A candlelight vigil to protest

CAIRO, Egypt (WOMENSENEWS)–The evening of June 8 was gorgeous and breezy here, making the blast furnace of the noon day heat seem like a distant memory.

People trickled in from the surrounding side streets and stood in front of the imposing Pharaonic-style tomb of independence hero Saad Zaghloul.

It was the same spot, where on May 25, a small protest held by the pro-democracy Enough movement was brutally suppressed by both security forces and supporters of Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party and chased through the streets.

While mobs of youthful National Democratic Party supporters punched, kicked, groped and molested female protesters, the police stood by and did nothing.

This time, however, there was no such violence.

This time, protesters held candles, sang the national anthem and spoke out against the ruling system and its intolerance for dissent. The black-clad riot police at either ends of the blocked-off street stayed where they were. After about an hour, the crowd–about 800 at its peak–dispersed peacefully.

Electrified Opposition

As has been widely reported, the May 25 attacks have mobilized and electrified opposition to the regime of President Hosni Mubarak.

The attacks occurred as Mubarak’s detractors demonstrated during a national referendum on an amendment to the constitution.

The measure allowed multi-candidate presidential elections to replace a system in which a single candidate is chosen by referendum. Opponents said the amendment was not a true reform because the specific wording gave so much preferential treatment to the ruling party that truly independent candidacies would still not be possible.

Boycotted by most of the opposition, the referendum, according to the Interior Ministry, received an 83 percent approval rating, with 54 percent of voters turning out. Opponents have challenged those figures.

While the state-owned media ignored the protests, Egypt’s increasingly vocal independent press covered their front pages with pictures of women being attacked and headlines about the rape of the nation.

Since then, new groups have been forming to join the opposition. Among them, women’s networks–some established, some new–are adding their voice to the calls for political change.

Women in Black Gather

On June 1, for instance, women wearing black gathered at the Journalists’ Syndicate, the other site of the attacks on women, and called for the resignation of Habib Al Adly, the minister of interior and the man ultimately in charge of security services.

With over 500 people, the demonstration included many who hadn’t been politically active for years, if ever, according to demonstration organizers.

Magda Aboul Fotouh, a mother of two, last joined a demonstration back in 1972 as a student protesting the dictatorship of Anwar al-Sadat. After hearing what happened on May 25, however, she felt she had to do something.

“It was too much what happened on the 25th,” she said. “I couldn’t stand it any more, even when I watched it on TV or in the newspaper, I didn’t know what to say.”

The June 1 demonstration was organized, in part, by a newly created Cairo-based group, the Egyptian Mother’s Network, which emerged after the attacks on protesters and called on mothers and women to wear black on June 1 to express their anger at the attacks.

“It was a call that reflected the agony of people,” said Heba Raouf, a professor of political science at Cairo University and the founder of the network. “That’s why it got such an interesting response.”

She said the call circulated on the Web and spread by cell phones and other means through a network of women who had never been political, but now wanted to do something.

The impetus to form a group protesting the status quo can be found throughout society now, Professor Hassan Nafaa, former chair of the political science department at Cairo University, told Women’s eNews. Most people sense that the regime has no interest in ending the current political stagnation and fear that president will engineer the accession of his son to power.

“That’s why I feel that so many people are moving right now to take the initiative and form societal groups to do something. Egyptian society is undergoing changes of a kind we haven’t seen in years.”

‘Street Is Ours’ Conference

The day after the candlelight vigil, this new women’s network and a number of existing women’s groups like the New Women’s Research Center, the Center for Women’s Legal Aid and the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, as well as the Enough movement, held a conference called “The Street Is Ours” designed to unify many of these initiatives and get people to know each other.

Around 350 people attended, ranging from well-known leftist activists, to young students with corn rows, to a heavily veiled delegation from the Muslim Sisterhood, the women’s section of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition movement.

Among the speakers addressing the crowd was Jihan Al Halafawi, who ran for parliament in 2000 on the Brotherhood ticket and nearly won if it hadn’t been for government interference. She said that women had to participate in daily life with men at all levels, whether in the work places, in political parties or on the streets.

“Women should not just be decoration for political parties, they should take an active role,” she said.

Other women spoke about the treatment they received at the hands of security and the ruling party supporters.

Journalist Nawal Ali–who said she was not demonstrating, just on her way to an English class–said the mob groped her, tore her clothes and stole her jewelry and mobile phone. The next day she read in the flagship state-owned daily Al Ahram that women at the protests had torn their own clothing to provoke security.

“That was the peak of my humiliation,” a tearful Ali told the audience and also related how in a recent parliamentary debate, a ruling party deputy made similar slights against the morality of the women involved.

“The thugs aren’t just in the street,” she said. “They’re everywhere.”

Like many women in the room, Ali said she wasn’t political before, but was now.

Activist Layla Soueif, professor in the faculty of science at Cairo University and sister of writer Ahdaf Soueif, also described being beat up, but she laughed at what she called the stupidity of the regime for attacking the activists and revealing their true face.

“The system is the one that stripped off its clothes,” she said. “Not the women.”

Opposition organizers hope to maintain their momentum by holding some sort of protest every Wednesday on a public street.

This week, another demonstration was held calling for the resignation of the minister of interior and political reform. There were many women in the crowd wearing black and with buttons reading “The Street Is Ours.” Also in attendance were three of the women assaulted on May 25. People walking past gaped in astonishment as protesters called for the end of Mubarak’s reign.

The protest was held in front of the shrine of Sayyeda Zeinab, the local patron saint for those in dire straits.

Paul Schemm is a freelance journalist covering politics and economics in Egypt since 1998.

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