People & Power

Egypt: Return to Tahrir

Nine months after they toppled Mubarak, some protesters fear that their revolution is under threat from the military.

By reporter Elizabeth Jones

Last weekend, in response to the fresh outbreak of deadly violence in Cairo, Egypt’s newly-appointed prime minister, Kamal el-Ganzouri, announced that those involved in the clashes were “not the youth of the revolution”. These protests, he suggested, were in fact a “counter-revolution”.

The prime minister’s words must have come as a shock to Mossaab Shahrour, a 20-year-old student and kitchen fitter from the 6th of October City – a satellite city outside Cairo. Today Mossaab is walking with the help of a crutch. He was badly beaten outside the cabinet offices last Friday by soldiers wielding wooden poles and iron bars.

I know there were a lot of deaths and injuries but all this was done for Egypt. We would do anything for Egypt.

by Mossaab, April 6 Youth Movement

His close friend, 22-year-old Ahmed Mansoor, a recent graduate in media studies, was killed in the same attack when he was shot in the head.

I first met Mossaab in the secret headquarters of the April 6 Youth Movement last January. It was very much a hub of revolutionary planning and activity, and he was very much a revolutionary. He showed me how he and his colleagues protected themselves from beatings by the state security services by stuffing their clothes with newspaper.

He was one of the activists whose job it was to round up supporters from mosques, fire them up with chants and lead them to Tahrir Square. He was smiley and fun and never seemed to sleep. Mossaab has been committed to street politics since the very first mass protest at the beginning of the year.

When the cabinet, appointed by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, announced proposals to permanently shield the military from civilian oversight in the new constitution, protesters returned en masse to Tahrir Square for the first time since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. Mossaab was among those who set up camp with other young April 6 activists demanding the military leave the political arena.

He and his fellow April 6 activists admitted they had made a mistake by leaving Tahrir Square earlier this year before the revolution was fully finished. This time, Mossaab said, they would not leave.

Mossaab was one of the young men staring down the security forces on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, one of the streets linking Tahrir Square to the Interior Ministry headquarters. He was not throwing stones. As the self-appointed photographer for April 6, he was capturing the violence on camera. He watched friends fall around him, most from the suffocating effects of the tear gas. Forty people died over a period of four days on that street and more than 1,000 were injured. Was it worth it?

“Of course it was worth it for freedom,” he insists. “I know there were a lot of deaths and injuries but all this was done for Egypt. We would do anything for Egypt. We brought down the Mubarak regime; a lot were killed or injured and this was for a good cause. We are prepared to fight even more and more and more for our freedom, to achieve our goals.”   

April 6 activists believed the elections should have been postponed until the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – or SCAF as it is known – transferred power to a civilian authority. And some of the protesters genuinely believed they would succeed.

“I don’t think the elections will go ahead,” said Waleed Rashed, one of the co-founders of April 6 only five days before polls were scheduled to open. “I don’t think so because no government will take that responsibility right now. No police will take that responsibility right now. I believe if SCAF do it they will be creating new problems.”

Under pressure, SCAF did make some concessions, including an accelerated timetable for democratic transition. But elections, they insisted, would go ahead and polls opened as scheduled on Monday, November 28.

Most Egyptians seemed content that they did. For them, free and fair elections are an accomplishment in themselves and having the army oversee this transition to democracy creates a sense of stability. 

Members of April 6 also voted, eager to support this fledgling democracy even if it was not happening precisely in the way they hoped. For the young activists, there was no contradiction between voting in the election and continuing their protest against the current military regime. 

In particular, they disapproved of SCAF’s appointment of Kamal el-Ganzouri as the new prime minister of the transitional council. He had been prime minister under Mubarak and the move reinforced the view on the street that ‘Mubarak’ is a culture as much as a man, and until that culture is eliminated entirely, there can be no meaningful political change.

That is why Mossaab, Ahmed and a number of other April 6 activists decided to camp outside the cabinet offices, the office from which el-Ganzouri works.

But last Friday, el-Ganzouri told the military to clear the streets of protestors in 15 minutes. Security forces clashed with protesters. Rocks rained down from the rooftops of government buildings. Riot police set tents alight and demonstrators responded by burning government offices.  

Mossaab was attacked: “The soldiers were using wood and iron bars to hit me. After I fell on to the ground they were hitting me on my legs, my arms and head. They were hitting me with their feet and stamped on my face with their shoes.”

Live ammunition was also fired and a bullet hit Mossaab’s friend Ahmed Mansoor in the head. He died almost instantly.

Since then the violence has continued. In all, 13 people have reportedly been killed. Over the last few days images of army thugs brutally beating and kicking a half-stripped woman protestor as they dragged her over the ground, have shocked the world. 

There has been widespread condemnation of the Egyptian army’s harsh response to the demonstrations. Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, criticised the excessive use of force and Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, called the incidents she had seen on TV “shocking” and “not worthy of a great people”.