Chaos. Hundreds of police and unblinking, tough-looking security guys. The main square is jammed and so the demonstrators race here and there. They ran up to another square that’s several blocks away. The police keep moving you back so you can’t see and you are suddenly out of touch. But you are with a colleague who watches over your shoulder as you pay attention to the spokesman shouting in front of you. That way you don’t get lost in case of a police rush or a crowd stampede. If you are shooting pictures, always know what’s in front of you. You call another colleague who is several blocks away and she tells you the crowd is there. You get your notes from here and move on. You never lose telephone or walkie talkie contact. If people are arrested, you need to know from the police who they are and where they went. Before the demonstrators disappear, you need contacts from them. You need the government to tell you what happened, the police to explain what they did and why, and then the demonstrators and experts to explain what’s going on. You need to see and feel the scene and put it in context. It’s not just a demonstration is it or isn’t it?. What’s happening here? Why does this matter?
There was such a demonstration in downtown Cairo and the Daily Star of Egypt did a good job overall.
CAIRO: Demonstrations organized by the Kefaya National Movement for Change and opposition parties against proposed constitutional amendments were met with a massive state security sweep in downtown Cairo on Thursday.
Over 30 Kefaya activists were detained in protests that began in Tahrir Square and spread through Talat Harb Square, ending with a sit-in of some 200 people outside the Tagammu Party headquarters on a side street off Mahmoud Bassouny St demanding the release of the detainees.
Protesters were vastly outnumbered by ranks of central security forces that surrounded Tahrir and Talat Harb squares and lined every major connecting street downtown.
Dozens of security trucks and squadrons guarded major sites like the Egyptian Museum, the Mugamma, and the American University in Cairo, even as protesters did not outnumber 50 when the demonstration began at 5pm.
Individual protesters shouted anti-Mubarak slogans on a traffic island in Tahrir Square before plainclothes security agents began arresting activists, beating them and hauling them into nearby security trucks.
“We’re ready for democracy and that’s why we’re here,” Sayyed Mahmoud Saadawy, a Kefaya activist, told The Daily Star Egypt.
“We reject constitutional amendments set to oppress the people. This is terrorizing the public,” said Sayyed Abdel Fattah, a lawyer and Kefaya member standing in front of the Mugamma building as the police made arrests.
One of the first activists to be detained could he heard screaming from inside a blue security truck after he was dragged from the street. He had been leading a chant for reforms to the proposed constitutional amendments saying “quiet, quiet Hosni Mubarak!”
Abdel Fattah said the amendments would only allow those in charge to inherit more power. Other protesters echoed those sentiments, singling out President Mubarak and his son Gamal, head of the ruling National Democratic Party’s policy secretariat, who many suspect is being groomed to succeed his father, in power since 1981.
One Kefaya member attracted protesters and security forces as she stood in the middle of the street outside the Mugamma screaming: “The kids that were taken, I want them back now or else we’ll block the street.”
Layla Sweif stood in front of evening traffic until police pushed her and other demonstrators out of the square.
Activists reassembled in Talat Harb Square, reviving chants of “Why are we under military law? Is this prison or what?” and “Mubarak you have our money, why have you made us broke.”
More uniformed and plainclothes security officers surrounded protesters in Talat Harb as members of the opposition Al Ghad party waved banners and chanted anti-government slogans from the second floor balcony of their party headquarters.
Escaping what some called a “siege” activists then moved outside the Tagammu Party headquarters, located on a one-way side street off Mahmoud Bassouny Street.
There, rows of uniformed police and plainclothes thugs numbering into the hundreds filled the side street, allowing people to enter but blocking the entrance back to Mahmoud Bassouny.
The cordoned off crowd of about 200 protesters burned the American and Israeli flags, setting off brief skirmishes with the lines of security forces pushing down the side street.
“The last time I had seen this much security was in the March 2003 anti-war demonstrations,” said blogger Hossam El-Hamalawy, standing outside the Tagammu’s headquarters.
Abdel Aziz El-Husseiny, Media Coordinator of Kefaya, addressed the demonstrators and gathered media after tensions dissipated before 8pm.
El-Husseiny read the names of the detainees, at that time confirmed to be 33, and the crowd responded by declaring a sit-in until their release, shouting “free our imprisoned brothers.”
At that time, security forces refused to allow activists to leave the side street, effectively blocking them off.
“We can’t leave until [the security forces] move, but we’ll stay until the morning,” Aida Mansour, a Kefaya member, told The Daily Star Egypt.
“I know the ones who were arrested well. When I tried to leave just now, [the security forces] searched me and told me to stay here. Now I can’t leave. We’re caught in a dead end. This is ridiculous.”
The stand-off ended relatively peacefully, however, after people in the crowd began receiving mobile phone calls from some of the detainees, who were being shuttled around the city in security trucks.
Security forces then allowed people to leave the side street and the crowd dwindled, though around fifty remained, waiting for more news of the detainees.
As the crowd lingered, El-Husseiny told The Daily Star Egypt that the arrests were “what we expect from the Egyptian regime and how it deals with peaceful political activists demanding general freedom.”
El-Husseiny called on Egyptians to boycott the constitutional referendum, which “a majority of the Egyptian people will not take part in anyway because it is something that the government has decided without their will.”
He added: “We will continue to demand a change in this regime which only exists by rigging elections and policing severely.”
Other activists highlighted the workers’ strikes across Egypt, saying that those “examples of extreme oppression” had sparked the day’s protests.
Nadia, whose fiancé was among the first Kefaya activist to be detained, was in tears as she stood outside the Tagammu Party Headquarters.
“What happened today is evidence of the repression of freedom in Egypt,” El-Husseiny said. “The regime fears only a few hundred peaceful Egyptians.”
By early Friday morning, fourteen detainees were reported released from Dhaher Police Station, although over twenty remained in custody.
At 10 am Friday, the remaining detainees were transferred to El-Galaa court downtown for prosecution, according to local witnesses there.
Just after noon, however, lawyers arrived at the courthouse but were refused entry, although the detainees were being held inside.
“This is an embarrassment for every Egyptian lawyer, the fact that we cannot go into our own courthouse,” Sayeda Abdel Fattah told The Daily Star Egypt.
A guard outside the courthouse admitted to The Daily Star Egypt that “yes, it is [the lawyers’] right to be admitted into the courthouse, but we have to obey our superiors authorities.” He preferred to remain anonymous.
Lawyers were eventually admitted into the courthouse, although at press time a sentence was still pending.
The protests came after Abdel Wahab El Messiri, the newly appointed General Coordinator of Kefaya, reportedly said in late January that Kefaya would shift its activities away from public demonstrations towards political organization.
“We are starting new educational training sessions to increase political awareness among the members,” El Messiri said.
Still, Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour, General Coordinator of Al-Wafd party, disagreed at the time, saying that Kefaya had distinguished itself as a popular street movement driven by protest and public demonstration.