Egypt: The Persistence of Protest
By: Serene Assir
Published Friday, December 23, 2011
SCAF’s unrelenting and violent crackdown on protesters over the past few weeks failed to stop hundreds of thousands of Egyptians – including those who support the de facto military rulers – from taking to the streets Friday.
Cairo - Tahrir Square once again became an epicenter of street action, with hundreds of thousands taking to downtown Cairo Friday. Protesters here referred to the day as the “Friday of Restoring Honor,” while participants chanted slogans in defense of Egyptian women’s dignity.
“Egyptian women won’t be stripped” cried male and female protesters of all walks of life. Their call was in response to the military’s violence against women protesters calling for the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to hand over power to a civilian government.
“Because the photo was published, we all saw what the soldiers did to the girl they stripped and dragged,” said Tahrir Square protester Alaa Abdel Rahman, in reference to a photo of such an incident that has stirred public opinion for days. “But I was here throughout recent days, when we suffered extreme violence. And I can guarantee that she was not the only victim. I saw many young girls being stripped and beaten, among them a field doctor.”
Downtown Cairo saw five nights of excessive violence against protesters last week. Starting at dawn on Friday December 16, a total of five different night raids saw military police, the army and the widely despised Central Security Forces attack protesters demanding SCAF hand over power.
A total of 17 protesters were killed and almost 2,000 injured in the latest round of violence in Cairo, according to the Martyrs and Injured Committee run by volunteer field doctors. Weapons used against protesters have included live ammunition, rubber bullets, electric batons, stones launched from the top of government buildings and tear gas.
The violence began in a drive to break up a three week long sit-in at the gates of the Egyptian Cabinet building in a sidestreet in downtown Cairo. While the sit-in was peaceful, protesters resorted to street resistance tactics, responding to the military and Central Security Forces’ violence with stones and Molotov cocktails.
Protesters streaming into Tahrir Square through Friday also made calls for an end to violence. “We rose up against violence during the January 25 revolution. Our collective suffering of violence at the hands of the former regime’s security forces was one of the main reasons why we all decided we had to do whatever it took to oust Mubarak,” said engineer Hakem Bassiouni.
“Things have not changed, rather they have become worse. The army is attacking not only the protesters, but also the very principles of the revolution. People taking part in the Cabinet sit-in were there to defend the revolution,” added protester Bassiouni. “However, SCAF has done nothing to fulfil the people’s goals.”
One of the key popular demands uniting Egyptians against former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime was “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice.” In the view of Tahrir Square protesters Bassiouni and Abdel Rahman, none of these goals have yet been achieved.
“People taking part in the protests through the past week, when the army was shooting directly into the crowd, were mainly poor people who had nothing under Mubarak, and still have nothing today,” said Abdel Rahman. “SCAF has done nothing to help the Egyptians.”
One of the most unpopular facets of Mubarak’s regime was its political and trade relations with Israel. “Has SCAF stopped exporting gas to Israel? No it hasn’t,” said Abdel Rahman. “Meanwhile, poor Egyptians have suffered a shortage of butane gas for the house. This is unjust. That’s why we’re here.”
At the same time, a far smaller but no less emotionally charged demonstration on Abbasiya Square saw tens of thousands gather in SCAF’s defense. At first sight, there were ironic similarities with the Tahrir protest, including the presence of a plethora of street vendors, Egyptian flags, music and families with children.
But the two protests’ messages were radically different. In Abbasiya, crowds chanted “the people and the army are one hand.” Chants also accused presidential hopefuls Mohammed El-Baradei and Amr Hamzawy of being “traitors,” while members of the April 6 movement were described as “collaborators.”
Holding up a poster describing independent Egyptian media outlets such as CBC and ON TV as “collaborators,” 43-year-old Gamal (who withheld his surname) said he had visited Tahrir Square and had only seen leftists with a foreign agenda there.
“As for incidents of violence against young girls, we have to admit that the army has made mistakes,” said Gamal. “But one has to wonder, what were they doing there?” The SCAF supporter also referred to the case of Alia Mahdi, who published a nude photograph of herself on her blog in November, in an act of protest against military rule.
“We have our customs and traditions in Egypt,” said Gamal. “You can’t do that kind of thing and not expect consequences.”
In a protest guarded by small numbers of military personnel, SCAF supporters raised their voices against foreign intervention in domestic affairs. One poster hanging down from the bridge above the square pictured US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
A man standing on the bridge took off his shoe and hit the image repeatedly, while scores of onlookers down on the square cheered him on. “Focus on the Monica Lewinsky scandal,” read the caption, in response to Clinton’s statement earlier this week denouncing violence against Egyptian women protesters.
Back in Tahrir, young protester Ahmed Taha believed Egyptians’ mistrust of foreign intervention was shared among all protesters out on the streets Friday. “The US can say whatever it likes about our revolution,” said Taha. “Starting January 25, the Egyptians have started to shape our own political destiny. I believe SCAF’s resorting to anti-Western discourse is just a tactic to rally support in its favor.”
Over the past week, in the midst of violent attacks against protesters calling for the end of military rule, state-run media escalated an information campaign warning of foreign intervention in Egypt. Articles and television reports blamed leftist groups and foreigners in Egypt of attempts to bring down the Egyptian state.
The campaign had Abbasiya protester Gamal convinced, while ON TV reported its team had to leave that demonstration because it had suffered violence at the hands of protesters. “I agree that everyone has the right to protest,” said Gamal. “But we need to think of the future of the state.”
Gamal went on to say that although he supported SCAF for now, he also wanted them out of politics as soon as possible. “If they don’t leave power by June 2012, which is when they have promised to hand over power to an elected president, I too will go down to Tahrir,” he said.