Riot police in Cairo.

As we prepare to take to the streets of Cairo on January 31, the day when we were supposed to march with the Palestinians of Gaza, everyone here is wondering how far the authorities will go to repress our protests. There seemed to be a greater than normal police presence in our neighbourhood last night, though what passes for “normal” in the Egyptian context is perhaps worth explaining a bit, for those of use used to protesting in countries like Canada.

Our hotel entrance is graced with a small permanent military-police detachment – a half-dozen baton-wielding “tourism” police plus a couple of helmeted soldiers with machine-guns, standing behind metal shields -there because of the large synagogue next door. There is something similar a few doors the other way, for a big bank. Similar detachments are sprinkled throughout the city, next to official buildings and institutions of many kinds.

But what we have been noticing the most are of course forces deployed whenever any protest begins in any public space. Lines of ‘regular’ uniformed police surround and contain any ‘suspicious’ crowd very quickly, usually replaced by shielded, helmet riot police. These young recruits in uniforms rarely speak English, are often bored and occasionally sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, except when ordered e.g. to aggressively push the crowd back to make it as small as possible, and surround us with metal barricades. But the creepiest by far are the non-uniformed security police who hang around constantly, and who form a line behind the uniform cops, outside the perimeter of any demonstration. They look like badly-cast extras from a low-budget crime film, and their behavior ranges from smarmily engaging (many speak some English) to the bombastic and threatening. Some of the can be negotiated with, some can’t – nothing is consistent. And when things get really cooking we get a handful of upper officers loaded with elaborate gold braid, whose most prominent job seems to be occasionally yelling at underlings.

But to put all this in perspective, Gaza Freedom Marchers have been treated with kid gloves so far, by local standards – much of what we have done all week is illegal in Egypt, from public gatherings of more than six people to displaying political signs and banners in a public place. The most impressive displays of security forces (for example, at the French Embassy sidewalk sit-in) are still very benign because they are dealing with foreigners – the gloves come off when Egyptian nationals are concerned. At least three local journalists have been detained for trying to speak to protesters (isn’t that part of a journalist’s job description?). When hunger-strikers for Gaza and other Gaza Freedom March participants held a rally Tuesday at the journalists’ syndicate, it attracted many Egyptians who told us that we created a space for them to protest in (relative) safety – they continued that evening with a rally protesting Israeli PM Netanyahu’s visit to Cairo, taking advantage of our presence to express themselves more freely in public than is normally possible for them.

The fact that all hotels report to police the identities of all guests is not in inself all that unusual from what is the norm is some other countries, but when you add to this the fact that our hotel’s nightly visit by police last night doubled (the two regular uniformed tourism police were accompanied by two plainsclothes security police, something staff took as an ominous sign) it is clear that we are being watched. Gaza Freedom March participants who understand Arabic report overhearing hotel staff passing on information about our movements to police as well.

It is not yet clear whether blocking traffic in Cairo is an offense (normal traffic in Cairo often resembles a parking lot with extra honking, when it is not a fast-paced game of high-stakes chicken) but we are quite certain that marching in the streets tomorrow will be a big no-no. And with the extra police in our neighbourhood since last night, some people were wondering if we will even get out of our hotels in the morning.


David Heap

David Heap

David Heap is a parent of two and a life-long peace and social justice activist. A University of Western Ontario faculty member (French & linguistics), he is particularly interested in connecting...