Thursday, 19 December 2013

Pro-Palestinian demonstration in Cairo brings back old memories but signals new reality

(Wrote this for the Daily Star, Beirut, way back in 2002; sadly the Egyptian people’s emergent sense of identification with Palestinians at the outset of the second Intifada, which I note at the end of the piece, proved extremely short-lived)

Hani Shukrallah, April 03, 2002

Tear gas has evolved in no small way during the past 25 years. This Monday was my first encounter with tear gas since the 1970s and there was a lot of it around at that time. Indeed, few years of that decade would pass with at least one major rendezvous ­ often, quite a few.

But back then, tear gas was more appropriately named; it brought tears to your eyes; there was some suffocation, some stinging but nothing to compare with today’s variety. The canister looks pretty much the same; the foul smoke that comes out of it is something else altogether. In fact, it is not tear gas at all, for tears are not involved, rather a horrible blinding stinging that one can only associate with the properties attributed to mace. And for some seconds, the suffocation is total.

But to ensure that my memory was not failing me (the 1970s have a tendency to evoke nostalgia ­ everything was better, even prisons), I compared notes with Kamal, another old-timer who cut his political teeth on the student uprisings of the 1970s. He had “captured” a spent tear gas canister. And, as he inspected it carefully ­ hoping to find a “Made in USA” inscription somewhere (apparently, very useful from an agitation-propaganda perspective) ­ he seemed no less sure that this was a totally different bit of goods than the one we had become so familiar with back then.

Which makes complete sense, actually. After all, science and technology have developed in leaps and bounds during the past quarter-century. We’ve got Star Wars military technology, 25-ton bombs and smart whatnots, so why not a new and improved tear gas that is not tear gas but mace on a mass scale?

While the US-led “free world” would be loath to give any Arab state, however friendly and “moderate,” its more sophisticated weapons technology (a privilege reserved only to “brave, democratic and besieged” little Israel), I expect they are most generous with their various “crowd-control” devices. However potent, tear gas and slick armored personnel carriers (APCs) are no threat to the overall military balance in the region, which America is committed to maintain skewed massively in Israel’s favor vis-a-vis all the Arab states combined.

And, let’s face it, back then, we got our instruments of repression from “socialist” Eastern Europe and look what’s become of them.

There was another novel twist to Egyptian crowd control at the Palestine solidarity demonstration at Cairo University this Monday, in which some 20,000 university and school students, as well as several hundred intellectuals battled with the police from noon until early evening. The mean green APCs would blare their horns and blink red lights in warning for a fraction of a minute, then drive madly through the crowd, hitting anyone who did not leap out of the way.

This, a friend reminded me, was a tactic often used by Israelis during the first intifada in 1987. During the second, as everyone knows, the Israelis were not in the business of crowd control but of mass murder. Sniper fire, tank fire, helicopter gunships and F-16s are not used to disperse crowds of protesters but to kill anyone who happens to be near.

But this is Egypt. And lest anyone forget the fact, the harrowing day had its moment of purely Egyptian comic relief.

A fire-truck, horns blaring, water cannon at the ready, was positioning itself to shoot (blue) water into the crowd gathered at the foot of the monument of student martyrs in front of the main gate of Cairo University. During the day, the water attacks were often combined with a shower of tear gas canisters, which had the effect (whether intended or not) of ensuring the delivery of whatever the loathsome chemical that the new and improved tear gas is made of into the protesters’ eye ducts.

Another offensive by the police was being readied; the demonstrators, as they did at each police rush, started jeering loudly, steeling themselves for yet another confrontation. The water cannon, however, started spewing diminutive bursts of water ­ and those, backward. A mirthful crowd observed as the security personnel manning the water cannon fumbled with it; then the truck turned back. That particular offensive had been called off.

Something very serious, indeed ominous, was taking place at the sprawling battle zone that was the massive Cairo University campus and its surrounding environs on Monday, however.

The day of solidarity with the Palestinians had begun innocuously enough. The Egyptian Committee for Solidarity with the Intifada (which hitherto had been sending convoys of foodstuffs and medicine to the occupied Palestinian territories) called for a solidarity rally at the foot of the martyrs monument that stands before Cairo University’s main gate.

By noon, the time set for the gathering, a few hundred intellectuals, including artists, journalists, political figures and university professors had gathered at the designated place. The police had meanwhile laid a tight siege around the largely middle-aged crowd, locking in the Cairo University students behind their campus gates and preventing late-comers from joining. It looked to be yet another “symbolic” protest, as familiar as it’s been ineffectual for some two decades.

Yet somehow, the crowd kept swelling, the age groups getting younger, the determination to reach the Israeli Embassy, a few hundred meters away, unrelenting. No one was going home anytime soon.

At one point the crowd of perhaps a couple of thousand was able to break through the besieging anti-riot squads and rush in the direction of the embassy. The time for police restraint was over. Tear gas canisters started flying, APCs hurtled madly through the crowds and water cannons (not all of which were defective) spewed their gushing, perplexingly blue water.

The battle was joined. Cairo University students broke through the university gates, several hundreds of them mixing with the crowd at the main gate, while many more broke out through the side gates overlooking the working-class district of Bein Al-Sarayat, where they were joined by school students and residents.

Meanwhile, the protesters gathered before Cairo University’s main gate could observe a running battle a few hundred meters along the same street between the police and students of Al-Saidiya High School, one of the oldest and largest public schools in the country.


The initial demonstration, in which the protesters themselves would prevent any of their number hurtling even the most harmless of objects at the police, was transformed into a vicious battle.


The sense of deja vu was overwhelming as, a quarter of a century later, I could once again see the pavements of my alma mater being dug up and transformed into the people’s resistance weapon of choice: the stone. Even in my younger and more vigorous days, I was never much of a stone-thrower, I’m afraid. Back then, I would have been “liberating” the university printing presses to issue leaflets. As it is, and having already received my little “badge of honor” in the form of a couple of largely harmless baton knocks to the head, I spent the rest of the protest trying to avoid some flying projectiles from changing the bruise into a fracture.


But my own sense of deja vu notwithstanding, there was something wholly new on Monday. It was not the intensity of the protesters’ anger, nor yet the fact that the scenes I had witnessed in Cairo University were being repeated at the same time on campuses and schools throughout the country. The estimate by the correspondent of Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel that nearly one million Egyptians had taken part in the Palestine solidarity protests on Monday may have been exaggerated, but there is little doubt that many tens of thousands took part.


What is truly new, however, is the sense of identification that Egyptians from all walks of life have come to hold towards the Palestinian people since the intifada erupted 18 months ago. This is unprecedented in the over 50 years of Arab-Israeli confrontations and peace-making.