‘Where are the protesters?’ As anti-war demonstrations shook the globe in February, CNN’s correspondent in Amman wondered why the streets of the Middle East were still quiet. Robert Fisk made the same point in the ‘Independent’: ‘One million people demonstrate in London, while the Arabs, faced with disaster, are like mice.’
They got their answer on 20 March, when the dam finally broke. From Rabat to Khartoum, from Cairo to Damascus, hundreds of thousands defied riot police, teargas and beatings to shout their rage at the attack on Iraq. Egypt saw its biggest popular protests for a generation, while police bullets killed demonstrators in Yemen and Sudan. Trade unionists, Islamist militants, socialists and anti-war activists had been risking arrest and worse for months to organise against the war. As the cruise missiles rained down on Baghdad the protests swelled as first thousands, then hundreds of thousands of ordinary people joined in.
Once again the young have led the way onto the streets. And behind the smog of teargas, police baton charges are helping to shape the politics of a new generation of protesters. Dozens of school children in Bahrain fought with security forces outside the US embassy for days following the outbreak of war. On 22 March thousands of Palestinian school students from the impoverished refugee camps of Bared and Badawi on Lebanon’s bleak northern coast took to the streets chanting, ‘With our blood we will defend you, O Iraq.’ Four days later, around 4,000 school students marched on the UN headquarters in central Beirut while in Baalbek in the Beqaa Valley 5,000 school children took over the city centre to hold a rally against the war. Schools emptied in the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli as pupils joined a 40,000-strong demonstration, which converged on the town centre. Spontaneous protests closed schools across Morocco on 20 March, despite arrests and police harassment. According to reports in the local press, middle and secondary school pupils surged into the streets while police blockaded their elder brothers and sisters in the faculty of science.
University students have also played a crucial role in spreading the protests, although often the campuses have been the focus of intense repression. Battalions of heavily armed riot police outside the university gates failed to contain Egyptian students who burst out of the American University into the heart of downtown Cairo on 20 March. Reports in the opposition press describe in graphic detail how demonstrators created a ‘liberated zone’ in Tahrir Square. The following day up to 50,000 protesters smashed their way out of al-Azhar mosque in the direction of the US embassy. Riot police using water cannons and dogs fought with demonstrators for hours. A fire engine was set alight in front of the ruling party’s headquarters and protesters smashed President Hosni Mubarak’s portrait.
Egyptian journalist Hani Shukrallah joined crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on the day war broke out. As he explained in the ‘Guardian’ a few days later, the feeling of being part of a global movement has helped to undo the years of fear and suffocation. ‘”It’s like Hyde Park,” was the common refrain, expressed in exhilarated tones. The anti-riot police, while very much in evidence, had stayed its hand, letting demonstrators be as they peacefully occupied the square until the evening, chanting slogans, making speeches, painting political graffiti on the ground and staging street theatre.’
The mounting civilian death toll has brought the war home to millions across the Middle East. Angry crowds filled the streets of Damascus after a US missile killed five and injured a dozen more Syrian workers fleeing the carnage in Iraq. US warplanes hit their minibus as it travelled the long desert road between Baghdad and Damascus. Hundreds of thousands joined protests in the Syrian capital, while in provincial towns tens of thousands took to the streets. Syrian TV pictures showed thousands gathering in Dayr al-Zor, near the Iraqi border and in the north eastern province of Hassaka, which has a large Kurdish population. Trade unions organised workplace rallies across the country. Although the demonstrations were supported by the ruling Ba’ath party, riot police were on hand to prevent protesters from reaching the US embassy in Damascus.
The protests are not only fuelled by anger at the US and British attack on Iraq. Smouldering resentment at US support for Israel is driving the movement forward. It is almost exactly a year since Israeli tanks launched a brutal offensive on the West Bank, culminating in the massacre at Jenin refugee camp. Eighteen year old Yasmine Youssef, from Fatima al-Zahra School in Lebanon, told local reporters, ‘I know what this war is about–it’s about oil, and protecting Israel.’
Thousands of Palestinians poured onto the streets as the war began. Around 20,000 protested in Gaza City, while West Bank towns Ramallah, Bethlehem and Tulkarm saw large demonstrations on 21 March. Banners on the march called for an end to Israeli occupation and solidarity with the Iraqi people.
Rage at imperialism is also once again turning inward, to confront the Arab rulers who are George Bush’s first line of defence. ‘Mubarak must fight or go to the devil,’ demonstrators shouted as they marched out of Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque. Marchers in the Jordanian capital, Amman, filed through the narrow streets with clenched fists in protest at the presence of US Patriot missile batteries on Jordanian soil. ‘Shame, shame, America is in the heart of our homeland,’ they chanted.
