A year ago, only those looking closely realized that huge cracks were developing in the facade of stability maintained by the West, and echoed, in the Middle East, by the ageing dictators who had helped preserve the status quo for decades. Only those looking closely heard about the mobilization of workers in North Africa to protest against the stagnation of their economies, or realized the full impact of the sacrifice of Greece at the altar of the neoliberal Euro project.
A year ago, hints of unrest emerged in the UK, when an “age of austerity” implemented by the Conservative-led government, who couldn’t even hide their delight at being presented with an opportunity to destroy the British state under the pretence of slashing the deficit, met with resistance, in large numbers, from the students and schoolchildren whose futures were being sold off.
By early December, however, when Parliament approved the government’s proposals to triple university tuition fees, and to end all state support for arts, humanities and the social sciences, the students capitulated, and went home instead of staying on the streets. That lesson ultimately played a part in feeding the Occupy Wall Street movement that established itself in New York two months ago, and then spread across America and around the world, but the true inspiration for change were the people of Tunisia and Egypt, who, last January, mobilized in huge numbers, and, unfazed by the risk of death at the hands of the security forces whose sole purpose was to protect the dictators from the people, overthrew those dictators — first, after 24 years, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who ran away from Tunisia to Saudi Arabia, and then, after 30 years, Hosni Mubarak.
Mubarak’s hopes that Omar Suleiman, his chief torturer (and America’s chief torturer abroad), would be able to succeed him were also dashed by Egypt’s revolutionaries, but the revolution then stalled — or perhaps, to be more accurate, proceeded on trust; that trust being that Mubarak’s former military colleagues, who took control of the country and declared themselves the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), would proceed swiftly to creating a new constitution and to holding free and fair elections that would see them removed from power.
On Friday, however, campaigners once more occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo, the crucible of the revolution in January and February, this time to protest about the Supreme Council’s abuses of power — including the 12,000 military trials held since Mubarak fell (far more than when he was in power), which have resulted in the imprisonment of popular activists like Alaa Abd El-Fattah, imprisoned last month, whose cause has mobilized many young people in particular.
The protest that started on Friday — just a week before the first phase of planned elections – quickly attracted widespread support when, on Saturday morning, the police violently broke up a peaceful sit-in by around 200 young people. As the author and commentator Ahdaf Soueif noted in the Guardian:
The protesters were some of the young people injured during the revolution in January and February and not yet treated, recompensed or helped to find work; not yet “dealt with” — as so much that was at the heart of the revolution has not been dealt with. The roughness of the police brought supporters in to protect the injured, and by midnight — when I went down to Tahrir — it was the familiar scene of battalions of central security forces (now renamed anti-riot troops) shooting and lobbing gas grenades at protesters who then pelted them with stones. The army stood by. From time to time it protected the security forces.
As Soueif also noted, however, “the underlying reason” for the protest is the realization that the Supreme Council “doesn’t intend to give up power.” As she explained, SCAF’s proposed timeline for a handover of power was: parliamentary elections (three months), the creation by parliament of a founding committee to write the constitution (six months), then a referendum on the constitution, and then elections for president. This, she noted, “keeps SCAF as acting president for 18 more months at least,” and, even more crucially, keeps SCAF “in power while the constitution is being written.” Under pressure from the protestors, the Supreme Council “agreed to presidential elections by June 2012,” but “it has said nothing about the constitution.”
Moreoever, as Soueif also explained, Essam Sharaf, the prime minister “brought in amid much hope, but emasculated by the military and so now discredited,” was placed in an untenable position, leading to his resignation, along with the entire civilian cabinet, at the weekend. As Soueif pointed out, one of the developments that had made Sharaf’s position untenable was the fact that SCAF “foisted a deputy prime minister on to Sharaf: Dr. Ali el-Selmi,” who recently “proposed that before elections all parties should sign up to a constitutional declaration that would, among other things: make the budget of the armed forces (including all arms deals) secret from parliament, government and president; and assign to the armed forces the role of ‘protecting the civil nature of the state.’” What this meant, of course, was that the military “could basically overthrow any government they didn’t like — while acting within the constitution.”
Soueif also noted that an appendix to this declaration states that SCAF “may send any draft constitution back to the drawing board at any time; and that, if the founding committee fails to produce an agreed constitution within three months, SCAF may appoint its own committee to write it themselves.” She added, “All political forces have rejected this. But the people fear that one of the forces might secretly agree to it and the military would then make sure it got a good proportion of seats in parliament.” This, she concluded accurately, “is the military entrenching itself in power,” and it explains why, along with the brutal clampdown on the protestors, the revolutionary impulses of January and February have been so thoroughly revived.
