Egyptian strike fails to mobilize masses

But activists remain hopeful as they adopt new tactics and malaise grows.

Protester gestures at police during Cairo clashes 390 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Suhaib Salem)
Protester gestures at police during Cairo clashes 390 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Suhaib Salem)
CAIRO – The first day of a nationwide strike and campaign of civil disobedience aimed at forcing the generals ruling Egypt to step down was largely ignored. But organizers are revising their tactics and say they are confident their message is reaching the public.
In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the central rally was sparsely attended on Saturday, which marked the one-year anniversary of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster from office. Buses and trains operated normally as did the Suez Canal, even though workers had said they would join the strike. Flights into and out of the country remained on schedule. Local media reported that civil servants volunteered to work extra hours.
But after a year marked by continued violence and disorder – most recently a deadly soccer riot in Port Said that claimed more than 70 lives – and an unraveling economy, the young, mostly secular activists who sparked the revolution a year ago assert that they are capable mobilizing the masses like they did this time in 2011.
Hani Yussif, who runs a small mobile phone shop in downtown Cairo, is one of those apolitical Egyptians who has already joined the opposition. Over the past week, he had a front row view of the clashes between the police and protesters. It changed his perspective of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the formal name for the generals ruling Egypt since Mubarak’s departure.
On Saturday, instead of opening his shop as he usually does in the morning, Yussif pasted up a sign saying he was joining the nationwide strike to support what he said “is the dignity of Egypt.”
“What I witnessed was attack and attack,” Yussif told The Media Line. “People don’t like the protesters because they think they are spoiled and rich, but they don’t talk to them. I talked to them and they came to my shop to charge their phones. I think they are heroes.”
Salam Radwan, a 22-year-old student at Cairo University who attended Saturday’s rally, said that for months he had sat on the fence over whether to join the protests against SCAF.
“I kept thinking the protesters were doing more harm and making the transition to democracy slower,” he told The Media Line. “But then last week, a friend of mine was hit by tear gas and birdshot in downtown, so I thought this will never end unless we give a voice to change.”
“We had really hoped that more workers would join in and participate, but with all the government and military statements over the past few days, I don’t think we can expect it all to happen at once,” Radwan said.
He was referring to the barrage of anti-strike declarations made by SCAF and religious institutions in the country, which labeled the strike as “destructive” and “un-Islamic.” Even the powerful Muslim Brotherhood denounced the strike, arguing that efforts could be spent on “bettering Egypt” through other means. Underscoring its determination to contain the protests, SCAF deployed troops and armored vehicles across the country, stationed outside key state institutions and along main roads.
If Egypt’s malaise is not enough to recruit more people to the side of the opposition, activists are also tweaking their message to make it more inclusive.
While they led the revolution in its early months, the activists rapidly lost momentum to Islamists, who trounced them in parliamentary elections. Critics said the opposition failed to reach out the rural voters or the poor. Activists continued to use their old standbys, the social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, but the latest strike employed new tactics.
At Cairo University, several-hundred students stood on the main open space of the campus chanting slogans against SCAF. But the student activists also engaged passersby with questions and offers to engage them in dialogue, pointing up a new willingness to relate to apolitical Egyptians.
The Abbassiya neighborhood, known for its virulent support of SCAF, was more open to the protesters than ever before. The demonstrators organized a public showing of a video called Kazaboon (Military Liars), which details the horrors of army rule and violence against Egyptians. This was a marked change from the tactics employed only a few months ago and according to activists, may be the key to changing public opinion.
Israa, a 33-year-old housewife and now an ardent activist, told The Media Line that it was the showing of a video like this in January that sparked her interest in activism. “I always thought the state media was telling us the truth, but it turns out I was wrong. Now I want to show people that the military is not one with the people,” she said.
While streets remain busy as usual in Cairo and other cities in the country, at the universities and among labor unions support for the strike was strong. Thousands of students participated on the first day. On Friday, tens of thousands of Egyptians marched to the Defense Ministry building to demand the removal of the junta.
Pointing to the US Civil Rights movement as an example, Radwan, the Cairo University student, said the opposition would need time to build support. Living for decades under a dictatorship, Egyptians are unfamiliar with civil disobedience.
“We need to understand that nonviolence and strikes like this are not going to change things overnight,” he said. “We’ll have to keep fighting and gain supporters. Even if we convinced 100 people on Saturday, it should be seen as a success.”