28 November 2011. A World to Win News Service. By Samuel Albert. As Egypt's ruling military tried to shift the country's conflicts to the electoral arena, many youth and others remained in Tahrir Square in an occupation that has cost at least 42 lives and several thousand wounded so far.
The next few days will tell whether the Tahrir protesters can manage to remain in the square if a "government of national salvation" headed by leading civilian presidential candidates is installed. Their stubbornness through the last 11 days, despite the combination of armed terror and promises of change through voting unleashed against them, took the political initiative away from the armed forces and once again put these young rebels at the centre of unfolding events, much as in the days when they sparked the revolt that toppled Mubarak.
The current battles began on the morning of 19 November when military police attacked a small group of those wounded in the original revolt who had camped in a grassy area overnight. Day after day since then, the regime tried to clear the occupation with volley after volley of tear gas and shotgun-propelled projectiles. Yet the protesters not only stood their ground but even mounted wave after wave of counter-attacks on the Interior Ministry on Mohamed Mahmoud street a few blocks away from the square.
In response to friends abroad, a young pharmacist sent an e-mail from the square: "I am OK but I have two young friends, one who died already and one who is in intensive care, shot in the head, and another who lost an eye and one who lost two eyes... This massacre is revealing the ugly face of the system and has turned this into a totally people's movement, and we are trying to catch up with that. We are in Tahrir all the time, trying to be creative in our contact with the people and getting a lot of sympathy from the people still at home."
This sentiment was repeated by others: what enabled them to stay in Tahrir Square this long has not been mainly personal courage, although there was an enormous amount of that, but the feeling that what they were doing was touching a deep chord among people all over the country and was therefore worth the sacrifice. They are also aware that the world is watching them and that their actions are in resonance with the Occupy movements in the US, UK and elsewhere. People in Tahrir know about actions in support of the Egyptian revolt that have been held in a number of American and British cities. (See nomiltrials.org)
Egyptian society is much more obviously divided than at any time since Mubarak's fall. In the name of defending the anti-Mubarak "revolution", the military is attacking the youth who drove Mubarak out. The main Islamist groups have come out against the young rebels, and many ordinary people are unsure and sometimes hostile. Commentators opposed to the revolt emphasize the conflict between "the street" (majority opinion) and "the square" (Tahrir). Yet so many people across society have shown such strong sympathy and even active support for the rebels that for the last 11 days the military has been unable to put an end to the political stalemate and the standoff around the square.
On Friday 25 November, the occupiers' numbers swelled into the tens of thousands as they were joined by various organized contingents, including people from various kinds of universities and neighbourhoods, and women chanting slogans against the Islamist parties. One feeder march was led by a young man who had lost one eye in the January and February revolt and the other eye just now. The rally brought out a socially mixed crowd of men and women, in contrast to the generally poorer young men and boys fighting the police near the Interior Ministry. (For a sharply drawn portrait of the various segments of protesters, see "The battle of Cairo's Muhammad Mahmoud Street" by Lucie Ryzova on the Al Jazeera Web site.)
That same evening a few thousand counter-demonstrators gathered at another centre-city square to chant, "Down with Tahrir, yes to the military council."
In a very unusual gesture, the chief imam of Al-Azhar mosque, Sunni Islam's highest religious authority, issued a statement of support for the Tahrir protesters.
The fear of public opinion has even forced the military – or at least two generals speaking in the name of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) – to express "regrets and deep apologies for the deaths of the martyrs from among Egypt's loyal sons during recent events in Tahrir Square."
But at the same time a military court has ordered another 15 days of detention for blogger Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who had already spent a month in prison. He now faces a trial before a special state security court. Another blogger, Maikel Nabil, sentenced to three years in prison for writing "The army and the people were never one hand", has been on hunger strike for almost a hundred days and his retrial has been postponed. It seems that the military's plan for dealing with public opinion includes crushing opposing opinion-makers.
SCAF tried to undermine support for the Tahrir Square rebels by removing the entire cabinet they themselves had appointed to provide themselves with a civilian face. Their new chosen prime minister was Kamal El-Ganzouri, a US-trained economist who served in the same post under Mubarak at the end of the 1990s. When news of Ganzouri's appointment reached the 25 November rally, the crowd roared its rejection.
The mood was celebratory that night, because the regime seemed to be retreating both politically and in the streets around the square. People set off the coloured fireworks seen at football games. The next morning, however, when young men and women staged a sit-in in front of the cabinet building to prevent El-Ganzouri from entering, a military vehicle ran over and killed one of them, 21-year-old Ahmed Sayed. Thousands more people came to Tahrir Square the next day, 27 November, despite the first hard rain of winter. As the polls opened the next day, their numbers dwindled, with sentiments divided between boycotting the elections (mainly in hopes of holding future elections under a civilian government) and reluctantly voting now (mainly to hold back an Islamist victory).
The medical situation reveals much about the political line-up. Many doctors and other medical personnel have come to the aid of the protesters and young fighters, setting up about a dozen field hospitals in the square itself. During the revolt last January and February such hospitals were set up because of fears that the public hospital administration would report or turn over the wounded to the police. This spirit of a necessary alternative to official institutions is still at work.
