Violence returns to Tahrir Square
Recent violence in Egypt casts doubt over the fate of the upcoming parliamentary elections.
|Since February, over 13,000 people have been sentenced in military tribunals, many for political ‘crimes’ [EPA]|
Cairo, Egypt – Less than 10 days before the first post-Mubarak elections, violence has returned to Tahrir Square. Security forces have been continuously attacking protesters in Tahrir Square for a third day. The situation in the Square is the worst it has been since Mubarak stepped down on February 11 earlier this year. The level of force and the brutality of the security forces surpass anything that was seen in a single incident during the 18-day uprising. The final number of those killed is unconfirmed as the events continue to unfold, but it is over 30 and the number of injured is over 2,000.
Field hospitals set up by volunteer doctors and nurses in the square have been directly targeted with rubber-coated bullets and tear gas forcing them to move to multiple locations including the Omar Makram Mosque and later the Qasr el Dubara Church. Eyewitnesses report that security forces consistently target the head and torso of protesters. Ahmad Harara is a protester who lost his right eye on January 28 amid violent clashes with police forces orchestrated by Mubarak’s interior minister Habib el-Adly. Harara lost his left eye on November 19 during violent clashes with security forces orchestrated by the army. A real crisis is taking place as you read these words, nothing short of urban warfare against civilians.
The current escalation began when a group of around 30 protesters who were injured in the January uprising decided to occupy the Square and set up camp. Their decision to remain in the square followed one of the biggest protests in months, which took place on Friday. They were peacefully protesting the government’s lack of treatment and attention given to victims of Mubarak’s brutal crackdown earlier this year. On Saturday morning, state security attempted to evacuate the protesters from the Square with excessive force. The Square had been opened to traffic and there was no legitimate reason for the exaggerated attack. The escalation garnered outrage against the excessive use of force, which led to thousands returning to the Square, igniting further clashes with security forces.
“During the Maspero Massacre, state TV directly incited violence against Coptic Christians by claiming they were attacking the army.”
These events come as the army attempted to draft a supra-constitutional document that would have guaranteed its immunity and its superior position in Egyptian politics. The proposed document proved to be extremely controversial and was rejected by all political forces spanning the spectrum. The attempt to push such document only days before the elections suggest that the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) fears what the elections may eventually bring, specifically civilian oversight.
As it has been the case during Mubarak’s tenure and during the 18-day uprising, the SCAF is using state media and the security apparatus against the very civilians they should serve. In addition to the violent crackdown on protesters, journalists continue to be targeted and activists detained. A sweeping media campaign is taking place, in which generals appear on television shows denying any wrongdoing. As was done during the 18-day uprising, officials claim that hidden agendas, paid wrongdoers and foreign agents are behind every violent incident since February. Contrary to those statements there is mounting evidence, including images and videos incriminating police and army forces in every incident – most notably the massacre at Maspero, when a predominantly Coptic protest was targeted last October.
These appearances by ex-regime sympathisers and army generals in the media have attempted to further divide the population and to incite violence between Egyptians. During the Maspero Massacre, state TV directly incited violence against Coptic Christians by claiming they were attacking the army. Now, state TV is inciting violence against anyone who is facing the army forces in Tahrir Square by making the same claim. On the other hand, officials have shown a complete evasion of responsibility towards the state and the people.
In addition to high-profile clashes, there has been an unending stream of individual cases, such as last week’s death of an army officer who is associated with the 6th of April Movement, and the death of Essam Atta in police custody. Atta was given a prison sentence in a military court. He died when prison officers sodomised him with a water hose until his heart stopped. He was 23 years old. Atta is only one of nearly 13,000 prisoners sentenced in military tribunals since February, in what is deemed systemised political revenge. In all these incidents, big and small, officials claimed that investigations would take place. There has not been a single report from any investigation nor a single official, soldier or officer implicated in any of those events.
Many believe that the upcoming elections are the only way out of this political crisis. However, there are some important questions: How can these be free elections when there are thousands of political prisoners? How can these elections be secured when the Ministry of Interior has not been reformed and continues to focus its power against political activity rather than crime and security? How can these elections be reliable when the transitional government that is overseeing it is completely toothless and has proven itself unreliable? And finally, do the elections even matter so long as the SCAF retains an unshakable iron fist on the country’s politics? Democracy does not only mean counting votes. Lest we forget, Mubarak too held elections.
Egyptians in Tahrir Square are not facing a fascist regime. The SCAF lacks an ideology shaping its actions and decisions. This absence of a clear ideology makes the fight for Egypt’s freedom even more difficult. The attacks on Egyptians’ sovereignty and freedom are ad hoc and is largely driven by a regime that is fighting to protect its assets and its grip on power and economy. Many high-level officials are marred in secret deals related to everything, from manufacturing and trade to land sales and development projects to weapon deals. Finally, the United States’ annual financial aid to the military over the past 40 years has been unsupervised by civilian society.
Until these words were written, there has been no official statement from the US regarding the violence. And previous statements have only called for “restraint on all sides”. This is not a call for the US to intervene in Egyptian domestic affairs, to the contrary. The US has been involved in Egyptian domestic affairs for the past 40 years with its support of dictators, and now gives unshaken support to the very institution that is hindering any hopes for true democratic transition in Egypt.
At the core of the present crisis is the definition of the very term “revolution”. For the people willing to give their lives in Tahrir Square in the face of unrestrained violence, “revolution” implies a radical change in the political culture that has dominated this country and held it back from its potential. The army generals continue to speak about the “January 25 Revolution” in the past tense, as if it were limited to the 18-day uprising. These unfolding events should be a clear wake-up call that the revolution is just beginning.
Mohamed Elshahed is a doctoral candidate in the Middle East Studies Department at New York University. He specialises in the urban planning of Egypt and blogs at CairoObserver. He holds a Masters in Architecture from MIT.
Follow Mohamed Elshahed on Twitter @Cairobserver.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.