When millions of anti-war protestors took to the streets in towns and cities across the world on the weekend of February 15-16, some commentators noticed that protests in Arab countries were muted at best. Robert Fisk, a British journalist and commentator widely read in Arab countries, published an article titled "A million march in London but, faced with disaster, the Arabs are like mice" (The Independent, London, February 18.)
Fisk, who is generally regarded as being sympathetic to Arabs, should have known better. While it is true that Arab countries did not see protests on the same scale as those in many Western cities, there were protests in most countries. The reasons that they did not compare in scale to those elsewhere are clear enough.
In Cairo, the Egyptian capital, for example, there were two separate demonstrations on February 15. The larger one, attended by several hundred people, took place at noon in the Al-Sayeda Zeinab Square, in front of the shrine of the grand-daughter (ra) of the Prophet (saw). Like demonstrations elsewhere, it was marked by fluttering Iraqi and Palestinian flags, and anti-American placards and slogans, along with the occasional slogan making indirect reference to the regime of Egyptian president Husni Mubarak.
The demonstration was totally enclosed, however, by an army of several thousand riot police, wearing body armour and black helmets, and carrying batons and shields. The police were supported by dozens of armoured personnel-carriers parked along streets surrounding the square. Observers reported that the scene was attended by a disproportionately high number of senior police and military officers, and the demonstration was barely noticeable from beyond the security cordon. Far from joining the demonstration, even casual passers-by were deliberately avoiding the area because of the massive security presence.
The second, smaller demonstration was organized by the suspended Labour Party, seen as a moderate Islamic voice, outside the US embassy in central Cairo. This was attended by an even greater police presence, which totally closed the centre of the city for some hours. David Welch, the US ambassador to Egypt, reportedly came out to observe the demonstration for some time, under heavy security.
Nor was the immediate police security and intimidation the only factor limiting turn-out. Unlike western countries, where the governments generally feel secure enough to permit public displays of dissent, Egypt has been under emergency law since the assassination of president Anwar al-Sadat (Mubarak’s predecessor) by mujahideen in 1981. All street demonstrations are strictly banned; the only ones which usually take place are those organized by the government. The emergency law also permits the regime to hold people in custody without charge. In theory this right is limited; in practice not at all. There are currently about 30,000 Islamic movement activists being held in indefinite detention; many of them have been in jail for several years already.
During the last two months, 15 people, including a prominent film-maker and several journalists, are known to have been arrested in connection with anti-war and Iraq solidarity activities. Four of them, prominent enough for their arrests to have been noted, were subsequently released. The others remain in prison.
On February 17, the Freedoms Committee of the Press Syndicate held a press conference in solidarity with the detainees. It was addressed by several prominent speakers, including film director Yousef Chahine and Ibrahim El-Sahar, a journalist with the business daily Al-Alam Al-Yawm, who had been arrested on February 7, held without trial and released only a few hours before the press conference took place.
In the press conference, El-Sahar spoke of his experience, recounting how he had been arrested in the early hours of the morning and had his apartment thoroughly searched before being taken to State Security Headquarters and then to the Mazra’at Prison without being permitted any contact with his family or legal advice.
He made a point, however, of emphasising the "inhuman" conditions in which he saw Islamist prisoners being held. Al-Ahram Weekly (February 20-26, 2003) quoted him as saying: "What happened to me was nothing; the fact that I was beaten up and abused verbally and physically is nothing compared to what happens to the Islamists."
He continued: "I salute those who were arrested because they said no to a war on Iraq and no to American imperialism, but above all, I salute the 30,000 detained Islamists. Those who imprisoned me did me a huge favour because, although I had known about what happens to the Islamist detainees, I didn’t know the gruesome details." At this point the press conference broke into loud applause.
As news of the global protests against the war emerged, further protests did subsequently take place in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. Thousands of students reportedly demonstrated at the campuses of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the branch of Cairo University in Beni Sued, Upper Egypt, and the Suez Canal University in Ismailiya on February 18, but were prevented from taking their demonstrations into the streets by riot police. A similar demonstration took place outside the main campus of Cairo University on February 22, a week after the global protests.
Living under such repressive conditions, it is hardly surprising that Arab populations played only a limited role in the global anti-war and anti-American protests last month. While western governments are happy to permit their own people to express their feelings, they are generally confident that they can absorb the public opinion without letting it affect their policies. As a case in point, the largest single demonstration took place in London, but British prime minister Tony Blair remains slavishly committed to supporting the US, come what may. Arab regimes are rather less secure, however, and the West is perfectly happy to see them clamp down on all public demonstrations, which they fear may turn into anti-government protests.