Days 14, 15 and 16 (February 7, 8 and 9) of the Egyptian uprising experienced some significant ‘turns’, in an ever developing context, that will likely have long lasting implications.
Since the beginning of the uprising, on the 25th of January, a friend and I have been wondering, waiting, to know when and if the strikes would start. I tried numerous times to reach colleagues who were likely pushing for labor participation, but to no avail. And I waited. When the general strike that was called for the second week didn’t happen and the state instated a ‘back to normalcy’ façade this week, I knew that if the strikes were to be on, this would be the time. And it certainly is!
On Tuesday the 8th the Suez Canal Company workers went on strike in several cities – Suez, Ismailia, Port Said. After 24 hours they were still striking. The next day thousands of factory workers go on strike – in Mahalla, Suez, Helwan. Egypt’s three independent unions organized a demonstration in front of the state-backed General Federation of State Unions. Also, court workers called strikes and sit-ins throughout Cairo.
Later on in the day the strikes appeared to have grown, with at least 6,000 in Cairo alone, including 3,000 national railways (ENR) employees, according to Al Jazeera English. More strikes are planned for today, including bus drivers. Labor now appears to be on board, and this will bring significant momentum to the opposition movement.
Also, significantly, Tuesday the 8th, the 2nd week anniversary of the uprising, witnessed was one of – if not the – largest showings in Tahrir. More than a million showed up. Demonstrators streamed in and out of the Square, all the way past the Qasr al-Aini bridge, past the Opera. Streams and streams of demonstrators, going to and from the Square. Standing in the street I felt such joy, with thousands of young people and families holding Egyptian flags and chanting and chatting. There was a festive atmosphere, with cars lining up on the Zamalek side of the Nile and horse carriages taking people for carriage rides.
News reports were that many people participated for the first time – especially in the spotlight, civil society workers including university professors.
One of the chief online protest organizers of the 25th of January demonstrations, Wael Ghonim, who had disappeared during the first week of the uprising, was released from police custody the day before. In an interview on one of Egypt’s most popular television shows, Ghonim gives a sincere and passionate defense of the movement. Many are attributing his release and appearance to the huge turnout on Tuesday and widening support for the opposition.
His defense put a badly needed human face to the movement that has been systematically slandered by the state media and state officials. In the interview Ghonim repeated with such emotion that he and the others involved in the demonstrations are not traitors. Throughout his police detention the officers claimed that he was being influenced by outside forces, that someone was using him and others to infiltrate the Egyptian political scene and create instability. He repeated that they are not foreign spies, that they are doing this for Egypt, out of their love for Egypt.
It became so clear how damning the state propaganda has been in branding the opposition as traitors, as foreign spies, as selfish youngsters. The state media campaign has systematically tried to take away the dignity and respect of those involved. By the 2nd week it became clear how much the state was resorting to these ‘othering’ tactics, as person after person and report after report claimed that the demonstrations were infiltrated by foreigners and that the demonstrators were destroying the economy. Even Vice President Suleiman publicly accused a combination of Hamas, Iran, Israel and the US for destabilizing Egypt. Western commentators seem to think that in this speech Suleiman was nonsensical, but in Egypt such conspiracy theories are rather believable.
Then, Suleiman made another statement condemning the demonstrators, stating that they were putting the country at risk of a “coup.” According to the Guardian, a large group of (unspecified) human rights organizations yesterday accused the Minister of Information, Anas al-Fiqqi, of being responsible for the death of protestors for accusing them of treason.
Before showing the audience pictures of demonstrators who have been killed, the TV interviewer with Ghonim stated to the audience that these pictures illustrate that those involved in the demonstrations are not looking to gain personally, reiterating Ghonim’s defense. When pictures of what they are calling ‘martyrs’ were shown, Ghonim completely broke down, as I did and I am sure many others. His last plea: It is not our fault that these young people have died, it is the fault of those who will not give up their power.
Ghonim is now considered by at least some to be the spokesperson for the demonstrators, and whether or not he will be, it is clear that his testimony has been crucial in breaking the ferocious state media campaign demonizing the opposition.
And the movement spreads. In Cairo demonstrators are now stationed not just in Tahrir Square but in front of the Parliament. New towns are being enveloped – Wadi Al-Jadid, in the southwest of the country.