And with 38 deaths to date, of protestors killed at the hands of the security forces over the last four days, and more than 2,000 people injured, it is difficult to see how the revolution can be silenced for a second time. On Tuesday evening, with “confirmation emerging for the first time that security forces have been firing live ammunition at demonstrators,” the Supreme Council “appealed for calm and expressed ‘deep regret’ for the deaths of protesters,” as the Guardian explained, but “as fierce fighting between revolutionaries and armed police showed no sign of letting up and video footage of police and army brutality against unarmed demonstrators continued to circulate,” it was a futile and hypocritical plea.
Ramy el-Swissy, a leading member of the April 6th youth movement, one of several organisations that called for a “million-man” occupation of Tahrir Square yesterday, said, “The SCAF only have two choices — they obey the will of the people, or Egypt burns.” In response to the violence, 37 groups, “from across the political spectrum, including leftist, liberal and Islamist organisations,” issued a joint statement, declaring, “We confirm our readiness to face all the forces that aim to abort the revolution, reproduce the old regime, or drag the country into chaos and turn the revolution into a military coup.” Even the Muslim Brotherhood, which stands to gain most from elections, and has wavered in endorsing the protests, accused the Supreme Council of having “no problem burning Egypt, our homeland, and killing young people in order to herd the entire public into blind obedience, into tyranny and corruption and slavery yet again.”
Yesterday, as the violence continued, protestors called for nothing less than the resignation of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council (and, lest we forget, Mubarak’s defence minister for 20 years), just as they had demanded Mubarak’s departure nine months ago. As the Guardian explained, the crowd’s relentless chant was, “We are not leaving, he leaves.”
Tantawi tried to placate the protestors by appearing on state TV and announcing that the first round of parliamentary elections would take place as planned next week and confirming that presidential elections would be brought forward from 2013 to June 2012. He also accepted the resignation of the civilian government, and claimed that it was “up to the people to decide who will rule,” adding that the army was “completely ready to hand over responsibility immediately,” if the people wanted a referendum straightaway. He also apologized again for the deaths of protestors, but rather spoiled the effect by stating, “Some tried to drag us into confrontation. But we will control ourselves to the maximum. We will never kill a single Egyptian.”
As Tantawi ended his broadcast, chants of “Go, go, the people demand the overthrow of the regime,” erupted from the crowd, and there was, it seems, a sense of history repeating itself. As the Guardian noted, “Tantawi, like Mubarak in February, appeared to be far behind popular demands.”
The Muslim Brotherhood declared that they were happy with the concessions, but they, too, were adrift from the passions driving the protest, and, as the Guardian also explained, “there was a powerful sense that popular pressure had forced the pace.” The Guardian also noted, “Earlier, in an electrifying moment, an army officer left his men to join the protesters while an effigy of Tantawi was hanged to cheers.”
Khaled El-Sayed, a member of the Youth Revolution Coalition and a candidate in the parliamentary elections, said that talks with SCAF had revealed how “the military’s position was inadequate.” He explained, “Our demands are clear. We want the military council to step down and hand over authority to a national salvation government with full authority,” which, according to reports in the Egyptian media, could be headed by Mohamed ElBaradei, the former chief UN weapons inspector.
As I await further developments from Egypt, I’m also cross-posting below an electrifying first-hand account of yesterday’s developments in Tahrir Square by Jack Shenker for the Guardian, which, it seems to me, captures well the refusal of protestors to back down in the face of homicidal state violence.
Tahrir Square crowd rejoins revolution as protesters turn out en masse
By Jack Shenker, The Guardian, November 23, 2011
It takes about 30 paces to move from utopia to dystopia in Tahrir. In the space of a few seconds you can dip your head in and out of fiercely contrasting worlds — one streaked with blood, mud and teargas, the other home to group dances and a popcorn stall.
On the ever-shifting border between them, the two worlds collide with an absurd intensity. A man selling nuts to a smiling family leaps back to allow a lifeless body to be carried through; amid a cluster of well-dressed young people casually chatting into their phones, a man sits silently wearing a face mask that looks designed to withstand a nuclear holocaust.
