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The protest nobody showed up for

Of the many criticisms levied against this part of the world, few would include political apathy on the list. On the contrary, when friends ask me about living in the Middle East and visiting some of the region’s hot spots, they often want to discuss the protests and the violence.

Egypt’s April 6 “Day of Anger” told a different story, though. The April 6 Youth Movement, a new group largely made up of university students, began advertising weeks ago for a day of protests across Cairo to signal dissatisfaction the government’s handling of domestic issues.

The movement released the results of an internal poll indicating that 90 percent of storekeepers downtown would participate. Officials feared that the city would be paralyzed. Prominent opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, seeing the opportunity and the potential strength of the movement, endorsed the protest.

But when April 6 arrived, almost nothing happened.

Activists held some small protests around the city, but you would hardly have thought it to be a citywide day of protest.

Unlike many countries in the region, this sort of outcome is fairly typical for Egypt.

The first clue that the day might not amount to much was evident on the streets Monday. Police and riot police lined many of the major avenues in downtown and extra protection was added to government buildings. The intimidation factor, it struck me, was intense.

I’ve seen my share of protests since landing in Cairo, and they’re not for the weak-kneed. The first protest I witnessed was in the summer of 2006 when several hundred Egyptians took to the streets to protest the Israeli war in Lebanon and also to voice anger at the Mubarak government for not being more proactive in bringing about an end to the war.

The problem for the protesters is that they were seriously outnumbered by the government’s security apparatus. Like a well-oiled machine, units of riot police — armed with shields and batons — rotated through the site of the protest, pressing up against the ranks of the apparent agitators, keeping them contained. It was an awesome display of force and authority.

During the latest Israeli war in Gaza, protesters and riot police tangled a number of times, the police using batons and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. And sometimes police showed up at the site of a protest ahead of time, turning would-be protesters away.

Even after the April 6 protests turned out to be a non-event, security forces went on the offensive, arresting a number of known dissidents. According to the Daily News Egypt, 32 activists were arrested, many of them bloggers.

All of this amounts to a culture in which protesting carries an enormous risk. Though sometimes Egyptians rally and carry out impressive acts of civil disobedience, just as frequently I hear about or see scheduled protests fall far short. In other words, the April 6 debacle wasn’t an isolated event.

Fear of the security forces certainly plays its part. But for a low-income country like Egypt, many can simply not afford to take the risk of being detained and missing days or weeks of work. In the spirit of Maslow’s pyramid, many in this country have needs basic enough that they can’t afford the possible repercussions of political dissent.

That might all change if people thought the protests stood to accomplish anything more than making a symbolic gesture. But the country has been under the same regime for 28 years. The government has rarely been forced to make concessions to the people because of civil unrest, and things don’t change quickly.

There’s an old expression in Egyptian Arabic: “El Akhbar zay El Ahram.” That is to say, the news in El Akhbar newspaper is the same as the news in El Ahram. Or, translated literally, “The news is like the pyramids.” The same old, same old.