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One Million Show Up for Government-Sponsored Anti-War Protest in Egypt - 2003-03-06


There have been few demonstrations in the Arab world against a U.S.-led military attack on Iraq, but on Wednesday Cairo was the scene of an anti-war protest that attracted an estimated one million people. The demonstration, one of the largest in recent years in Cairo, was staged by Egypt's government.

Not only did Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party sponsor Wednesday's protest, members of the party, including the minister of information, marched with the protesters.

Walid Kazziha, a political science professor at American University in Cairo, says the government must be feeling public pressure because, he says, it has been a quarter of a century since members of the Egyptian government actively participated in public protests. Mr. Kazziha says the demonstration accomplished two government objectives.

"The main message is that Egypt as a government and the public opinion is against the war in Iraq," he said. "Secondly that the ruling party in Egypt has now adopted a new, more responsive, policy towards their public opinion because, for the last 25 years, the ruling party has not walked in a demonstration in Egypt nor has it initiated one."

Another analyst says that the Egyptian media have recently been drawing attention to the fact that while millions of people in Western countries have been demonstrating against a war on Iraq, there have been only small protests in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.

Dan Tschirgi is the head of the political science department, also at American University in Cairo. He says the Egyptian government may have felt the need to sponsor Wednesday's protest out of embarrassment.

"The Egyptian press raised a lot of embarrassing points regarding the absence of protests in the Arab world, and by implication Egypt as well," he said. "There was nothing to lose and something to be gained by allowing controlled protests and by visibly being seen as sponsoring these protests."

But according to Taha Abdel Alim, the deputy director of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, the Egyptian government is trying to relieve growing public pressure by taking a proactive stance by allowing the kinds of protests it traditionally forbids.

"It's unusual. It may be some kind of response to the pressure of the public opinion," he said. "Something to say that we support our position against the war, or the position of the Egyptian people and Arab people."

Over the past two years Egypt has allowed public demonstrations regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but those protests were largely confined to college campuses.

Egypt's interior ministry recently announced that public protests would only be allowed if they were peaceful and did not block traffic. Wednesday's government sponsored anti-war protest was peaceful, but with an estimated one million marchers, traffic near the demonstration came to a complete standstill for several hours.

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