On the other side of the invisible divide young men surge backwards and forwards towards a wall of smoke and gunshots. Among them bobs a candy-floss vendor, his bright pink wares fleetingly illuminated by flashes of light through the gloom. This square has been many things to many people over the past year. Above all it has been a place in which politics has been swept off the playing fields of the elite and brought crashing, messily, down to earth. Hosni Mubarak discovered that to his cost when on three successive occasions he tried, earlier this year, to address the Egyptian people in the fashion of a kindly father whose children had gone wayward. On Tuesday Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, currently the country’s military ruler, attempted to do the same.
In the face of this reactivated revolution — a response to both the pace of reform and the army’s repressive and brutal tactics — he made a televised address offering concessions and platitudes to the hundreds of thousands who had filled Tahrir Square. Just as it did for Mubarak, the crowd fell briefly quiet — and then roared its rejection, the word “irhal” (leave) echoing into the night. “Now we wait for speeches two and three,” concluded one protester, as the drums and the songs and the shooting struck up their merry tune once again.
What Tantawi, the country’s military leader, was offering was a faster transition to civilian rule, with a first round of parliamentary elections as planned next week, followed by presidential elections, sooner than planned, next June. He added that the military was prepared to hold a referendum on immediately transferring power to a civilian authority if people demanded it. Standing and listening were thousands and thousands of people who, until now, had held back from joining this reanimated revolution, either distrustful of its motives, or fearful of its violence, or both.
But they had answered the call for a “million-man” occupation of the square, and even if they had not reached that number, there were hundreds of thousands doing their best to be heard.
Gamal el-Dahshan, a 33-year-old stockbroker, said he had not attended any of the street protests that have grown to engulf Egypt in the past few days, preferring to stay at home and watch the conflicting narratives playing out on TV. “When I woke up this morning I realised that the mushir [Tantawi] was just like Mubarak, just another man who thinks he can rule us and has no interest in listening,” Dahshan said. “There is only one place where Egyptians can speak with one voice, and that is here. Today I knew I could speak again.” Others have been here longer, camped out in the slush of the central roundabout where the last blades of grass battle for survival among the boots and rubbish and field hospitals of the revolutionaries.
Abdel Magid Ibrahim, a 74-year-old civil servant, had been sleeping in the square with his wife Hanaa since Saturday and had no plans to leave following Tantawi’s concessions. “The generals had one choice, to protect the revolution or protect Mubarak and his thieves,” he shrugged. “We have given them the chance to make that choice, and they chose Mubarak and his thieves. So be it. We will stay until they leave.”
Running like a current through the seething mass of people was a sentiment — part regret, part determination — that the mistakes made in January and February should not be repeated again.
“It’s not just about Tantawi not understanding what we want, about him not realising that the problem isn’t the little details of cabinet ministers or election timetables, but rather about him and his military council,” argued Mahmoud Abdul-Ali, a civil engineer. “It’s also about us just being patient, and not rushing to go home early. That’s what we did last time, and we won’t go down that path again. Even if Tantawi had given us everything we wanted tonight, people would stay — the next step would be to occupy [the state television building] Maspero.”
It is Maspero, ringed by barbed wire and armoured personnel carriers and currently one of the most fortified buildings in Egypt, where the next stage of the struggle will now play out.
Beyond Tahrir’s fringes, those watching Tantawi’s speech on state television were treated to a barrage of patriotic music immediately following its conclusion. Those that oppose SCAF — the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces –- have fought valiantly against a mainstream media complex rigged so thoroughly against them, and succeeded in bringing more than could ever have been imagined just a couple of weeks ago into their fold.
But now, with a concrete date offered for presidential elections and the imminent arrival of a new government — albeit still under the thumb of the junta — Tantawi will be hoping to draw on Egypt’s last vestiges of reverence for the military and turn the public tide of opinion against any further unrest.
Tantawi’s roll of the dice was bookended by fresh volleys of birdshot and teargas by the security forces, as fires in the nearby Bab el-Louq market caused by street fighting continued to rage. “Politics has returned to the street, and that’s what Tahrir has always been about,” said Yasmine Nassar, a 26-year-old consultant. “My mother wanted to come down to the square today, and believe me she is not the kind of person to attend demonstrations. When you have that level of feeling, it’s impossible to evaporate it until all the demands are met. And the one demand here is clear: SCAF must leave.” Behind her, a conga of desperately-needed medical supplies bound up in discarded grocery boxes snaked its way through the throng, and an approving flag-seller blew cheerfully on a whistle.
Tahrir’s heaven and hell, for now, is here to stay.