It was supposed to be a protest

This Friday’s protest was in reaction to the decision by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to expand Egypt’s emergency law. A move which Amnesty international called “the greatest erosion of human rights since the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak”. Indeed, the scope of the law is now wider than it was before the revolution, now including instances of domestic disturbances, public order issue, and ‘assaults on the right to work’. Effectively enabling the SCAF to crush any protest or strike at will. Those arrested face trials under Supreme State Security Courts which are effectively military trials.

The plans were grand. It was supposed to be a million people all dressed in black staging a sit. It was supposed to demonstrate their rejection of the reactivation of the emergency law. It was supposed to be the ‘Friday of Deafening Silence’.

The reality was very different.

In contrast to last week’s protest Tahrir square was almost empty. A few hundred protesters gathered in one corner of the square talking loudly as speakers addressed the crowd with microphones.

The Friday of deafening silence was neither.

Indeed, there seemed to be as many salesmen as protesters. There were selling everything from orange juice and tissues to more sinister products like drugs and electric tasers.

That the protest failed to live up to its billing is clear. However, it is less clear why people failed to turn up to express their opposition to the reactivated emergency law.

Most of the protestors I spoke to explained the low attendance due to fear of the newly activated emergency law. Given the violence outside the Israeli embassy last week it was conceivable that the SCAF would use the law to detain protestors and thus a certain amount of anxiety would be justified. Whilst this may have prevented some people from attending the protest, it seems inadequate to explain the huge drop in attendance. A more important factor was that the diverse groups present in last weeks protest didn’t attend this weeks, including the April 6th movement and other groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood once again didn’t attend. This in spite of the fact that both groups strongly oppose the emergency law.

Before concluding that Egyptians are now afraid to protest or have given up the challenge, we must remember that the Friday 9th protest was the first for over a month, allowing time for preparation and planning. Coming just 7 days later, the Friday 16th protest simply came too soon for many of the groups and organisations that are able to bring people onto the square. There was also the fear that the SCAF would manipulate any trouble akin to that of last week to further entrench its control over the country.

The poor turnout does not mean that Egyptians are resigned to accepting the emergency law. Indeed, the April 6th movement and others plan to hold large demonstrations this coming Friday (23rd). This promised to be a more accurate gage of Egypt’s rejection of SCAF policies. We’ll see.

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