Focus on pro-democracy movement in referendum aftermath

[Egypt] Hundreds attended the candle light vigil to protest against violence against women at the May referendum. [Date picture taken: 2005/06/08]
Hundreds attended a candlelight vigil in Cairo calling for an apology for the referendum violence (IRIN)

Pro-democracy and human rights organisations are holding weekly candlelight vigils in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, to demand an official apology for violence during the constitutional referendum in May.

A number of women said they were sexually assaulted when clashes broke out between supporters of President Hosni Mubarak and oppositionists.

The violence drew international attention and condemnation from human rights groups accusing the authorities of not doing enough to stop it. However, the has government denied this.

The first vigil was held on 9 June and was attended by more than 800 supporters. It was the largest pro-democracy event yet seen to call for change in an electoral system that has kept Mubarak in power for the last 24 years.

With chants of,"Enough, enough, we’ve reached the end," to the tune of the Egyptian national anthem, a diverse group of Egyptians gathered after dusk around the tomb of an Egyptian national hero Saad Zaghloul to call on the government to publicly apologise for the violence.

Some protesters carried signs reading, "An attack on women is an attack on the nation."

"It’s a message that we’re not going to be intimidated off the streets," prominent human rights activist and Cairo University professor, Aida Seif Ad Dawla said. "The government was hoping that this sexual harassment would keep women away from the streets, (but) the streets are ours," she added.

The candlelight vigil was organised by the Kifaya unaffiliated political movement, also known as the Egyptian Movement for Change (EMC). Members of the Ghad opposition party, the Association of Egyptian Mothers (AEM) and other groups gave their support in calling for democratic change.

Kifaya, which means "enough" in Arabic, says it was the target of violence last month from government supporters as the authorities staged a referendum. It proposed changes to the constitution to allow multiple presidential candidates to stand.

Background

The referendum took place on 25 May and was, according to government figures, approved by 82 percent of the 54 percent of the population registered to vote.

The amendment promised to open the political playing field to multiple presidential candidates, as opposed to the single candidate system that has held sway in Egypt for half a century, but has now been dismissed as undemocratic by opposition and human rights groups.

Democracy activists called for a boycott of the constitutional referendum, saying that the proposed changes were simply window-dressing and and do more to restrict free political participation than encourage it.

Government Response

The Egyptian government said the reaction to the violence was overstated.

"Such allegations [about assaults], if they occurred, would be unacceptable," spokesman Suleiman Awwad told the Egyptian state-run media on 28 May. "Certain foreign media exaggerated attacks against opposition party members on referendum day," he added.

Partly in response to demands from a number of Egyptian human rights organisations, the government has launched an investigation into the referendum violence.

Human Rights activist Gasser Abdel-Razek of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) said that the outcome of the investigation would depend on the continuing strength of the pro-democracy movement.

"I think it will all depend on the movement itself rather than the regime’s decision. If the people keep mounting pressure for a legal and political investigation, the government will really investigate it. If the movement gets weaker over time they’ll just keep it on file like they do with so many other cases of police brutality and torture," he said.

Mounting pressure for democracy

‘I don’t think this is what the government had in mind when they assaulted the protestors," Seif Ad-Dawla said at the vigil. "People were provoked by the attacks, friends and family of those that were attacked have come out to protest, it has created a lot of anger."

Other movements are now springing up to protest against what they perceive to be a government crackdown on free speech. One such group being formed in Cairo, is called "We’re Watching You" and is composed of middle class women in direct response to the allegations of sexual harassment.

The AEM, one of the groups participating in the candlelight vigil, was formed after the alleged attacks on women during the referendum, which they blame on the interior ministry.

"The Egyptian Mothers is not a political movement, it is the voice of the silent majority of women, housewives and working women. But they have realised today that the interior ministry has crossed all red lines, and that silence today is a crime and we must stand up in united formation as a united people to defend the Egyptian woman and girl," the group said in a written statement.

Speaking at a conference on 9 May in which pro-democracy activists gathered to plan their next move, Abdel-Rezek said that change was on the horizon. He added that, despite the predictions of most analysts, the Egyptian middle class was beginning to participate.

"I think change has started. The fact that these people at the conference who have never been politically active are spending their weekends and evenings going through road blocks passing thousands of soldiers to get here and talk about their experience and how they’ve become active and interested, is a major change."


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

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