19 December 2011. A World to Win News Service. By Samuel Albert. An Egyptian army attack on an occupation in front of the cabinet building near Tahrir Square 15 December set off yet another explosion of revolt.
Since the fact that the protesters numbered only a few hundred and sometimes less, Egypt's ruling military and their media called them an isolated minority. They probably figured they could easily crush this small but persistent sign of defiance. Yet the harder the military tried to break the rebels' back, the more support for the rebels swelled. The military found itself if not isolated, then at least losing ground.
Protesters have occupied Tahrir Square or nearby areas for a month now, at a cost so far of about 55 dead, many hundreds of serious injuries and arrests that bring torture and prison. Their numbers have ebbed and flowed from a few dozen at some moments to hundreds, often thousands and at one point tens of thousands. A major demonstration has been called for 23 December.
The movement seemed at a low point on 19 November when police swooped down on Tahrir at dawn to drive out a small group that had set up tents there. Over the next few days possession of the the square went back and forth between the police and the protesters, as young reinforcements and older activists poured in, culminating in a huge and triumphant rally. Then came days of hard fighting as youth attacked the nearby Interior Ministry building.
Along with clubs, tear gas and gunfire, the military also deployed political manoeuvres to stop the protests. They discarded their faceless prime minister and put in a more experienced politician, Kamal Gonzouri, once PM under President Hosni Mubarak before distancing himself from the regime that Tahrir brought down last February. They also held parliamentary elections and promised that next year would see a civilian president.
The smaller numbers of protesters who persisted during and after the elections moved from Tahrir to the nearby cabinet building, where they symbolically blocked the nomination of a new cabinet. They demanded Gonzouri's resignation and an immediate end to military rule.
On 15 December soldiers beat up individuals leaving the sit-in. A young man was kidnapped, taken into the adjacent parliament building and tortured. This brutality brought more demonstrators and fighting began. At dawn the next day military police attacked, firing shots into the air. Using tactics seen repeatedly in the last year, men on the rooftops of government buildings, some in uniform, pelted the crowd below with lethal objects – stones, tiles, wooden panels and furniture. People began throwing stones back at the troops on the ground.
The soldiers seized about 20 people and took them into the parliament building. They were beaten with clubs and iron bars and given electric shocks. Among them were a leading young woman activist and an Al Jazeera reporter. They did the same to a new young Member of Parliament who had signed a complaint against the head of the military junta, Field Marshall Tantawi. While torturing him they yelled, "This is what we think of your … parliament."
Eight members of the advisory council the military had just appointed to give itself a civilian cover resigned in protest against what they called the military's attacks on non-violent demonstrators. The rest voted to stop meeting.
A senior Muslim scholar who had come to show his solidarity with the protesters was shot in the heart, apparently by military police. Nine other people were also shot, two of them killed, according to the Health Ministry. The popular cleric's funeral the next day brought together thousands of people, including leading Muslim and Coptic Christian religious authorities and secular activists. Then they marched to Tahrir Square.
Fighting continued in front of the parliamentary building, and soldiers repeatedly charged the square. They invaded field hospitals set up in nearby mosques and churches, burning medical equipment, arresting doctors and carrying off patients.
They also burst into apartments and hotel rooms overlooking the square to smash and steal reporters' cameras and other equipment. On the ground anyone with a camera became a target.
Nevertheless, unbearably shocking footage was soon posted on the Net. Several clips show groups of soldiers surrounding, beating and stomping on a fallen demonstrator and then dragging the unconscious or dead body away. One shows a charging soldier drawing a pistol and shooting into a group of retreating people. Photos of mutilated bodies bear witness to the soldiers' savagery.
Although the fighting in front of the parliamentary buildings mainly involved young men and boys, there were women in the square, and they seemed to be targeted with a special fury. Probably the best-known video of the 17 December assaults shows soldiers grabbing a young woman by her head scarf and stripping her half naked. A soldier can be seen raising a booted foot to kick her in the stomach as she is dragged away. In another a well-known older woman activist is seen standing by herself, watching. Soldiers surround her and begin to club her, dragging her away as well.
At some point a petrol bomb hit the Egyptian national archives next to the parliament building where both sides were hurling them. Soldiers attacked demonstrators who tried to put out the fire and carry some of the documents to safety. The contents of the archives go back to the records of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798.
Compelled to issue a political self-defence, a spokesman for the military council denied that soldiers had clubbed or shot anyone, and proclaimed that the demonstrators were not "the youth of the revolution." This was interpreted as a reference to the large number of apparently lower class youth at the centre of the fighting, just as they were during the first Tahrir revolt that toppled Mubarak. He also said that the violence was caused by "counter-revolutionaries" and a "foreign hand", a reference to Israel and/or Mubarak regime remnants who are supposedly paying poor youth and street children to riot. This might seem like a bit much coming from a military that was built up by the US for the purpose of, among other things, protecting Israel from the Egyptian people, but portraying itself as the protector of the nation (and now the "revolution") has long been a core part of the Egyptian army's political strategy.
