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Egyptians mobilise for a better future

There were further clashes in Cairo on Friday Keystone

Young demonstrators in Egypt are organising themselves via the internet and mobile phones, or in cafés when communications are cut, a Swiss-based Egyptian says.

This content was published on January 29, 2011 - 12:11
Susanne Schanda, swissinfo.ch

The Egyptian government has been battling to restore control in the northern African country after the biggest protests so far. A new cabinet was to be announced on Saturday.



























The situation was unexpected for Switzerland-based Ayman El-Nouby when he arrived in his homeland on Monday.

“When friends in the Nadwa café told me that there was going to be a revolution in Cairo the next day, I just laughed,” El-Nouby told swissinfo.ch via mobile phone. By the next evening he was in the thick of it.

He saw pictures of Tahrir square filmed by demonstrators on their mobile phones on Al-Jazeera. “I went straightaway into the city centre and tried to call my friends on the way. But the mobile phone network was paralysed. I then met them in the Hurreia café and we went to the demonstration together,” El-Nouby said.

At first the atmosphere was peaceful, with thousands chanting against the regime of  president Hosni Mubarak, he explained.

“Suddenly there was an alarm and the police shot tear gas into the crowds. We all ran away into side streets, where people waited with sliced onions. This allows you to breathe more easily after a load of tear gas.”

Tunisia support

 

El-Nouby has lived in Switzerland for five years and is studying culture management at Basel University. At present he is under contract with the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia in Egypt. He was due to act as project leader for the Swiss contribution to an international theatre forum in Alexandria from February 1.

But the event’s future now stands in doubt. “I should have had an appointment at Pro Helvetia today but it was cancelled at the last minute and the city centre office remains closed because of the unrest,” El-Nouby said.

From his vantage point at the Nadwa Cafe he reported that shops had been open and people had been out on the streets, even families with children, but that it had in general been quieter than usual. Tahrir square is being monitored by police around the clock. Even standing around for a short time in the area carries the risk of being arrested, he said.

The protests have been carried along by young people, but many members of the elite have also been taking part. “I met the author Alaa El-Aswani as well as artists and musicians from the jazz club,” El-Nouby said.

Tunisia’s demonstrators have provided the spark and have also been sending the Egyptians advice on how to handle police violence.

Unfair distribution

 

Egyptians who have been living in Switzerland for a long time have also been following the events with trepidation. Ahmed Latif, a physicist in Bern, telephones his relatives daily.

“All of them are full of expectation and hope that something new is going to happen,” he told swissinfo.ch.

Latif grew up in the harbour city of Alexandria and came to Switzerland in the 1960s to study. “Egypt has undergone strong economic growth in the last few years, but most of the population hasn’t seen any of it because the distribution has been so unfair,” he said.

When recently travelling by train from Alexandria to Cairo, Latif realised that the carriages were the same ones as 50 years ago: “The state infrastructure is very bad, despite the economic upturn.”

Fears

 

Most of the Egyptian population is young, unemployed, relatively well educated and with a large network. “People are more courageous when they don’t have much to lose,” said Latif.

He is not afraid that Islamists pose a risk, this is simply a Mubarak regime excuse to keep holding onto power, he says. The regime has also claimed that Islamists are behind the protests.

“This is ridiculous, the young people want to have a life, work and political freedoms. Many of them even make fun of the religious fatwas issued by the Imams,” he added.

Latif cannot predict whether the Egyptian demonstrations will lead to the fall of the regime as in Tunisia, but there are first successes. “After these protests Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, anointed his father’s successor, is no longer eligible,” Latif said. There are already rumours in Cairo that Gamal Mubarak has left for London.

Latif hopes for democracy in Egypt and in the whole region. “Repression in the Middle East is a breeding ground for terrorism. An end to this repression would mean fewer problems for the West with Islamic terrorism,” he said.

Egypt demonstrations

On Saturday, President Hosni Mubarak named intelligence head Omar Suleiman as his vice-president, and minister of civil aviation Ahmed Shafiq, the new prime minister. It followed Mubarak's promise on Friday evening to name a new cabinet.

Thousands of anti-government demonstrators defied a curfew that came into effect at 4pm on Saturday local time, taking to the streets of Cairo and other cities. Clashes were reported between security forces and protestors in front of the interior ministry building.

Many public buildings across the country have been torched, including the Cairo headquarters of the governing NDP party and police stations.

United States president Barack Obama said on Friday that he had spoken to Mubarak and asked him to turn "a moment of volatility" into "a moment of promise". Obama also strongly urged the Egyptian leader to refrain from using violence to suppress the demonstrations.

The Swiss foreign ministry has advised tourists against travelling to large cities in Egypt following the outbreak of violence.

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Switzerland-Egypt

In December 2008 the Swiss parliament made Egypt a key country for economic development cooperation.

Switzerland exports pharmaceuticals, machines, chemical primary products, and matchmaking wares, as well as optical and medical instruments to Egypt. In 2009 exports were SFr656 million ($696 million), imports around SFr109 million.

The most important exports from Egypt are: oil and gas products, crude oil, cotton, textiles, aluminium, iron and steel products and tourism.

Around 1,600 Egyptians live in Switzerland and around 1,400 Swiss live in Egypt.

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