The police have made these medical tents a special target for tear gas and arson. A young woman doctor died of suffocation when huge clouds of tear gas engulfed the tent where she was working. A devout Muslim, she was said to be a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, a party that is particularly strong in the doctors' association and that called for its members to stay away from Tahrir. Reportedly there has been no shortage of medical personnel or even supplies in Tahrir, thanks to continuing donations.
Medical attention has become more crucial than ever because of the use of new police tactics – shooting to blind people with birdshot pellets and rubber and plastic bullets. This is apparent in videos of the casualties showing wounds in the upper chest and face. One regular hospital alone reported admitting 60 people with eye injuries in the week leading up to 27 November. Their wounds included burst corneas, burst eye sockets and foreign bodies in the eye. A volunteer doctor working in the field hospital nearest to Mohamed Mahmoud Street leading from Tahrir to the Interior Ministry reported that he treated about 25 people on the morning and afternoon of 25 November. Most had been shot in the upper area of the body, especially the face, with four people hit in the eyes with birdshot. (Report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights)
Eyewitnesses say that police taunted protesters facing off against them, "If you want to lose your eye, come over here." A notorious video on Youtube shows a police officer firing on demonstrators in Mohamed Mahmoud Street. A soldier congratulates him, saying, "Nice shot, you hit that guy right in the eye." A blogger asked what kind of army, and what kind of society, would train its soldiers to think like that.
The authorities have not hesitated to kill – another video shows men in civilian clothing wielding long clubs apparently to finish off people left unconscious by police truncheons. But shooting people in the eyes seems to have become a deliberate policy meant to cause as much pain and terror as possible while avoiding greater numbers of politically problematic deaths. In addition, according to the same report, almost 400 people have been arrested and then beaten and otherwise abused in custody, including children.
Similarly, many of the fatalities have been attributed to tear gas. Questions have been raised about what exactly this tear gas contains, although examination of the spent cartridges found so far has not revealed anything that would make it more deadly than usual. Some medical experts speculate that the deaths are caused not by a more lethal variety of gas but its concentrated and sustained use over a long period. It may be that people are suffering from cumulative pulmonary, cardiac and other damage. So much gas has combined with the dust that usually coats this desert city that in much of the downtown the slightest gust of wind sets off coughing.
This gas is primarily supplied by the United States, as anyone can see by examining the markings on spent cartridges. The US provides the Egyptian military with 1.3 billion dollars a year in direct aid, amounting to two-thirds of total US funding for Egypt (money for civilian projects is no less harmful – US "aid" obliges Egyptians to depend on American wheat imports for their daily bread). US State Department records show that the US supplied 1.7 million dollars worth of "toxicological agents" – "including tear gas and riot control agents" in 2010 alone. (El Ahram Online, 25 November.)
Youth organizations have made public documents leaked to them by customs employees indicating that the US is now in the process of shipping the Egyptian Interior Ministry an additional 21 tons of tear gas. The second of three container ships was being unloaded in the port city of Suez when these documents were released on 28 November.
While the police are a civilian body, they are run by the Interior Ministry, which is under military control. The main police units attacking the protesters are from the Central Security Forces, responsible for most of the deaths in January and February. The members of this corps are recruited from among army conscripts who volunteer for the job. The armed forces claim that they have intervened to protect demonstrators from the police, but there have been many reports of army officers and military police accompanying other police in attacking Tahrir square and in defending the Interior Ministry, often surrounded by tanks. Now the military has put up a two-metre high wall of concrete slabs across Mohamed Mahmoud street.
The US has called for a "full transfer of power to a civilian government", a move that SCAF head Field Marshall Tantawi initially rejected. On 27 November he announced that no matter what the result of the elections, "the place of the army will remain exactly as it is. It will not change in any new constitution."
While Tahrir square is united around the chant, "The people want the fall of the field marshal", there is a prevailing lack of clarity about what kind of regime could be an alternative to military rule. SCAF has become as discredited as most of Egypt's political institutions, and there is not much hope for real change from the current elections. (We Are All Khaled Said, one of the main Facebook groups behind the original revolt, asked people to vote while wearing black badges in memory of the martyrs, a call that seems to reflect a mood of bleak acquiescence to the elections due to the lack of an alternative.) Yet few people envision a revolutionary overthrow of the entire state structure, including the armed forces. Instead, most would like to hope that somehow parliamentary elections or a constituent assembly – there is debate about which – could establish a rule of law that would somehow be above society. But the Egyptian ruling classes and the US imperialists they are beholden to would never respect any legal structure that didn't reflect their economic and political interests!
The viciousness of what the movement faces can be seen in the military tactics being used against them. These tactics are not only fully enabled by the US but also seem to be in line with Washington's political goals, which are to facilitate the emergence of a regime that would both continue to be subservient to US interests and enjoy enough legitimacy to get away with crushing the young rebels and their supporters. While there may be some conflict between SCAF and Washington, it is over how best to achieve this goal.
At the same time as SCAF was expressing its "regret" for deaths on its Facebook page, the American ambassador to Egypt used her Twitter account to announce that the US was donating 100,000 dollars in "humanitarian assistance for violence victims." In light of everything else the US has done in Egypt, including building up, sustaining and arming the Egyptian military, this is like gouging out someone's eyes and then offering them eye drops.