Egypt protesters want freedom, but can they organize to get it?

Egypt's protests have managed to energize a broad swath of Egyptians, but it's unclear if protesters can harness that energy for political change. Security was tight in Cairo Wednesday.

Ben Curtis/AP
Protesters stop traffic in the middle of a bridge over the River Nile during clashes in downtown Cairo in the early hours of Wednesday, Jan. 26. Egyptian police fired tear gas and rubber bullets and beat protesters to clear thousands of people from a central Cairo square Wednesday after the biggest demonstrations in years against President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian rule.

The demands of the tens of thousands of protesters who poured into Egyptian streets across the nation Tuesday were clear: freedom, democracy, and an end to the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak.

Protesters also called for the prime minister to quit, for parliament to be dissolved after elections in November, widely regarded as rigged, and for a new national unity government to be created.

But while their demands were political, their organization was not. The demonstrations were organized on Facebook by grass-roots civil society movements, not political opposition parties. And they mobilized a broad swath of Egyptians from across the demographic spectrum – a feat Egypt’s political opposition has failed to pull off.

Like the popular uprising this month in Tunisia, the protests were a public outpouring of anger that had no leader and will likely prove difficult for opposition parties to harness.

“I don’t think they can do anything,” said Steven Cook, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who is currently in Egypt, of Egypt’s opposition parties. “The dynamism is in the people who are out in the streets.… It’s leaderless as far as I can tell; it’s this amalgamation of groups.”

Activists have called for more protests Wednesday, and whether the calls are met by action will be a crucial test of how much momentum the movement has and how much pressure it will be able to bring to bear on the Egyptian regime. It is apparent that the government is already feeling the pinch: Tuesday it shut down access to the social networking site Twitter, which had been used by protesters to organize the demonstrations. One member of the security forces was reportedly killed during the clashes in Cairo, and two protesters were killed in Suez.

Egypt’s protests follow a wave of unrest that has spread across the region in the wake of the Tunisian revolution. That uprising began with protests over skyrocketing unemployment and government corruption that came to include opposition to harsh government oppression and, eventually, calls for the ouster of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia Jan. 14.

Protests in other nations, including Algeria and Jordan, were spurred by rising prices, unemployment, and other economic woes. Despite government attempts to portray them as related to the economic situation, Egypt’s demonstrations were notable for their focus on the political.

“This was not a demonstration about economic grievances. It was about politics; it was about freedom; it was about opposition to Mubarak,” says Mr. Cook.

Yet Egypt’s largest opposition group, the banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood, declined to officially participate in the demonstrations. Some of the group’s members participated individually, but the Brotherhood was not a driving force behind the movement. Though the Wafd opposition party did join in the protests, the impetus behind the demonstrations came from the grass-roots civil society organizations that initiated the movement and organized it online, says Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo.

“Those who are going to gain are the civil society movements who took the initiative and were heavily involved in the organization of the demonstrations,” he says. He points to the 6th of April Youth movement; the National Association for Change, formed by former UN nuclear watchdog Mohamed ElBaradei; and smaller, less well-known grass-roots organizations. The banners of the Kifaya coalition group were also visible in the crowds Tuesday.

Egypt’s opposition parties are already battered, coming out of parliamentary elections at the end of last year that were widely recognized as plagued by irregularities. Most parties boycotted the runoff elections as a result, leaving the ruling National Democratic Party with all but a few seats in parliament ahead of presidential elections in September.

Egypt’s government, meanwhile, has shown no signs of making political concessions, and is attempting to portray Tuesday’s massive demonstrations as related to the economic situation. It also attempted to sow fear by blaming the Muslim Brotherhood for the clashes with security forces that took place in downtown Cairo. A statement released by the Ministry of Interior Tuesday specifically blamed Muslim Brotherhood members for throwing stones at police, a charge that was not consistent with the reality Tuesday.

Dr. Sayyid says if the government makes any moves in response to the protests, they will be related to the economic situation, like lowering food prices.

“There has been no response on part of political leaders,” says Sayyid. “Had there been any intention to respond politically to this, I think we would have heard one of the leaders of the ruling party to come out and make a statement.”

What comes next largely depends on whether protesters mobilize again. “The question is what happens today and tomorrow,” says Cook. “If the people who were out in the streets yesterday can demonstrate a certain amount of momentum, I think there will be political pressure on parties, and political pressure on the NDP, to try to nip this in the bud.”

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