Protests flare on Cairo streets

CAIRO, Egypt — Egyptian security forces have clashed with demonstrators in downtown Cairo for the second time this month, in a sign that foment over a worsening economy and political uncertainty is growing.

Plainclothes security officers beat at least one protester before bundling him into a car during clashes on Tuesday, witnesses said. The demonstration, which also saw hundreds of protesters physically taunt riot soldiers, was aimed at challenging police brutality that occurred at a rally last week. During that protest, activists and journalists were attacked and about 100 people were detained.

Egypt’s excessive use of force to quell political assemblies — which are illegal under the country’s controversial emergency law — is nothing new, especially during a parliamentary election year.

In spite of the threat of violence, a worsening economy and concerns over the health and future of 81-year-old President Hosni Mubarak have led to increasing unrest on the streets of the capital.

“There’s been an increase in sporadic strikes and violence in the past five years,” said Maye Kassem, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo and author of several books on Egyptian politics. “Discontent is rising and more people are willing to voice their opinions.”

Signs of discontent are visible everywhere, but perhaps nowhere more so than on the steps of Egypt’s parliament building.

Workers from various industrial groups and companies have spent days, and in some cases weeks, camped out on the streets near Egypt’s parliament. A group of handicapped Egyptians have parked themselves directly across the street from the lower house of parliament for the past two months.

Chanting, waving signs, and braving the chilly nights, these activists are holding peaceful, extended sit-ins, rather than potentially rowdy street protests. Still, they face metal barricades blocked by riot troops.

Most are hoping to bring attention to a specific set of various labor issues: dismal working conditions, limited rights and, above all, low wages.

Egypt’s official minimum wage is a meager $7 per month.

Public sector workers too have increasingly joined the fray. Archaeologists from the Supreme Council of Antiquities recently staged public protests demanding higher wages, according to a report published this week by the independent Al Masry Al Youm newspaper.

There are only two options in the attempt to solve the growing unrest, said Magdy Sobhy, an economist at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, a government-funded think tank.

“The first option involves a lot of changes in the Egyptian economy, including providing more jobs, a higher minimum wage and increasing production to settle the growing inflation,” said Sobhy. “The only other option is chaos.”

But chaos is exactly what the almost 30-year-old emergency law seeks to avoid.

Egypt’s modern emergency law came into effect almost immediately with Mubarak’s ascension to power after President Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981.

Its original purpose was to combat extremism, but critics argue the emergency law takes away virtually all human rights at the discretion of Egypt’s vast police force.

“The emergency law gives state security the impunity to control elections, conduct arbitrary detention and military tribunals, and even torture,” said Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. “The government can do anything they want in the name of public peace.”

On April 6, protesters demanding an end to the emergency law quickly realized the full might of the same government power they were rallying against.

Almost as soon as it started, the peaceful demonstration was over, crushed by plainclothes police officers under the watchful eye of baton-wielding riot guards. There were several instances of violence, as security beat and dragged several protesters down the street before hauling them off to detention.

Journalists were also targeted that day. Police, hit, pushed and knocked over several reporters while their cameras and tapes were confiscated.

The violence witnessed over the past week is reminiscent of street protests from 2005, also a parliamentary election year like this one.

Such violence is par for the course in any authoritarian regime, said Kassem. “Still, the regime is firmly in control, even if they are acting more harshly than they normally do,” said Kassem. “They may be more nervous than before because they are in a period of transition.”

The transition is not yet official, but Mubarak’s age and extended absence from Egypt while in Germany recovering from gallbladder surgery last month created ample public speculation over potential successors.

Perhaps complicating matters is the recent arrival of Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the man many Egyptians are hoping will challenge Mubarak in the upcoming presidential race.

At the very least, say supporters, ElBaradei should help to bring more transparency to Egypt’s restricted political landscape, which has become stagnant over the past three decades of Mubarak’s rule.

ElBaradei received a hero’s welcome from supporters upon his arrival in Cairo in February, and has attracted hundreds to the streets in his recent travels around Egypt.

ElBaradei did not attend the latest protests, much to the dismay of supporters chanting his name in the onlooking faces of security forces.

He did, however, respond to government through his Twitter account, calling the April 6 reports “repugnant and inhumane.”

“Detentions and beatings during peaceful demonstration [sic] is an insult to the dignity of every Egyptian,” tweeted ElBaradei the day after the protest. “Shame.”

The arrests also drew condemnation in Washington. Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley announced at the daily briefing on April 7 that the U.S. was deeply concerned about arrests made under Egypt’s emergency law.

“The government of Egypt must uphold the rights of all people to express their political views peacefully and to ensure due process,” Crowley said.

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry later rejected Washington’s “interference” in Egypt’s internal affairs in a statement published in the state-funded Al-Ahram newspaper.

Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, has long been one of Washington’s closest allies in the region, home to both the Suez Canal and the Middle East’s first peace treaty with Israel.

American aid to Egypt is just under $2 billion a year, making it a recipient of one of the highest levels of U.S. foreign aid in the world.

Still, the Obama administration has yet to clarify a firm position on democracy in Egypt, where pushes for greater reform during the George W. Bush presidency ultimately led to electoral wins for the Muslim Brotherhood in the last parliamentary elections.

Members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, banned by the semi-tolerated Islamist opposition group, are frequently rounded up and jailed under the emergency law.

The popular independent journalist Salama A. Salama pointed out the irony of American foreign policy in Egypt in a recent column in Al-Ahram.

“Without the extraordinary powers the emergency laws give to [Egypt’s] government, the latter wouldn't be able to help American policy. Take for example the government's unlawful detention of dozens of Muslim Brotherhood members. Is not this a move that fits well into American policies?” he wrote last month.

“Shouldn't the Americans be pleased?”