Joyous rioting in the streets. Stores destroyed. Government buildings ransacked. Pictures of the long-ruling tyrannical leader of this middle-eastern country were stepped on. The footage of what was taking place was simply exhilarating, with people expressing the hatred they felt toward their ruler for the first time in over a quarter-century. If you think I’m describing Iraq after the fall of Saddam, you are mistaken. This is happening in Egypt — in a small delta city called Mahalla el-Kobra to be exact — where that aforementioned dictator is still alive and very much in power.
It all started two days ago, when a nationwide strike was called by a number of political parties and worker movements to protest their low income, the skyrocketing cost of living, and the open corruption and blatant nepotism of the Egyptian government. All eyes that day were on Mahalla, which was supposed to kick-start the strike by having its 30,000 textile factory workers go to the factory and stage a sit-in. The security forces in charge immediately rounded up the strike leaders, pressuring some of the weaker ones to accept a compromise. They also arrested and isolated every other strike organizer who wouldn’t budge. The government forced the workers to work at the point of a gun, and announced that the strike was canceled. This rang true until the workers got off work and found their union leaders detained and arrested. They then started confronting the security forces, which lead to clashes that lasted till midnight that day and led to two casualties and some 95 arrests.
The following day, yesterday, around 2,000 demonstrators demonstrated peacefully in front of the police station, demanding the release of their detained co-workers, relatives, and friends. The Egyptian police responded by shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at the demonstrators, and attacking them physically. When word of this reached the demonstrators’ family members and friends, they responded by taking to the streets and attacking the security forces wherever they could find them. The people threw rocks at the security forces, destroyed their cars, and tore down the pictures of Mubarak all over the city. The security forces continued shooting and arresting people, all the while sending plain-clothed police thugs to destroy stores and ransack schools. This was done in order to make it look like as if the people were destroying everything in their path and had to be cracked down on and stopped. The death toll rose to 5 the second night (including a 12 year-old and a 15 year-old), while the arrest total rose to 195. Countless people were injured.
On Tuesday, the government instituted a security clampdown on Mahalla. No one is allowed in and out of the city, including journalists. A 24-hour curfew is in effect, with the threat of immediate arrest and torture for anyone who violates it for any reason. The government also announced that they are looking to detain around 175 more people before this is over. A number of Egyptian NGOs are already starting a legal team and a defense fund to help those detained by the government, and the political forces that organized this strike are planning a second one on May 4th, which is President Mubarak’s Birthday.
The news of what took place in Mahalla is now spreading all over Egypt, with the pictures of their stand against state forces circulating across the internet. There is a sense of dread among those who are following the news. They fear what will happen to those who dare revolt against the government and wonder whether or not the spirit of their revolt will survive the crackdown. There are also those who fear that the severity of the clampdown will frighten the people into complicity and discourage them from revolting again. The answers to those questions are elusive at the moment, but they should be crystal clear to anyone who wonders on the day of May 4th. Whether it’s a fluke or a start of something more, one thing is certain: as far as the common Egyptian is concerned, the people of Mahalla’s revolt has now became the stuff of legend.
Sandmonkey is a pseudonymous blogger living in Egypt. He is the author of the blog Rantings of a Sandmonkey.