I’m afraid the ongoing debate over the demonstrations of April 25 will prevent us from examining their significance with some objectivity and distance. Officials were pleased with what they saw as the utter lack of response to the call to protest by several political parties and forces, pointing to the few hundred demonstrators who turned out and the calm that prevailed in public squares and streets around the country.
In contrast, those who had called for the demonstrations saw the outcome not as a failure, but as a mark of the state’s success in quashing freedom of expression and protest and a sign of the security apparatus’s fear that the protests could spread. But despite the meager turnout and the absence of prominent opposition figures, there are three important lessons to be learnt from those demonstrations.
First, the fact that the demonstrations were sparsely attended doesn’t mean that the public approves the Tiran and Sanafir agreement with Saudi Arabia, or that all that remains is the parliament’s stamp of approval for things to return to the status quo. This issue will not be so easily put to rest. It will continue to plague the state until it takes a new approach altogether.
While, as I’ve said before, I have no legal or technical expertise for or against the border agreement, I do know that the mismanagement, the lack of transparency on such a vital issue, and the disregard for public opinion before the deal was announced mean that the debate will not disappear if and when parliament approves the deal. In fact, parliament may lose more credibility if the state insists on securing its approval.
In the long term, there is no choice put to put the entire issue before a specialized legal committee with representatives from both countries, to explore it objectively and transparently before reaching an opinion binding on both sides. Only a credible committee acting transparently can ensure acceptance of the conclusions.
Second, the security measures that began in the run-up to April 25 and continue today may have successfully aborted the call for demonstrations, but they also made the state look frantic, anxious, and unprepared to tolerate even small, peaceful protests.
The arrest of hundreds of people, a new round of investigations and trials, the blockade and then storming of the Journalists Syndicate, and the unjustified escalation with Lawyers Syndicate have heightened concerns among the public because this time those who stand accused are the ones carrying the Egyptian flag. And unfortunately such a reckless security response will only further stoke tension and division.
Third, the public failed to respond to the appeal for demonstrations not only because of security interventions. The experience of the last five years—the rapid changes in government and the difficulties of daily life that brought no tangible economic or political gains—has made the public today more wary of taking part in protests, especially given the uncertain consequence of such actions and even the vagueness of demands.
But I believe this to be a positive development. It is less an expression of despair or acceptance of the status quo than a demonstration of a growing awareness and an important shift in the public’s way of engaging in public issues.
We are in the midst of a new situation. While the state seems incapable of solving political and economic problems and unwilling to initiate dialogue and share decision-making power, and while traditional parties and political forces seem even more isolated from society, the youth, meanwhile, still hope for change and cling to their right to create their own future, but they’re unwilling to gamble on uncertainties. Instead, they are searching for new frameworks that go beyond protest.
Will the state realize that the opportunity still exists to open the door of expression and political participation to these youth, who care about the country’s fate, want peaceful change, and understand the challenges facing Egypt? Or will it ignore them, pushing them into other avenues?