Egypt: Struggle Is Still for Right to Protest

A cross and a crescent are painted on the palm of an Egyptian demonstrator holding the hand of a fellow protester during a rally in support of national unity in Cairo's Tahrir Square on 14 October 2011. (Photo: AFP - Mohammed Hossam)

By: Randa Aboubakr

Published Sunday, October 16, 2011

Ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak fell after 18 days of incessant protest. “We are not leaving — he should leave first,” was one of several light-hearted chants revealing the determination and stubbornness of protesters. This new spirit came to surprise all, even the regime itself, whose response to it throughout the 18 days was a spectacular failure.

There were many reasons why people came out with such zeal and determination on the first of those 18 days on January 25, and why thousands and later millions continued to crowd the streets. Foremost among these was the massive and systematic suppression of protest itself, a long-time hallmark of the regime, but which had also accelerated and taken on a bloody character during the previous decade or so.

Now, seven months into the revolution, the post-Mubarak ‘transitional’ regime is growing exceedingly impatient with protest, even more so than its predecessor ever was. Mild signs of protests are violently responded to, and those arrested are tried before military courts, with little due process. It is estimated that about 14,000 Egyptians, mostly youth activists, are being tried or held pending trial since January this year.

Mubarak appointed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) after he was ousted, to “oversee the affairs of the land” as he put it. Since then, the responsibility of maintaining order and protecting civilians and public property was declared to be jointly that of the police force and the army (mainly the military police).
There was a period of courting at the beginning, when the army apologized in ridiculously amorous terms for their violent reaction to protests, such as their dispersion on February 25 of protesters who had declared their intentions to camp out in Tahrir Square until all demands of the revolution have been adequately met.

Despite the apology, there was already a hidden message sent by SCAF there: ‘The revolution is over. Go home and we will handle the rest.’ However, instances of violence continued, now coupled with waves of arrests and military trials. On the anniversary of the Nakba (May 15), severe clashes took place between the central security forces and army forces, on the one hand, and protesters in front of the Israeli embassy in Cairo on the other. These clashes left a few hundred protesters injured. On the first day of Ramadan (August 1), security forces brutally dispersed a mass Iftar organized in Tahrir Square by the families of martyrs of the revolution and some activists. Such brutality was totally uncalled for. Anti-police chants by football fans during a local match on September 7 led to a violent attack by the central security forces which left one football fan dead, about 120 on both sides injured, and scores of Egyptians arrested. Again, on September 9, a huge demonstration in front of the Israeli embassy in Cairo demanding the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador over the killing of five Egyptian soldiers at the Israeli border was violently dispersed, and a number of deaths were recorded.

These glaring instances of violence coincided with sporadic eye-witness reports of activists tortured at the Egyptian Museum and of compulsory ‘virginity tests’ undergone by women activists captured by the military police during March and April. The overt message by SCAF and the cabinet there and everywhere was ‘violence was necessary for the preservation of national security,’ while the hidden message was, ‘the courtship period between the army and protesters was over.’

But it all exploded tragically last Sunday. The military police clashed with about 200,000 Egyptians (mostly Copts) in Cairo. Demonstrators were protesting the torching of a church under construction in the city of Aswan, and were calling for the rights of Egypt’s Coptic minority. Some also chose to speak out in less sectarian terms, and were chanting against SCAF and the cabinet. It was a largely non-violent demonstration by most accounts. Yet the response of the military police was extremely disproportionate. Within a few hours, scores were killed — some by a single shot in the head or chest and others crushed by military armored vehicles — and hundreds injured. This was one of the most brutal instances of suppression most Egyptians had seen in their lifetime. Not only that, but army troops were apparently ordered to storm the on-air studios of some private TV channels that were streaming live images of the violence. The military cut off the live broadcasts, in another scene never before witnessed in Egyptian history.

At first glance, it sounds unreasonable that any sensible official would order such brutal attacks on demonstrators who were unarmed and not out to topple the regime. More importantly, the protests erupted because of sectarian tension and required a more balanced reaction from the state. Taking into consideration that SCAF and the cabinet know what they are facing (strikes, a growing economic crisis, upcoming elections), and that they are obviously still betting on the notion that “the people and the army are one” will carry them out of the muddled present, they were expected to calm the situation rather than make things worse.

The regime may be undertaking these irresponsible measures for a number of reasons: lack of experience with direct rule, lack of knowledge of the political scene, insecurity due to a sense of illegitimacy, anxiety because of inadequacy in handling the mess it has itself created, and a blind desire for absolute power. Yet these reasons fit an overarching explanation: this regime (i.e. SCAF and the puppet government) has lost its short-lived grip on things and now feels threatened by the people it is supposed to protect. Though acts of protest have not intended to threaten the regime, they have been taken that way. This is due to the contradictory nature of protest and that of military rule.

Military and protest do not mix. Military is about blind obedience, while protest is about ‘storming out and screaming a resounding NO.’ The Egyptians are not through with their revolution, and attempts to quench protest will only be seen as counter-revolutionary. The problem is that the military has not begun to learn the lesson, and in every measure it takes in response to protest, it wreaks irreparable damage. Will things continue in this way? To be able to answer that question, one should ask oneself first, why is the military taking over rather than overseeing a ‘transitional’ period? This is a question repeatedly asked by activists and ordinary people alike. And in the answer to that question lies perhaps much of why the military feels threatened. Last Sunday’s bloodshed is a tragic reminder to members of SCAF that they must seek a way out of their anxiety before more bloody encounters sever the tie between Egyptians and their armed forces, a tie that guaranteed the country’s stability for more than 200 years.

Randa Aboubakr is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Cairo University.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

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