Friday, April 11, 2008

And Nothing Much Changed

The talk last Thursday was of protests—major protests throughout Egypt. Angry over rising food prices, low wages, and political issues in Gaza, Egyptians called for widespread protests to increase awareness of these issues.

But there is a problem in Egypt: public protests are illegal (doesn’t seem very democratic now does it?).

There was a lot of speculation over what might happen. Tahrir Square was rumored to be a major site of activity. Egyptians were encouraged to skip work, wear black clothes, and hang Egyptian flags in support of the protestors. Public transportation was at risk of being shut down.

When I woke up Sunday morning, I was ready to catch some of the protests in Tahrir Square. As I took the shuttle to downtown, the first thing I noticed was how light the traffic was. It looked more like a Friday morning before Islamic prayer services than a busy work day. As I approached Tahrir Square, I kept my eyes peeled for signs of protest. I didn’t find any. Hundreds of riot police were stationed around the square in small block formations. Cars zipped around the traffic circles unaffected. The few protestors I did pick out were few and far between, and they were merely standing in a small line with no verbal or visual messages. They remained stiff and silent, and even the Egyptian authorities couldn’t find an excuse to arrest them or beat them with clubs.

I arrived on campus. Activity was light. A few students and staff sat in the library or outside in the courtyard going about there business as usual. Most of the professors had cancelled classes for the day, and many students had no reason to show up for school.

I was disappointed. Instead of large anti-government protests, I saw more of the status quo. The most visible sign of protest was that millions of people were skipping work, something that doesn’t put a lot of pressure on the government to change. The military and police presence remains a serious and potentially dangerous threat to civil society, so I can’t necessarily blame people for staying indoors.

But how will things ever change if people don’t fight, if they don’t struggle against the status quo, if they don’t find a way to make their voice heard?

There are signs of progress in some areas of Egypt. A huge strike took place at Cairo University as professors basically shut down campus. And in northern Egypt, several factories shut were forced to shut down as an angry mob battled police and ripped down pictures of President Mubarak. Dozens of people were arrested. I wish I could have seen this, but I don’t have access to these parts of Egypt. Instead, my only personal experience was what I saw in downtown Cairo.

As I left campus, a heavy dust storm picked up, covering the city in a surreal orange haze. As I passed through Tahrir Square, I took one last look at my surroundings. The riot police stood in stiff formation, the cars zipped around the traffic circles, and people stayed at home. And nothing much changed.

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