Although by 19 December the army had brought in the Central Security Forces, Mubarak's supposedly "civilian" anti-protest police, these clashes were unusual in that for most of the time the army alone conducted the fighting. The first time that this happened on such a large scale was in October, when soldiers assaulted marchers protesting attacks on Coptic Christians, killing 27 people. Such open people/army confrontations represent a political problem for the military, which has tried to distance itself from the almost universally hated police and claim that its solders are present at demonstrations to protect demonstrators.
These events have also been problematic for Egypt's rulers in that once again the country's turbulent political configuration has been centred on Tahrir Square. The fighting in the streets has been the main event, while the parliamentary elections taking place at the same time have been a sideshow. This is no minor setback, since the electoral process was supposed to produce a regime with some legitimacy in a country where over the last year authority at every level came to be not only despised but defied and often driven out, starting at the top and working down. The army certainly has the power, but the naked injustice of its violence has gravely tarnished the legitimacy it can't do without.
This is probably why US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was "deeply concerned" by the violence, although she attributed it to both sides, as if it were not the Egyptian regime and it alone that is attacking and killing civilians. For an official fond of calling for sanctions and bombardment of other Middle Eastern governments not to Washington's liking, it is notable that she did not threaten to cut off the US life support system for Egypt's living dead generals.
Egyptian reactionaries have tried to take up a slogan of the Occupy movement in the US and turn it upside down, taunting the Tahrir occupiers by proclaiming "We are the 97 percent, you are the 3 percent", a reference to the fact that the leftist political parties won about 3.5 percent of the seats in the first round of parliamentary elections. This is not an accurate picture of a complex and contradictory situation.
A Gallup poll conducted earlier this year proclaimed that most people had confidence in the army (not necessarily the ruling generals), but also found that almost everyone considered violence against civilians never justified, a figure not matched by Gallup surveys taken in Israel and the US, for example.
Further, there seems to be an enormous gap between many people's deepest aspirations and the political choices they feel that practicality dictates. When the regime has attacked the Tahrir rebels, the resulting polarization for-or-against Tahrir, and especially for-or-against violent repression of Tahrir, has not been favourable for the military.
So far, the military has sought to deal with this by trying to crush the rebels. They have not exhausted their potential for killing.
Some of the people arrested, tortured or shot have been well-known activists and regime enemies. The murdered cleric, Sheik Emad Effat, for example, was popular for opposing Mubarak, the junta and the authorities who dominate the religious establishment. The concern that the generals may be targeting specific iconic individuals increased when a member of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) speaking on television denounced Mohamed Hashem, the owner of Merit Publishing, as one of a handful of people behind the violence. Hashem is well-regarded in Egypt and the Arab world for his iconoclastic secularism and personal courage as well as his literary perspicacity. His standing among intellectuals is matched by the affection of Tahrir youth he sheltered in his offices near the square. Accused of handing out helmets and gas masks to youth battling soldiers, he simply replied that he would never stop helping revolutionaries. A number of artists and other prominent people signed an emergency "statement of appreciation" supporting him against the military.
But the army's political strength has not been exhausted, not only among those who fear social change but also among many who yearn for it. Even among people who consider themselves deeply committed to what they think Tahrir stands for, many feel that the military is their only hope to stop the Islamists from imposing a fully religious state.
In this highly complex situation, it is true that the various reactionary forces – including the military, the Islamists and the proudly pro-Western representatives of Egypt's private sector big capitalists – are not united. In fact, the Tahrir movement has made it harder for the people's enemies to unite. For instance, right now neither the Islamists nor secular politicians care to be associated with the SCAF, although they have demonstrated their appetite to share its power. One reason why the military employs elderly Mubarak regime members as its civilian figureheads is that no one else wants the job. The revival of the revolt has somewhat spoiled the party for the Muslim Brotherhood, the big winner in the elections for a parliament that is in danger of being discredited before it is even seated. But the Brotherhood has continued to portray itself as the the only party that can restore order.
Such divisions among the reactionaries were a source of dangerous illusions among the people when the military dumped Mubarak. They still are, even though people have gone from chanting "The people and the army are one hand" at the time of Mubarak's downfall last February to "The people want the downfall of the army" and even "The people want the execution of Tantawi" today.
But these divisions – and the persistent crisis of legitimacy that exists in a dynamic relationship with that – also still represent a favourable set of circumstances for the emergence of an entirely different political pole: a movement seeking not to reconfigure but to overthrow the existing power structure and establish a revolutionary state, one that could build an entirely different kind of society able to satisfy the people's deepest interests and aspirations. The emergence of that kind of clearly defined and scientifically guided revolutionary movement could completely transform the current political landscape.