Thousands of Egyptian protesters have taken to the streets for the third day in a row to demonstrate against rising food prices, unemployment and lack of political freedom. IRIN takes a closer look at the campaign, which has defied a ban on rallies announced earlier in the week by the Interior Ministry, and is instead calling for mass action on 28 January.
Six people have died since the protests began on 25 January and the tenacity of the demonstrators appears to have taken the government by surprise. The demands of the protesters have begun to include an end to the 30-year presidency of Hosni Mubarak.
“Those who think that Egyptians are unable to take any action are totally mistaken,” said Mustafa Bakri, an opposition leader who was one of the protesters in Cairo, the capital, on 27 January. “There’s stagnation, poverty, and corruption and the people can’t stay silent forever,” he told IRIN.
In the coastal cities of Suez, Ismaillia, and Alexandria, riot police have used batons, tear gas, and rubber-coated bullets in confrontations with protesters. Armoured troop carriers have been patrolling Cairo’s streets, and an estimated 850 to 1,000 people have been detained.
What are the issues?
Widespread dissatisfaction seems to have sparked the protests and generated a mixed package of demands, but a central theme is the cost of living. “Our life is becoming like hell,” said Amira Mansour, protesting outside the offices of the Bar Association in central Cairo, one of the main rallying points in the city. “Most of us are unable to put food on the table - how long will we stay silent?”
Mansour, a civil servant and mother of three, took the day off from work on 27 January to join the demonstrations. As a civil servant she earns 450 Egyptian pounds (almost US$71) per month, but said she was unable to meet some of the most basic needs of her children.
According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 23 percent of Egyptian children under the age of 15 are living on less than US$1 a day.
Egypt’s high rate of joblessness has also fuelled the anger of protesters. The government says 10 percent of the nation’s 26 million workforce is unemployed, but independent observers put the number of jobless youth much higher.
“We only get lip services, but our problems have continued to be the same for years,” said another demonstrator, Osman al-Menyawy, who graduated from the College of Commerce five years ago but is still unemployed. He said few of his colleagues had managed to find work. “This is a real loss of national wealth, we want a government that cares about us.”
Anger is widespread over Mubarak’s bid for a sixth six-year presidential term later this year, and rumoured dynastic plans for his son, Gamal. “If I were in the president’s shoes, I wouldn’t not run for president again,” opposition leader Osama al-Ghazaly Harb told the private broadcaster Dream TV. “I wouldn’t even allow my son to run for president."
What is the government’s response?
The government kept silent on the first day of the protests, and has tried being conciliatory. Safwat el-Sherif, secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), said the demonstrators had the right to express themselves peacefully, and that the government was working hard to satisfy their demands.
“We gave instructions to the government, even before the demonstrations started, to reduce the suffering of the people and find jobs for them,” el-Sherif said on 26 January. In a special statement on the NDP website (in Arabic), the party said it viewed dissent as the constitutional and legal right of the demonstrators.
Rashid Mohamed Rashid, minister of industry and foreign trade, told local newspapers that the government had no problem reacting positively to demands for reform, and the media have been reporting rumours of a possible cabinet reshuffle to bring in new ministers.
Who are the protesters?
The government has tried to link the protests to a banned Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, but according to Magdy Al-Galad, editor of the independent daily newspaper, al-Masri al-Youm, the demonstrators “are very ordinary people who have nothing to do with politics… But they feel the pulse of their country and have demands.”
Activists belonging to the protest movements Kefaya (Enough), a grassroots coalition opposed to the government, and the 6 April Youth Movement, made the initial calls for public demonstrations on social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter.
The demands of the protesters have become more sophisticated. On 25 January, most of the talk was about jobs and the cost of food. Calls for regime change became louder the following day, and by 27 January opposition newspaper editorials were openly discussing it.
“Those who think that Egypt’s problem lies in its government are mistaken,” said Amr el-Chobaki, an outspoken critic of Mubarak’s administration. “The problem is that Egypt has a president who has been ruling for 30 years now, and however wise this man might be, the end result of all these years of rule must be negative,” he wrote in al-Masry al-Youm.
What has been the impact?
The start of the protests coincided with a national holiday for Egypt’s 5.5 million public workers. By 27 January, growing numbers of people seemed to be staying away from work to demonstrate.
“My son insisted that I don’t go to work today after he saw the violence and bloodshed on TV,” said Azza Mohamed, a civil servant. “I hear people talking about the perilous situation on the streets.”
Government-run hospitals have been running normally despite the protests.
Some school students, particularly in 6 October City, a satellite town about 40km west of Cairo, said school administrators had kept them inside their classrooms after they finished writing exams out of concern for their safety.
The government said millions of dollars had been wiped off the stock market.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions