CAIRO: “April is the cruelest month.” With those words, T.S. Eliot famously began “The Wasteland,” a poem about universal despair and futility dubbed one of the most important in the 20th century.
And for the few Egyptians who had decided to break the silence, even risk their lives in the struggle to restore their dignity and freedom, those words perhaps resonate with more poignancy than they used to before.
Ever since riots broke out in the Delta town of Mahalla on April 6, 2008, when three people were killed during clashes between riot police and protestors angered by rising food prices, April 6 has come to signify the rise of Egypt’s youth. The call for a day of civil disobedience on April 6 that year was spearheaded by members of a Facebook group, whose administrator, a young lady by the name of Israa Abdel Fattah, was arrested from a café near her workplace approximately 24 hours after the event and detained for three weeks.
The events gave birth to the April 6 Youth Movement.
Last week, no more than 70 Egyptians decided to commemorate April 6 by staging a peaceful protest and making a less than one-kilometer march from Tahrir Square to the People’s Assembly building. The agenda included a call to end the state of emergency in place in Egypt since 1981, due for renewal in May. And because it is a peaceful protest, the organizers followed procedure and submitted an official note to Cairo’s Security Directorate informing it of the plan, since according to emergency law — which infringes every conceivable right protecting civil and political freedoms — gatherings of more than five people are forbidden.
As per the stock security response, permission was denied on the flimsy, baseless pretext that such a march would “disrupt public security.”
The violence that accompanied the short-lived protest, which lasted no more than an hour last Tuesday, was inexplicable, with reports of people being slapped, kicked, dragged and punched, of shirts being torn off by plain-clothed thugs, of between 70 and 100 arrests, and of attacks on journalists whose telephones and cameras were snatched. The violence did not even spare women, one of whom told this newspaper that she was pushed to the ground and stepped on.
To add insult to injury, a subsequent Ministry of Interior statement made unfounded claims that the police only used violence when the demonstrators threw stones at them — a tall tale that was not documented by a single photograph or eyewitness, or even any trace of stones in the area.
Tragedy gives way to farce when charges against the 31 detainees are seen to include — apart from the litany of ‘obstructing-the-law’ type accusations — “membership of an organization that advocates undermining the pillars on which the regime rests and the destruction of Central Security Forces’ helmets and shields.”
Yes, they destroyed police helmets and shields with their invisible stones.
For a hardly attended peaceful protest to elicit such an excessive response exposes the vulnerability of a regime that has lost all credibility and can only use force to assert its power.
It makes one wonder what would happen if Egyptians took to the streets en masse as we all saw happen also last week in virtually unknown Kyrgyzstan, a country the New York Times describes as “a destitute, landlocked mountainous nation of around 5 million people” where the government was overthrown after large-scale antigovernment protests broke out over hiked utility bills!
Sixty-eight people were killed and 400 wounded, the protestors stormed cabinet, the president was forced to flee the capital and an interim government announced within 48 hours.
Nobody wants to see this happen in Egypt, because if it does, there would be nothing left for those who truly love this country but a “heap of broken images” (T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland).
Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.