On 22 March the southern Jordanian city of Ma’an was rocked by huge anti-war protests. According to eyewitness reports, almost all of the local university’s 4,000 students took part in angry demonstrations, which quickly spilled over into clashes with riot police. ‘American troops out of Jordan’ and ‘Expel the US ambassador’ echoed across the campus. Ma’an has a history of violent anti-government protests–a few months ago the Jordanian army was fighting pitched battles with armed Islamists based in the town.
Despite the memories of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, there are strong undercurrents of anger in the Gulf. Clashes with riot police in Bahrain, and demonstrations of thousands in Oman, where there is little tradition of militant protest, make this fury visible. A few days before war broke out, local press reports claimed that four officers of the Peninsula Shield force, which brings together troops from Gulf Cooperation Council members, resigned rather than serve in Kuwait alongside the US army. In Amman expatriate Kuwaitis joined the anti-war demonstrations. ‘This is really bad, the way Americans are seeking world power,’ said Dima Abu Qaoud, who fled Kuwait in 1990 as Iraqi tanks rolled across the border. ‘They don’t even know where he is, so they just bomb. No one supports this. They don’t think about those people they kill, children and women.’
Thousands of Iraqi exiles living in Jordan and Syria are trying to return home to defend their country. Iraq’s consulate in Amman has been overwhelmed with requests for temporary Iraqi passports since the war began. Many of the Iraqis living in Damascus are Shia refugees from the south. Although they have suffered decades of repression at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s regime, few have any sympathy for the invading forces. The largest Iraqi Shia dissident group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), publicly opposes the invasion of Iraq, despite having joined US-sponsored opposition conferences several times last year. SCIRI’s leader, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, warned US forces that they would not be welcomed as liberators if they invaded southern Iraq.
Across the region the same loose coalitions have emerged as political reference points for the mass movement–opposition Islamists, Arab nationalists, trade union activists and socialists. In Yemen leading members of the Islamist Yemeni Alliance for Reform and the Nasserist Unionist Rally were arrested after violent demonstrations in the capital, Sanaa. In Egypt the weekly paper of the Labour Party, which is supportive of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, called on the president to resign: ‘Let’s get to work. It is time for Jihad. It is the time for rebellion, uprising and revolution.’
Yet in many countries, including Egypt, the major Islamist opposition forces remain in an unspoken and uneasy alliance with the Arab regimes. Repeating the pattern of last year’s demonstrations over Palestine, their leaders hope to contain the protests within acceptable limits, while using the movement to put pressure on the government. However, just as they were a year ago, the demonstrations have been dominated by the presence of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, many of them teenagers with little experience of protest. In city after city they are the ones who have taken over the streets, pulling the established opposition parties in their wake.
This is one reason why the Arab regimes are nervous. In sharp contrast to the Gulf War of 1991, when they were confident enough to send troops to support US forces, the Arab rulers today have publicly distanced themselves from the attack on Iraq. Behind the rhetoric, they are playing an increasingly dangerous game: providing second-line support for the invasion while hoping that by opening a space for controlled dissent they will contain the anger from below.
So the Suez Canal remains open for US warships but the government press in Egypt praises ‘peaceful demonstrators’. US B-52 bombers cross Jordanian airspace on their way to pound Baghdad, but King Abdallah asks the riot police to show ‘flexibility’ when dealing with protesters. This contradiction is sharpest in Egypt, where the regime not only gave permission for a huge anti-war rally in Cairo stadium, but actually organised a demonstration by the ruling National Democratic Party in February. The sight of information minister Safwat al-Sharif, addressing the crowds as if he was reading from a conference autocue, did little to inspire confidence in the government’s sincerity. Rather, many Egyptians will have drawn the lesson that the regime is afraid of the power of the streets. This is why brutal repression may not be enough to contain the movement. Although riot police swept Tahrir Square in Cairo on 21 March, arresting and beating hundreds of demonstrators, protests have continued across the country. As one message from Cairo put it, ‘A hole has appeared in the wall of dictatorship.’
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Thanks to Arab satellite TV, the hammer blows of endless missile strikes on Baghdad have reverberated around the Middle East. In 1991 Arab audiences could only view the war unfolding on CNN. This time, with half a dozen Arab satellite channels beaming live from Baghdad, each time a ‘precision strike’ goes ‘astray’, Al Jazeera and its sister stations are on hand to relay graphic footage of bomb-mangled bodies straight into the cafes of Cairo, Beirut or Algiers.
It took a direct hit on a Baghdad market for the western media to discover that ‘smart bombs’ kill civilians just as effectively as stupid ones. But ever since the war began, TV screens in the Middle East have been saturated with horrifying images of ‘collateral damage’.
