January 28, 2011

(Cairo) - As students our dream was to demonstrate in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in the center of the city, the site of the 1977 bread riots that brought political consciousness to the human rights movement in Egypt. But my generation has only experienced Egypt under a state of emergency, where demonstrations are banned and security forces are above the law and can arrest and detain people without charge for unlimited periods.

So no one expected that tens of thousands of Egyptians would heed the call for explicitly anti-Mubarak demonstrations this week, despite the Interior Ministry's warning that protesters would face severe consequences.

The call for the protests that began on Tuesday - the Police Day national holiday - came from a Facebook group set up in the name of Khaled Said, 28, who was beaten to death on an Alexandria street by the police. His story has come to symbolize the Egyptian government's use of torture and blatant disregard for basic human rights. The rallies are a clear call for an end to these abusive practices, an end to corruption and an end to the state of emergency.

Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt under a state of emergency since 1981, creating a culture of impunity that allows his security forces to ban demonstrations, arrest without charge, and torture detainees. The experience of police brutality in Egypt is a shared one, that crosses class, religion and gender. Against this backdrop, the determination of young activists is astounding.

We have grown used to repressive tactics of the security forces: the hundreds of riot police circling demonstrations, the arrests and incommunicado detention of protest leaders at unknown locations, the general use of police brutality to intimidate, disperse and punish protesters.

But on Tuesday, the protesters vastly outnumbered the state security forces. I spoke with dozens of citizens who described the pure joy of being able to walk in groups of several hundred through the streets in different neighborhoods of Cairo. When a group of around 400 people came across a bridge over the Nile they were greeted jubilantly by thousands of demonstrators chanting "Down with Mubarak," "Your plane to Saudi Arabia is waiting for you, Mubarak," and singing the national anthem. There were isolated skirmishes and arrests but overall the demonstration was peaceful.

But the optimism of those who stayed until the end was shattered as the police gathered force and used tear gas to disperse the crowds, beating and arresting more than 200 demonstrators as they tried to escape or hide in doorways. By Wednesday things turned uglier. Security officers were out in full, arresting, beating and intimidating with brutal efficiency the small groups of protesters that tried to gather in downtown Cairo. Shops closed early. By 10 p.m. the normally bustling downtown was a ghost town patrolled by uniformed and plainclothes security officers, as well as hired thugs standing in neat rows waiting to be summoned.

At midnight, groups of human rights lawyers were waiting for the second day running to find out where officers had taken the protesters, waiting to hear if the detainees had been brought before prosecutors so they could go and defend them.

How sustainable is the momentum? The weight of Egypt's military and security apparatus, the country's stability, its strategic importance and the consequent Western support of Mubarak's government have made change a slow and elusive process.

But this new political mobilization won't be easily dispersed. The moment on Tuesday when protesters stood in Liberation Square and sang "the street is ours" cannot be swept away by water cannons or tear gas. Even as the authorities block mobile-phone networks, twitter feeds, videos and blog posts of the violent crackdown are spreading across the Internet. Ordinary Egyptians - who have been glued to their television screens for days watching the seismic demonstrations in Tunisia - have high hopes of a wave of activism bringing change to a country where stability has long meant a status quo of repression.

Instead of blocking street demonstrations and mobile phones, the Egyptian authorities should quickly repeal the emergency law and begin listening to the voices in Liberation Square.

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