Egypt Protests Explained: They are About More Than What You Think

Egypt has a long history of social engagement. Prior to the ouster of Mubarak, Egypt witnessed numerous demonstrations and labor strikes, the most notable being the Mahalla factory strikes in 2006 and 2008. These strikes helped build opposition momentum. 

Since Mubarak’s thirty-year tenure ended in February 2011, the demonstrations have become larger, more visible, and more frequent. Currently, demonstrations are being held on multiple fronts.

The most notable demonstration began last week to commemorate the lives lost last year during the battle of Mohamed Mahmous Street, which adjoins Tahrir Square. The official response to these demonstrations was brutal, and over 60 people were killed with thousands more injured. During the commemoration, similar tactics were employed, and demonstrators were met with tear gas and rock volleys thrown between sides.

Last Thursday, President Mohamed Morsi bestowed upon himself sweeping powers and placed the presidency above judicial oversight. Morsi has attempted to backtrack slightly in light of the popular and judicial backlash that has erupted from his decree, saying he will limit the exercise of these powers sovereign matters. The decree makes him the protector of the revolution, and allows him to address issues of national security in any way he sees fit. He has essentially recreated the emergency laws that governed Egypt under Mubarak for thirty years. The difference, however, is that the emergency laws required approval from parliament, (which was “elected” through cronyism and dictatorial desires), but at least there was a semblance of democratic principles in the implementation of the emergency laws. With the recent decree, there is none.

The outrage at the arrogance of his decree, and his lack of flexibility in repealing the act, despite lack of judicial support, lack of popular support, and even lack of political support within his cabinet (several advisers resigned after the decree’s announcement because they either disagreed and/or were not consulted), has resulted in continued protests adding to the commemorative protests that began last week.

Tuesday last, one of the largest popular demonstrations since Mubarak’s ouster took place throughout the country. While Tahrir remained relatively violence free (aside from a small protest that has continued for days a few blocks from the square proper), there have been some clashes in other parts of Egypt. Mahalla, an industrial town in the Nile Delta with a history of labor protests, witnessed hundreds of injuries and several deaths as pro and anti-Morsi factions hurled petrol bombs at each other.

In Alexandria and other areas, the offices of the Muslim Brotherhood were once again ransacked and lit ablaze. The Muslim Brotherhood has been inconsistent in their message. They will have demonstrations in support of the decree; this is followed by word of the cancellation of demonstrations, followed by reinstatement of demonstrations in select areas. This undoubtedly fueled the fire leading to the office burnings.

There are more protests planned for tomorrow, with a Brotherhood demonstration planned for Saturday. It seems unlikely that the opposition will back down without a serious show of commitment to democracy, real democracy on the part of Morsi. The intention of the Brotherhood to hold their own demonstrations in Tahrir Square is only going to ignite further tensions, and will probably result in clashes with the opposition groups camped out in the square.

The anti-constitutional decree protests represent only a portion of the discontent in the country. A small sleep-in has been conducted on one of the main streets leading to Tahrir Square for months now. It’s quiet, and small, and almost invisible. There are no signs, just two little words (in Arabic) spray-painted above the camp-out reading: Where’s the bread?

The doctor’s have been on strike for the past several weeks, and there is an effort to engage the nurses in a strike as well. A recent exposé highlighted the working conditions of medical professionals in the country. Wages can be as low as $0.70 an hour, or monthly wages of $30. Some nurses are receiving as little as $0.15 total for a 12-hour shift or monthly wages of approximately $11. The public transport workers went on strike a few weeks ago, and other professional unions have discussed going on strike as well. It is likely they will.

The labor movements are more than just a call for democracy and transition; they are a call for honor and dignity. At the beginning of the fall semester several of the nation’s public universities went on strike, demanding the budget for higher education be increased. This does not seem likely. The problems that created the initial demonstrations that began on January 25, 2011 (National Police Day) are still present and demanding to be addressed.

Egypt’s demonstrations are not about one thing. They are about reclaiming the rights and dignity that have been deprived from the people for decades. Certain acts and events help to instigate larger shows of solidarity (like the constitutional decree), but as long as the root causes: poverty, poor education, lack of opportunity for employment or good wages, poor social services, etc exist, there is going to be no end in sight. As long as whatever entity is in power insists on resorting to oppression, rhetoric, and brute force as a way to end the demonstrations, the protests are never going to end. The willingness of people to die in an effort to bring change is indicative of the dedication of the opposition to fight for what they deserve, not as Muslims or Christians, not as Egyptians or Arabs, but as people. 

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Kathleen O'Neill

Kathleen O'Neill is interested in migration and refugee issues as well as international politics, with a particular interest in the Middle East. She has a double BA in economics and international studies with a concentration in Middle East studies from Washington College in Maryland. She has an MA in Middle East studies and a graduate diploma in migration and refugee studies from the American University in Cairo, Egypt. Kathleen has co-authored two short articles published by the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC and London Middle East Institute at SOAS. She has lived in the MENA region for more than seven years.

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