The media has also helped to puncture the myth of US invincibility. Pictures of a mustachioed Iraqi peasant–ancient hunting rifle in hand–beside the Apache helicopter he apparently shot out of the sky, will live long in the collective memory. And few will forget the first pictures of frightened and exhausted American captives–no longer pumped-up superheroes, insulated from the horror of war by the best technology money can buy. The anger of US and British military spokesmen as these pictures flashed around the globe also sparked a debate about the role of the western media. Panellists on Syrian TV asked why Tony Blair was putting pressure on the BBC to stop broadcasts of British military setbacks and Iraqi civilian casualties.
Most importantly, the media have brought the worldwide anti-war movement into the heart of the political debates raging across the Arab world. Viewers tuning into Syrian TV can see police with water cannon attacking protesters in Berlin, Italian demonstrators chained to tank transporters, and riot cops arresting young women anti-war activists in New York. Hezbollah’s Al-Manar satellite channel is running trailers between its news bulletins showing mammoth anti-war marches from across the world. Stirring music reaches a crescendo as the camera pans over a sea of ‘Stop the War’ placards from London’s huge demonstration on 15 February. Egyptian state-run TV currently provides better coverage of the global anti-war movement than the BBC. News bulletins have been showing footage of demonstrations from four continents–including protests in Rome, Washington, Seoul and Brisbane.
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‘Freedoms are under threat’
Hundreds of anti-war activists and demonstrators have been detained in Cairo and some are being tortured by police, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. Hundreds more have been injured as security forces used water cannons, clubs, dogs and even stones as people demonstrated against the war in Iraq last month. Police have arrested the leaders of the protest movement as well as journalists, professors and students. Police also went on the rampage after the demonstration, attacking shoppers and arresting children.
‘The crackdown many feared has come,’ said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. ‘Fundamental freedoms in Egypt are now under serious threat.’
What started two months ago with isolated detentions of demonstrators and activists has now become a sweeping repression of dissent, Megally said. The arrests followed a massive demonstration in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo on 20 March, the first day of the war against Iraq. Tens of thousands of protesters rallied, closing the square for over ten hours. While police violently restrained demonstrators from approaching the vicinity of the US and British embassies, they generally allowed the protest to proceed in peace.
The following day, Friday 21 March, demonstrations throughout central Cairo drew a violent response. Protesters gathered in areas including Al-Azhar Mosque, Talaat Harb Square, Ramses Street, and the State Broadcasting Corporation. While some onlookers reported scattered stone throwing by demonstrators, and authorities alleged that protesters torched a car near Tahrir Square, police cracked down with excessive force, both arresting large numbers at the demonstrations and using them as a pretext to detain others.
Eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that mid-afternoon on Friday the police retaliated against demonstrators who were pushing against a cordon in Talaat Harb Street. They began beating them with clubs, and then fired water cannons at them. Many demonstrators were injured. A journalist present told Human Rights Watch that he saw dozens of demonstrators beaten and arrested.
In other demonstrations four opposition MPs–Mohammed Farid Hassanein, Hamdeen Sabahi, Abdel Azim al-Maghrabi, and Haidar Baghdadi–were beaten by police. Sabahi remains hospitalised. In another incident one demonstrator, Muhammed Abdou Taha, reportedly was beaten and may have suffered a broken spine.
On the evening of 21 March security forces invaded the Lawyers Syndicate on Ramses Street, and occupied it for almost six hours. Sayyed Abdel Ghany, an official of the syndicate, told Human Rights Watch that over 15 lawyers, including some who have defended anti-war demonstrators in the past, were arrested. Many lawyers were severely beaten.
Arrests continued on 22 March. That morning, Marwa Farouq, Shaymaa Samir, and Nourhan Thabet–three female students who have been prominent anti-war activists–were arrested while attempting to enter Cairo University to attend a demonstration. Police presence at the small university rally was massive and obvious. Like the Lawyers Syndicate, Cairo University has traditionally been regarded as a safe space for dissent, where police forces rarely intervene obtrusively.
Most of the detainees were reportedly taken to al-Darrassa, a Central Security barracks in the north of Cairo. Others are believed to be held at the Lazoughli headquarters of State Security Intelligence in Cairo.
Sayed Abd el-Ghany, an official of the Lawyers Syndicate, told Human Rights Watch, ‘The incursion into the syndicate began at around 6.30pm. A number of lawyers had gathered here to talk about the increasing numbers of people being detained. While we were meeting, some of the demonstrators were marching down Ramses Street [outside the syndicate], trying to get into Tahrir Square, which was sealed off. Security officers in plain clothes attacked them. They came up and started beating the demonstrators with clubs. Other uniformed police closed in and assaulted the demonstrators with stones and water cannons. And some of the protesters tried to find refuge here, behind our gates. The Lawyers Syndicate is believed to be a place of refuge.
‘This is a dangerous precedent. Lawyers have been arrested and tortured for doing the work of lawyers. A place which represented sanctuary and the possibility of unfettered expression of opinion for many has been raided by police.’
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