly likely locus of rioting, because of its predominantly blue-collar population and also because of its large textile plant with over 20,000 employees.
Al-Misriyoun stated that Egyptian security forces had managed to prevent the strike planned at the textile factory. According to eyewitnesses, security forces surrounded the factory and spread out inside the building to keep morning-shift workers from coming in and night-shift workers from leaving, while riot police forced workers to operate machinery so the government press could photograph them at their posts. Around 4 PM, the situation changed, when the morning-shift workers were finally allowed to leave. A large number of citizens joined the workers outside the building in a large protest demonstration. Eyewitnesses also reported that riot police fired rubber bullets and used tear gas to break up the protest, as protestors threw stones at them and burned tires.(9)
According to the official Egyptian Interior Ministry announcement regarding the Sunday, April 6, 2008 riots in Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra, "although... the civilian population was generally reluctant to respond to the call to take part in the strike and the demonstrations that occurred the day before yesterday (April 6, 2008), a crowd of thugs who are professional instigators incited the public and [staged] mass gatherings." A security source reported that these elements had stoned stores, banks, buses, cars, and of course police. The announcement added that rioters even started fires in two schools.(10)
The Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra demonstration continued through April 7, 2008. Al-Masri Al-Yawm reported that on Monday, when the city residents discovered that Egyptian public prosecutor 'Abd Al-Magid Mahmoud had reached the city, over 6,000 demonstrators joined the rioting in the city streets and squares. When they found they could not stop the prosecutor's vehicle, some rioters began stoning it, whereupon security forces swung into action against them.(11) Al-Ahram reported that 189 were arrested during the rioting, most aged 15-22, and that by the second day, the number of wounded had reached 111, with 41 of these from security forces.(12)
Egyptian press reports of casualties were contradictory. The Al-Arabiya TV website stated that according to a report by a doctor at the Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra city hospital, during the first day of rioting 62 wounded had come in to the hospital, half of them rioters and half security forces. Six additional wounded had been brought in in serious condition. During the second day, 29 had come in, with five in serious condition and the rest with moderate injuries. Another 24 were lightly wounded.(13)
On April 9, 2008, Egyptian newspapers reported that following the rioting, which continued until the afternoon of Tuesday, April 8, 2008,(14) peace had finally been restored to the city. One person was killed during the third day of rioting – Ahmad 'Ali Mabruk, 15, died after being struck in the head and neck by three bullets as he watched from the balcony of his home. Al-Misriyoun reported that the public prosecutor's office had ordered 331 rioters arrested in clashes with security forces held for 15 days for questioning – which contradicts the general prosecutor's statement that only 157 had been arrested.(15)
During the third day, Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif visited the city and announced that the government had authorized a bonus equivalent to a month's salary for textile workers who had not participated in the riots, and a bonus equivalent to two week's salary to all other Egyptian textile workers. To the workers who had abstained from participating in the disturbances, Nazif conveyed President Mubarak's appreciation for their refusal to contribute to destructive action and for demonstrating to the world their loyalty to Egypt.(16)
A Call for Strike and Civil Revolt on May 4, 2008
For approximately two weeks now, Egyptian youth groups have been promulgating, via email and Facebook, a call for a general strike and civil revolt on May 4, 2008, President Mubarak's birthday, asserting that the strike will be bigger and more powerful than the April 6, 2008 strike. To attract the public, the young people are also planning to distribute banknotes inscribed with "No to Mubarak! No to Gamal!"
Sources affiliated with the opposition group Kifaya stated that the group was planning to join the call for a general strike on the designated day, in hopes that it would escalate into a wide-ranging civil revolt.(17) However, a few days later, the movement's spokesmen announced that no final decision regarding the strike had been made, since the group members were waiting for a decision by other political groups such as the Al-Wasat, Al-Karama, and Al-Ghad parties, and especially by the Muslim Brotherhood.(18)
Finally, Kifaya resolved to join the strike. In an official communiquÃ©, it stated that the movement considered May 4, 2008 – a black day in Egyptian history, marking 27 years of dictatorship, poverty, famine, sickness, and persecution. Kifaya’s spokesman Dr. 'Abd Al-Halim Qandil said that the movement decided to launch a campaign for a general revolt, with the aim of putting an end to the rule of the dictator and his family.(19)
On April 30, 2008, Muslim Brotherhood General Guide Muhammad Mahdi 'Akef called on Muslim Brotherhood supporters to participate in the general strike organized by the opposition movements, set for May 4. The movement leadership decided that its members would participate as individuals, not as representatives of the movement, and called upon its members not to wave movement symbols. According to 'Akef, the Muslim Brotherhood is opposed to harming government institutions or national resources.(20)
The Muslim Brotherhood's decision to participate in the strike did not change the position of the Al-Wafd, Al-Ghad and Al-Tagamu' parties, which stuck to their decision not to participate.(21)
The call for the strike has been rapidly gaining momentum. On April 18, 2008, only a few days after the activists began launched it via the Internet, Al-Masri Al-Yawm reported that the number of participants in the Facebook groups calling for the May 4, 2008 strike had reached a quarter of a million, while the website itself reported that more groups were signing up every day. The participants are demanding President Mubarak's resignation and are urging Egyptian citizens to wear black as a sign of mourning for the death of freedom and democracy in Egypt. In addition, even before the Muslim Brotherhood issued its decision to take part in the strike, 700 young movement members had announced, via Facebook, that they were planning to join it, thereby defying the movement and its Supreme Guide.(22)
The Egyptian government is attempting to counter these developments in a variety of ways. It recently banned several satellite channels, and closed down their offices, on the grounds that their coverage showed sympathy towards the economically motivated demonstrations. As another punitive sanction, police broke into the premises of Cairo News Company, which provides media services to foreign channels, and confiscated a great deal of equipment that they claim was used to air pictures embarrassing to the regime.(23)
Accordingly, 15 Egyptian and Arab human rights organizations have appealed to the Facebook management, warning it of the government's intention to ban it in Egypt. Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies director Ahmad Samih said that Facebook was the fourth most popular website in Egypt, and that it was therefore very likely that the government would try either to ban it or to ask its management to supply confidential information such as the oppositionist political activists registered on the site.(24)
On April 22, 2008, the Al-Arabiya website announced the establishment of a new umbrella organization for opposition groups in Egypt, named "Sixth of April" after the date of the first general strike. The newly formed organization said that a temporary council had been formed to replace President Mubarak if he complied with popular demands to step down, but did not disclose the names of the council members. The organization comprises representatives of all opposition groups, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the Copts. Furthermore, on Facebook, a dispute has emerged between government supporters and oppositionists over the call for the May 4 general strike as well as over Mubarak's resignation.(25)
*E. Glass is a research fellow at MEMRI