Egypt’s experimental steps to civil disobedience

Ekram Ibrahim, Saturday 11 Feb 2012

On the anniversary of Mubarak's ouster, opinion is divided between those supporting a general strike and others who see it as a downward spiral towards civil disobedience

File photo: Egyptians celebrate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo's Tahrir Square February 11, 2011. (Photo: Reuters)

Approaching the anniversary of the day Hosni Mubarak stepped down, handing over power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), several revolutionary forces are calling for a general strike as a preparatory footstep to civil disobedience aimed at forcing an immediate handover of power to a civil authority. Many of those calling for the strike say little has changed since Mubarak's ouster, and that the regime has not yet fallen.

In return, the ruling military council has started deploying additional troops and tanks across the country, “to maintain the security of public, private and state buildings,” according to a statement issued by the ruling SCAF Wednesday.

The Egypt Revolutionaries' Alliance — which brings together over 50 political groups, including the country’s six most prominent revolutionary movements — along with university and school students and independent workers’ unions are the main campaigners for the initiative.  

Among political groups taking part are the January 25 Revolution Youth Coalition, the April 6 Youth Movement, the Youth for Freedom and Justice Movement, the Revolution Youth Union, the Wasat Party and the Ghad Al-Thawra Party. Also, the Egyptian Cinema Syndicate and some Coptic groups, such as the Maspero Revolutionaries, have announced backing the call.

In the meantime, political groups winning the majority of seats in the new Egyptian parliament refuse both the general strike and civil disobedience. Muslim Brotherhood Secretary-General Mahmoud Hussein has condemned calls for a general strike, urging the population to double their work rate in order to "rebuild the country and not bring it down." "These calls are extremely dangerous and threaten the nation and its future. A general strike would see train traffic halted, no transportation, and no work in factories, institutes or universities,” he added.

Since Mubarak handed over power to the SCAF, revolutionary groups often called for protests, sit-ins and marches, while the Muslim Brotherhoods and Salafists think many of them are irrelevant, believing more in the SCAF’s willingness to hand over power amid what they see is a clear plan for the transition to democracy.

So far, 30 university student unions have announced taking part in the general strike, among which are Cairo University, Helwan University, the Modern Academy, Alexandria University, Ain Shams University, Nile University and the American University in Cairo (AUC).

"Since Mubarak stepped down, not a figure was punished for killing Egyptians; nothing has changed since one year, so we decided to go on a general strike," Amr Abdel Wahab, student union head at the German University in Cairo (GUC) told Ahram Online. GUC students were the first university students to call for a general strike on 11 February.

University students taking part in the strike are planning to sit-in at the university gates on strike day. They are not going to interact with the university administration. In GUC, the strike would also include boycotting exams. For national universities such as Cairo University, for many majors the semester starts 11 February. Others who will start on the following day will also protest and join any announced marches.

Following university students movements, several school students have announced taking part in the general strike as well. The call has caught fire in public, private and catholic schools in Egypt. “We are planning to start by this one day strike, then will work on campaigning in schools with Kazeboon (video shows that exposes the violations of military forces while dealing with protests) and graffiti,” Ahmed Malek, a secondary school revolutionary student told Ahram Online.

Egypt, known to be a religious country, and major religious bodies release statements on many social issues, to inform people on what religion has to say on any given topic. Both the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and Pope Shenouda III have ignored calls for a nationwide general strike and have said the intent goes against God’s teachings.

Egypt’s Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayeb weighed in on the issue, stating that obstructing the flow of work is forbidden by Islamic Sharia law, and that the Prophet Mohamed advised Muslims to work even on Resurrection Day. “Civil disobedience is not accepted by religion or state and the Bible’s verses call on the people to obey the ruler,” said Pope Shenouda III during his weekly Wednesday sermon in the Coptic Cathedral.

Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church had similar positions during the early days of the Egyptian revolution one year ago, yet millions of Egyptians took to the street against the regime.

Meanwhile, workers who have been one of the core foundations in toppling ousted President Hosni Mubarak said they support the general strike call for Saturday. The Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions and the Egyptian Democratic Labour Congress, which claim two million members, back the call. "We are planning a sit-in at Tahrir Square in solidarity with the revolution's demands; bread, freedom and social justice," Kamal Abu Eita, head of the Independent Union of Real Estate Tax Agency Employees, told Ahram Online.

Not only in Cairo but also in Mahala workers are planning a sit-in, at El-Shon Square. Mahala witnessed major protests in 2006, which are now considered as among the seeds of the Egyptian revolution. "I am on general strike until the demands are met," Kamal El-Fayoumi, a labour activist, told Ahram Online.

Supporting groups aside, however, nearly everyone else refuses the general strike call. Some think it will destroy the economy while others say it is illogical. The majority who refuse criticise the notion of “civil disobedience.”

“They say it is an experimental step in civil disobedience. We didn’t call for civil disobedience. I think the media has intentionally described it as the latter to freak people out,” said Mohamed Waked, a member of the National Front for Justice and Democracy (one of the groups in Egypt's Revolutionaries Alliance calling for the strike).

Many liberals as well do not agree with civil disobedience. "This is an irrational call. Civil disobedience closes the door to any negotiation," Emad Gad MP, a researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told Ahram Online. Gad who is a member of the Social Democratic Party is with the one day general strike, but also with leaving room for negotiations with the military on revolutionary demands.

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