By manner of mimicking, it could be said that Egyptians are doing all they can to follow in the footsteps of nearby Tunisia, which in four short weeks witnessed riots spiral, snowball, and culminate in a revolution. A string of Egyptian self-immolations came first, to little avail save for one death. The next step is one activists have been busy planning: an event of mammoth proportions.
As the clock strikes midnight on Monday 24 January, Egyptians are expected to shift into “protest” mode. 25 January, a national holiday for 'police day', has also now been declared “revolution day”: the Freedom Revolution aimed to bring down, literally or figuratively, another long-standing Arab leader.
Activists organising the day's action are drawn from Karama, the 6th of April Movement, the National Association for Change, The Popular Democratic Movement for Change (HASHD), the Justice and Freedom Youth movement and The Revolutionary Socialists, among others. Also partaking in the day, but not physically present: the ever-growing Khaled Said Facebook Group. The Muslim Brotherhood have said they are not participating in the event, and NAC founder and former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei has said he supports the event but will not "steal the fire" of the young activists.
In spirit, the organising groups have largely been aligned in their broad vision for this revolution day. But like many of the anti-government protests and activities in previous months, they also found much to differ over in terms of details – the banners they would carry and the locations they would haunt.
Eventually, as a compromise, they settled on half a dozen locations and several variations of combat rules – the one thing uniting them being the need for change. The three primary motifs and ‘calls for’ finally agreed upon are Freedom, Justice and Citizen Rights.
“They covered all issues concerning Egypt,” explains a member of Hashd. “Freedom from police repression, justice demanding greater economic equality and equal citizenship rights to end sectarianism.”
To date, protests are expected to take place in locations including: Outside Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque in Mohandeseen, Cairo University, in Imbaba, Shoubra and Matareya. The times, and even locations, are constantly changing and yet “to be confirmed” – a common tactic by local activists to outwit the government and its heavy-handed security apparatus. Unlike many protests, where opposition parties lend their names, in this case, the only one that has stepped up and said it would turn out on the day is Al-Ghad.
January 25 is set to stand - at the very least symbolically - as the largest organised protest against the ruling regime in recent years. At least two million Egyptians have been invited via Facebook and Twitter. The Arab cyberspace is alight with conversation, calls for unity and tweets about the 25th (#25Jan). Graphic artists and cartoonists have lent their talents to the cause, and a series of videos circulating on YouTube include a rap song, an animated sketch, and several spurring interviews – one by the mother of Khaled Said, urging young people to take to the streets. If Facebook numbers are anything to go by, users' responses indicate that upwards of 100,000 Egyptians will go out onto the streets Tuesday.
The idea for the 25th comes on the back of the uprising in Tunisia, which started on 17 December, when a young man – driven by economic woes – set himself ablaze in the town of Sidi Bouzid. Spurring protests against government corruption and the lack of jobs, thousands of similarly disenfranchised youth took to the streets with similar grievances. Four weeks later, with rioters still unrelenting, the country’s president fled.
The North African coastal Republic had weathered under the iron fist of its leader for over two decades: the now exiled former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had been in office for 23 years. Plagued by severe police control, government oppression and the economic woes that stem from a system rife with bureaucracy and corruption, Tunisia represents a mirror situation to many Arab states.
In the days since Ben Ali fled his country – on a plane headed for France that landed, eventually, in Saudi Arabia instead – the Arab world has been cheering a nation it paid little attention to in the past. On the evening of Ben Ali's departure from Tunis, people took to the streets in Cairo to cheer the fall of a dictator. Since then, the wave of support for the collapse of Ben Ali and his regime has gripped the Arab cyber sphere – most evident in Egypt, the region’s most populous state and one of its poorest.
In Libya, Algeria, Egypt and Jordan, citizens endure similar hardships as the Tunisians: unemployment, low wages, a lack of economic opportunity and governments that do little to help their peoples. In this regard, the so-called 'Jasmine revolution' – named after Tunisia's national flower – represents what Arab citizens thought could never come: change in the upper echelons of power with all the intimations of hope that brings.
The day of protests is conceived as way of bringing the government face-to-face with the greatest tangible opposition it has ever seen and, through that, to have it yield, at the very least to its demands. “We want the government to understand that the people have opinions and autonomy and power,” wrote one of the administrators of the Khaled Said Facebook page. “… people have the right to hold the government accountable as long as the parliament remains comprised of a group of frauds.”
For the groups involved, these demands are not new. Demonstrations calling for democratic reform were born, most visibly, in 2004, with the formation of Kefaya. They grew in 2005, around parliamentary and presidential elections that activists and critics said were a farce, then were further propelled in 2008, when workers strikes demanding ‘minimum wage’ crippled the industrial city of El-Mahalla El-Kubra, triggering a spate of further protests.
It is in the past twelve months, however, that activism has regrouped, following a series of incidents that have escalated grievances.
This resurgence began in January of last year, when a drive-by shooting in the southern town of Naga Hamadi killed eight Copts as they were leaving church after mass. A few months later, 28-year-old Khaled Said was beaten to death at the hands of Egyptian police – an incident that caused national and international uproar.
Come the November parliamentary elections, public disaffection skyrocketed when the government’s security apparatus and thugs were let loose. The result was injuries, deaths and a pulverization of any opposition by the ruling National Democratic Party, who swept to an unprecedented majority house win – clinching 85 per cent of the seats for the coming five-year term.
The bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve – which left 22 people dead and dozens injured – was in many ways a final straw. Activists, opposition party members, and an unprecedented show of civilians, reacted in outrage. They demanded that the government take responsibility for its failure to protect its minority Christian Coptic community, and showed their solidarity on the eve of Coptic Christmas this month, when thousands of Muslims turned out to churches across the country, lending bodies, and lives, as “human shields” against terrorist acts directed at Christians.
What happens on Monday is subject to speculation. Egyptian activists are known to be more energetic in the cyber sphere – on Twitter, Facebook and on a network of daring blogs. Oftentimes, calls for protest result in a relatively low turnout; a reality driven by the brutality of a police state governed by a merciless emergency law and the fear it induces.
Critics anticipate that turnout itself will be but a timid display, compared to the raucous shows of virtual support. Whatever the actual turnout,it is likely that the presence of riot police and state security will undoubtedly outnumber and overwhelm the protesters.