When wandering through Tahrir Square, it is easy to think that you are amidst a celebration. Large Egyptian flags fly above unsuspecting dwellers; men selling candy floss, Egypt memorabilia and confectionary line the streets; young and old socialise and the occasional song and dance can be heard and seen, all of which add to the celebratory mood. However, only a short walk from the square, one is confronted with a wholly different world. Pieces of smashed pavement used as ammunition; a burning sensation on the face and nose as tear gas pervades the air; human walls protecting field hospitals; men and women flaunting gasmasks; and motorbikes racing up and down the road delivering the injured to the field hospitals, almost in a relay fashion. It is no longer a celebration, it is a warzone.
Tahrir Square has become the arena for political struggle in Cairo. Almost eleven months ago, the Egyptian people flipped the political pyramid on its head and ‘reclaimed’ power from the political elites whose ruinous thirty-year rule was defined by brutality, corruption and oppression. Hosni Mubarak’s leadership was dealt a fatal blow in January and February of 2011. Eleven months down the line, the same people, tents and demands are back in Tahrir Square. We must be careful not to fall for a simple narrative when it comes to the Egyptian quagmire. The fall of Mubarak on 11 February did not signal the end of the Egyptian revolution; it was the first success for the ongoing revolutionary movement.
The renewed protests in Tahrir Square have an eerie likeness to the night Hosni Mubarak gave his first address to the Egyptian people. As more and more poured into the square (although less than the one million called for in the early hours of Wednesday), people were asking themselves what had changed since Mubarak’s departure in February? The answer for many is ‘not a lot’, as a picture in the square – a face split in two, one side Tantawi, the other Mubarak – attests. ‘The devil is still here; it just has a different face. Last year, Mubarak, now Tantawi and SCAF. Enough!’ Aisha, a Business graduate told me.
The uprising in January had clear political and economic demands. Now, eleven months later, political demands dominate the numerous chants and speeches that echo around Tahrir Square. The people of Egypt have decided they will not settle for anything less than a people’s revolution – by the people, for the people. They will not settle for a plutocracy, and certainly not for one which, they feel, so closely resembles that which ‘departed’ on 11 February.
In the last eleven months the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) have used their time in power, and the trust of the Egyptian people, in undemocratic ways. They have continued the habits of the old regime, attempting to entrench themselves in the heart of Egypt’s political sphere. The SCAF imposed appointment of Dr Ali El-Selmi as Vice-President marked the beginning of this process. Selmi proposed that before the elections (due to start in Cairo on 28 November) all parties involved should sign up to a constitutional declaration that would make the budget of the armed forces only available to SCAF, secret from parliament, government and president, and proffer the role of ‘protecting the civil nature of the state’ to the armed forces. Further, the declaration also stated that the armed forces could step in and write their own constitution if the committee in charge could not produce one within three months. SCAF’s de facto presidency has been marred by human rights abuses, the trial of civilians in military courts, and harsh crackdowns against dissidents, most recently Alaa Abd El Fattah, the prominent Egyptian blogger. The fact that Mubarak is gone means nothing to those gathered in Tahrir Square, especially when the bulk of his regime remains. ‘I am telling you, Mubarak is still running the country from Sharm el-Sheikh, what has changed, really, what has changed?’ explained an angry protester who claimed to have fought in the 1973 war with Israel.
SCAF’s conduct while in power, and the flawed attempt to pacify the crowds with the implementation of a corruption law, has been met with widespread condemnation. The corruption law has been labelled as overdue and as an underhand way to protect the members of the old regime. ‘SCAF helped delay this law so previous violators could rearrange their papers, destroy evidence and escape,’ Zakareya Abdel Aziz, former president of the Judges Club, told Egyptian daily, Al-Tahrir. The outburst of popular anger that has threatened to delay the scheduled elections led SCAF leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi to make his first public address.
To those protesting, this address too felt eerily similar to that which they had witnessed before. Tantawi appeared on national television for the first time, and for the time he was on air, all televisions in downtown Cairo were operating in tandem, spewing out Tantawi’s words to passers by. The disconnection between ‘leader’ and ‘led’ is one of the grievances that brought people to the square, and today’s attempt to offer concessions has only reinforced the resolve of protesters. Tantawi declared on Wednesday that he accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, that parliamentary elections will go ahead, that the SCAF would relinquish power to a civilian government by July 2012, and with blind confidence (or bold disingenuousness) told protesters that a referendum on an immediate transfer of power may be called. In response, calls rang around Tahrir Square – calling for a murder trial, rather than a referendum.
Medical sources in the Zeinhom morgue near Cairo’s Tahrir Square claimed that 71 Egyptians have been killed since clashes erupted Saturday.
I found myself at the heart of a battle between Central Security Forces CSF and protesters on Mohammad Mahmud Street. The battle that took place and the period that followed it are highly symbolic of the ongoing struggle. At around 3pm local time, after an intense street battle involving Molotov cocktails, tear gas and rocks, protesters overpowered and outnumbered the CSF on the road that has been at the heart of all the main battles since Saturday night. Despite the ability, by sheer numbers alone, to totally overrun those responsible for the injuries and deaths of their fellow protesters, they began to chant ‘peace’ and began negotiating with the CSF and soldiers. The image of the January uprising that captivated all of us was again on display here – soldiers being held aloft on protesters shoulders, CSF shaking hands with protesters, and protesters forming a wall of protection in front of the officers. In some cases, protesters threatening to throw rocks being held back by other protesters in a call for peace. The calls for the toppling of the regime however, Tantawi especially, still rang loud and true.
However, this brief display of synergy between police and protesters quickly deteriorated as a barrage of tear gas forced protesters into narrow Al-Falky street. People were crushed in the ensuing stampede with many collapsing from the tear gas fumes, to be ferried away as the motorcycles drove in and carried them out, one by one. Protesters cursed those who had called for peace and cooperation while shaking hands with CSF officers: ‘they have been killing our brothers, why would we trust them? I told you all’ screamed a seething protester who later came to ask me if I had the event recorded on my camera. ‘The world must see these crimes” he told me.
This incident, while only one in the sea of protest that has engulfed Egypt, is bolstering an inability – and unwillingness – to see the CSF and SCAF officers and politicians as at all removed from Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Despite their almost unwavering public support in recent years, people now believed the armed forces have betrayed their revolution, betrayed those who have died, and can no longer be trusted. The growing revolutionary movement is an inclusive movement with people from all ages, religions and political groups united by a common goal: ‘iskat al-nizam’ (the fall of the regime). Despite the significant presence of the military in Egypt’s history, what their role will be in a new and truly democratic Egypt is increasingly uncertain.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
Latest posts by CME (see all)
- “Terrorist, plain and simple”? The misleading strategy behind the “terrorist” tag. – October 6, 2015
- Letter Smuggled out of Egyptian Prisons: Esraa El Taweel Speak – July 14, 2015
- We must not forget Abu-Salim – July 7, 2015