New Internationalist

‘Nothing has changed in Egypt’

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As clashes between protesters and the military continue in Cairo, Glen Johnson reports from Tahrir Square on the violence of the last few days, and reflects on how Egypt has been let down by its new leaders.

Maged Helal under a CC Licence
When hopes ran high... Tahrir Square, February 2011 Maged Helal under a CC Licence


A dozen police officers surrounded the man as he was dragged across a rock-strewn street fringed by burning piles of rubbish just east of Tahrir Square, early on Sunday evening. The air was thick with tear gas. The officers’ truncheons repeatedly crunched into the back of the man’s head, leaving him bloodied and semi-conscious.

The sustained cracks of anti-riot guns reverberated through downtown Cairo as the army and police fired round after round at protesters demanding Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), stand down.

Nearby, Tahrir Square was ablaze, smoke billowing into the evening sky. Hundreds of soldiers and police had stormed it, firing countless rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets, and quickly clearing the square, before burning down protesters’ tents and retreating.

The violence came on the back of a mass demonstration by the Muslim Brotherhood, Friday, in response to SCAF’s recent constitutional proposals.

Veto powers

The military’s proposals put its budget beyond civilian oversight and gave SCAF powers rivalling a future president. Additionally, SCAF stated that it would select the majority members for the constituent assembly – the body responsible for amending Egypt’s Constitution – while in the second article of its communiqué, it stated that any article that violates March’s constitutional decree has to be revised within 15 days, essentially giving SCAF veto powers over the new Constitution.

The Muslim Brotherhood responded by mobilizing thousands of its supporters on Friday, as resentment of the military junta grew after months of the military defining itself as the safeguard of the revolution.

Tahrir Square was ablaze, smoke billowing into the evening sky. Hundreds of soldiers and police had stormed it, firing countless rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets

Since Friday, the situation has escalated dramatically.

On Saturday morning police and military moved to disperse a small crowd of protesters camped out in the Square in remembrance of activists killed during the 18-day uprising that began on 25 January. That small group – outraged that Hosni Mubarak was receiving due process in a civilian court, while 12,000 ordinary citizens have been tried in military courts since February – has now spurred a wave of revolutionary fervour.

Thousands of protesters poured into Tahrir Square on Saturday, taking the square back at around 7pm. But it took a heavy toll. In the first two days of violence, more than 1,000 people were injured, and at least 20 killed, according to medical sources.

By 3pm on Sunday, thousands of protesters were standing off against the central security forces on Mohammed Mahmoud Street, running east off Tahrir Square.

Protesters hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails, while demanding an immediate transfer from military to civilian rule and chanting: ‘The people want the fall of the Field Marshal’ – in reference to Hussein Tantawi.

Déjà-vu

Police launched volleys of teargas and fired anti-riots guns horizontally, targeting protesters’ heads.

Scores of injured were transferred on motorbikes – horns blaring – to a field hospital down an alley beside Tahrir Square, which was used to treat wounded during the Egyptian uprising earlier this year.

Dozens of people lay on the floor of the makeshift hospital. One man, blood pouring from his forehead, had been shot in the head at close range with a rubber bullet. A doctor skillfully cleaned the wound before administering anaesthetic.

Every few minutes a motorbike would arrive, ferrying another casualty from the frontlines on Mohamed Mahmoud Street.

According to Dr Mohammed Talib, who was volunteering at the makeshift clinic, most injuries were consistent with the deliberate targeting of people’s heads, with several protesters losing eyes to riot-gun pellets and rubber bullets.

‘We have had some very severe cases,’ he says. ‘We can provide only basic treatment here, so refer them onto general hospitals. Many injuries are from shooting, particularly around the head and chest.’ One man limped into the clinic, a bloodied hole in his jeans and blood dripping from what remained of his left ear.

By 5pm, the police and military moved to clear Tahrir Square. On a nearby side street, a row of police fired riot guns – muzzle flashes blowing out from barrels – directly at protesters’ heads. Countless teargas canisters hissed through the sky, blanketing much of the downtown in a harsh, acerbic cloud.

It was a brutal, sustained assault and central Cairo began to resemble a war zone.

One 24-year-old protester, Ahmed, while gasping through teargas, said that nothing had changed in Egypt: ‘The police, the military, they want to control all of Egypt. That is all they care about.’ He ran towards police with a group of men, preparing to hurl Molotov cocktails.

A slender young woman and her partner walked down the street holding hands and chanting ‘Go’ in Arabic.

Tides turning

SCAF’s shift from hero to villain was gradual. SCAF certainly enjoys huge support, but the tide is turning.

During the 18-day uprising, SCAF refused to fire on protesters and essentially forced Mubarak out of office – but did act as the former president’s buttress during the first 13 or 14 days of the uprising.

‘Because of its history, we have an ingrained respect for the military. But they use the exact same tactics as Mubarak: violence, arrests, and police in civilian clothes’

However, it has adopted a carrot and stick approach since then, while consolidating its rule. The large number of arrests and military trials – 12,000 since February – the return of emergency law, seeming intimidation of the press and SCAF’s attempts to entrench its power have resulted in the burgeoning insurgency which it is now facing.

SCAF enjoys a privileged position in Egypt. Following the Free Officers Coup – led by Mohamed Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser – in 1952, the military played a prominent role in Egyptian politics. Under former president Anwar Sadat and from the early 1970s, the military receded into the shadows while the police became responsible for domestic enforcement. The shadowy role of the military continued under Hosni Mubarak.

Gigi Ibrahim under a CC Licence
Military police. Gigi Ibrahim under a CC Licence


The military has numerous business interests, which some analysts argue undermines its more democratic instincts and is generally inconsistent with a genuine free market economy. Similarly, it wants to maintain a peace agreement with Israel – contrary to public will – which sees it get an annual $2 billion in US military aid.

By 5.30pm and behind police lines, individual protesters were being dragged towards the Ministry of Interior. Mobs of police would swarm and beat them with clubs and truncheons, before disappearing from view behind military vehicles.

One young woman, wearing a brightly covered hijab, was pulled along Mohamed Mahmoud Street, surrounded by a large mob of police – some in plain clothes – and soldiers.

When asked why the woman was arrested, one officer replied: ‘This is an Egyptian problem, not a problem for foreigners.’

Standing in Tahrir Square on Sunday evening, Mohamed, a civil society activist, said that, like many Egyptians, he had given the military a chance following the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in February. That was a mistake, he said.

‘Because of its history, we have an ingrained respect for the military. But they use the exact same tactics as Mubarak: violence, arrests, and police in civilian clothes. I’m not sure what will happen to Egypt.’

Nearby, a lifeless body was carried into a waiting ambulance – surrounded by a shocked crowd – before being whisked away.

Glen Johnson is a New Zealand journalist.

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