Right before he took off from DC, on what the media has been depicting as some "odyssey," to address the Muslim World from Cairo, President Obama had described the 81-year-old Egyptian President Mubarak as a "force for stability." This week Cairo and its twin city Giza have been a showcase of what this "stability" cost.
The capital is under occupation. Security troops are deployed in the main public squares and metro stations. Citizens were detained en masse and shops were told to close down in Bein el-Sarayat area, neighboring Cairo University, where Obama will be speaking. In Al-Azhar University, the co-host of the "historical speech," State Security police raided and detained at least 200 foreign students, held them without charges in unknown locations. Exams were postponed in the major universities fearing demonstrations, and students were told to stay at home. And in several areas in Cairo and Giza, there will be in effect a curfew, where shops won't be allowed to open, citizens instructed not to open their windows. Almost everyone I know will be staying home tomorrow watching Obama's speech, not necessarily because they are keen on knowing what the freshly-elected US leader has to say to the Muslim world, but because they know it will be virtually impossible to move anywhere in the city on Thursday thanks to Obama's force-for-stability host.
Those few dozens, who dared in this atmosphere to call for a peaceful protest against the visit on Wednesday evening, were met by hundreds of plainclothes police informers in Tahrir Square, Cairo's biggest, together with thousands of riot police conscripts in their armored trucks. Police cracked down, rounding up several figures from the opposition, and chasing the rest of the protesters in the side streets of downtown Cairo.
"Republicans screw the Arabs. Democrats screw the Arabs, but with a smile," is a popular saying among the dissidents' circles in Egypt. President Obama's choice of our country as his next destination from where to address the Muslim World only validates the saying. Even before his "historical speech" is delivered, Obama's "mini-historical speeches" have been nothing but one slap after the other on the faces of human rights campaigners in the region. After conversing with the Saudi monarch, "yes we can" changed to "I'm struck by his majesty's wisdom." Will the next step be praising the public beheadings in the kingdom as an example of ideal justice?
Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt since 1981 with an iron fist, detention facilities, and a fearful security aparatus which is engaged in systematic torture of dissidents and ordinary Egyptian citizens, as documented by local and international rights watchdogs. He has always managed to get away with good coverage in the Western press, however, that tended to focus on his "moderate" (read: obedient to US foreign policy) role as "peacemaker" in the region, besides the archeological discoverings of the I-so-wanna-be-Indiana-Jones, also known as Mr. Zahi Hawas.
Despite the repression of street politics in the 1980s and 1990s, dissidents got the courage to start mobilizing in the streets ever since the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000. From December 2006, the country has been embracing the strongest wave of labor strike action since WWII. The Egyptian workers are striking and organizing under very difficult conditions, with draconian anti-strike laws and state-dominated unions. But what started as a struggle for bread and butter issues is increasing becoming political, with an expanding layer of new strike leaders raising demands for regime change. And in an unprecedented move, the first free trade union in the history of Egypt was declared last December, by the property tax collectors who already went on a three month strike in 2007 bringing down tax collection by 90%. By the domino effect, a wave of free unions is brewing. The formation of free unions have always been in the heart of democratization like we've seen in Poland and South Korea for example.
The Egyptian striking workers will most probably not feature in Obama's speech Thursday, but they together with the pro-democracy movement are seeking allies in the West. Allies that could not be found in the White House or 10 Downing Street. They are non-governmental actors like human rights NGOs, labor and trade unions, which we urge to extend their solidarity to their Egyptian brothers and sisters, and to pressure the US administration into severing all ties and funding to the Mubarak's dictatorship, the second largest recipient of US foreign aid after Israel.
Hossam el-Hamalawy is an Egyptian journalist, blogger and labor organizer. He posts on www.arabawy.org