Egypt protesters seek to spread beyond Tahrir Square

Egypt's protesters yesterday staged the largest protest since the democracy uprising began more than two weeks ago. Now, they may join forces with Egyptian laborers.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Members of the Independent Union of Tax Collectors, one of the first independent unions in Egypt, gather outside the Egyptian Trade Union Federation in Cairo on Feb. 9.
Ann Hermes/Staff
A group of protesters hold an impromptu demonstration outside of Tahrir Square in Cairo on Feb. 9.

The largest demonstrations yet against President Hosni Mubarak swelled Cairo's Tahrir Square last night after young Google executive Wael Ghonim revitalized Egypt's democracy movement with an emotional TV interview upon his release from secret detention.

That massive turnout was a slap to government efforts to reach out to gradualist reform figures and simultaneously undermine the protests by painting the demonstrators as agents of foreign powers.

Now, organizers are aware that Tahrir Square, also known as Liberation Square, is becoming something of a democracy ghetto, and are pushing to establish other beachheads around the city and across the country.

“There are discussions of liberating other squares,” says Alaa Abd El-Fattah, a blogger and democracy activist who returned home from exile after the protests broke out.

After violent clashes by government-backed mobs and protesters a week ago cost about a dozen lives, protesters felt that they had paid for Tahrir with their blood and were reluctant to branch out, Mr. Fattah says. “But now the numbers are so high that there is no reason not to occupy two places,” he says.

Editor's note: Monitor staff photographer Ann Hermes shot video of a large protest in Tahrir Square on Tuesday, Feb. 8.

There were ominous signs that violence could return today. AFP reported that three protesters died today after clashes with police in El Kharga, a village about 200 miles south of Cairo. The police opened fire and wounded 100 Tuesday, with three of the injured passing today. In response, protesters have burned two police stations in town, a courthouse and an office of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party.

If the democracy protesters fully link up with Egyptian laborers, where resentment has been building for the past decade over declining real wages and management abuses like withholding pay, the Egyptian uprising could blossom into a full-blown national revolution.

But that remains very much an open question since so many workers' demands remain purely economic and they demonstrate some suspicion toward the demands for a full regime change.

Strikes at Suez canal, government offices

Overnight, the demonstrators sought to spread their sustained street power beyond Tahrir. As dark fell in Cairo, a few thousand of them marched a short distance to Egypt’s parliament, prompting the army’s first occupation of the building in Egypt’s history.

“This is a symbol of corruption,” says young protester Abdallah Galal, pointing at parliament, which is dominated by President Hosni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

“We want a fair parliament that really represents the people,” adds Mr. Galal, who traveled to Cairo with two friends from the Upper Egyptian city of Assiut on Monday night to take part in the protests.

Then today, the other shoe dropped. Small, mostly wildcat strikes broke out in at least five government offices in Cairo and in factories in at least three other cities.

More ominous for the regime still is the strike at the Suez canal, a vital link between Gulf oil shipments and the European market. There about 6,000 workers from five government companies that provide services at the canal (though not from the one that operates the locks and keeps shipping moving) have walked off the job.

“These strikes can be the first step in politicization,” says a socialist activist, who has been trying to link up labor movements with the democracy protesters. “If it starts to spread, it can catch like fire.”

New, unharnessed energy

A walk through downtown Cairo from Ramses Station to Tahrir, a distance of about one mile, reveals the new, as yet unharnessed energy.

A protest planned at the government-controlled Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions, which is generally used to damp down labor unrest, fizzled with just a few dozen protesters. But a block away about 1,000 workers, about half of them women in headscarves, are chanting at the government health insurance agency, demanding better wages.

Another block down, thousands of boisterous workers are spilling out of a major government telecommunications office and across a main thoroughfare, mostly focused on wages but with a sprinkling of shouts for “freedom” and “rights.”

Closer to Tahrir Square still, two groups of a few hundred marchers converge from different directions at Talaat Harb Square and here it’s all political. The square is named for an early 20th century nationalist industrialist still revered as a national hero. Strikes have been breaking out at a number of state-owned companies he founded.

A young man climbs onto a post, leading the crowd in chants of “down with Mubarak” while also verbally attacking the politician and tycoon Ahmed Ezz, a close ally of Mubarak’s son Gamal who has a near monopoly on the steel industry here and was pushed out of the ruling National Democratic Party last week.

Laborers not as interested in regime change

State television and Vice President Omar Suleiman, the former intelligence chief who is now leading regime efforts to end the protests, have been seeking to whip up xenophobia in recent weeks in an apparent attempt to discredit the protests.

Among the labor protesters in Cairo today, there was visceral hostility to foreigners. This reporter and a photographer working with him had to hastily depart three protests after segments of the crowd shouting that outsiders aren’t welcome turned on them.

“Are those guys workers who believe state propaganda or government agents sprinkled in there to prevent reporting?” asked a sympathetic Egyptian at the edge of the crowd. “Eh, it’s probably both.”

Today’s experience shows that hasn’t been successful beyond generating hostility to actual foreigners, with average Egyptians out in force on the streets. But many of the striking government workers, though angry over economic issues, aren’t as committed to regime change as the young protesters at Tahrir.

“I’m against the foreign press because you’re trying to destroy Mubarak,” says a burly, angry man in mirrored sunglasses, who was chanting slogans demanding better pay moments before.

Last night, Suleiman met with a group of Egyptian newspaper editors and dismissed the protesters’ demand for the immediate “departure” of Mubarak from power and painted the request as culturally alien.

“The word ‘departure’… is against the ethics of the Egyptians because Egyptians respect their elders and their president," Suleiman said, according to the state press agency. "It is an insulting word not only to the president, but for the people of Egypt as a whole."

Nevertheless, the renewed momentum of the past two days seems to have goaded the government to move faster. Al Arabiya reports that a constitutional reform committee set up just two days ago recommended this afternoon revisions to six articles of the Constitution that currently stand in the way of democracy.

Max Strasser contributed reporting from Cairo.

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