Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 November 2011
Issue No. 1073
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

What next for revolution's second wave?

Protestors in Tahrir want rid of Egypt’s rulers, this time only days ahead of historic elections, Amira Howeidy reports

Click to view caption
The crowds part, making way for ambulances racing through Tahrir Square carrying the injured and the dead throughout this week's brutal showdown

On Saturday, seemingly without warning, the revolution returned to Tahrir Square. Only this time, if anything, it’s more radical, determined to topple what remains of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, starting with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

"The people want to topple El-Mushir," cry the protestors, El-Mushir being the SCAF’s head Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, for 20 years President Mubarak’s Minister of Defence and Egypt’s de factor ruler since his former boss stepped down on 11 February. Those who maintain the sit-in, though, say its not just Tantawi’s departure they want. The whole military council must go. Which begs a major question: what will replace it?

The uprising is proving to be a major turning point nine months after the toppling of Mubarak. But it’s happening just days ahead of the 28 November parliamentary elections, long perceived as the first step in transferring power from the military to an elected civilian administration. A communiqué issued on Sunday by SCAF, followed by a televised address on Tuesday by Tantawi, stressed that the elections will be held on time. But given the situation is so fluid it’s impossible to predict whether or not the vote will proceed, and if so, whether the turnout will be sufficient to confer much needed legitimacy on the result. Inevitably, the violent scenes in recent days in Tahrir will compound public worries over safety, and many voters are likely to stay at home. Already queues have been forming at supermarkets as citizens begin to panic buy.

Clashes between unarmed protesters and security forces in Cairo and Alexandria continued till Wednesday noon, when a sudden truce mediated by Muslim clerics seemed to calm the situation. Within two hours clashes resumed.

What began as a small sit-in of 150 people in Tahrir Square on Saturday developed within a few hours into a war between young protestors and the police who had attempted to forcibly remove the demonstrators. Thousands rushed to Tahrir to support the sit-in and by midnight at least 10,000 protestors had occupied the square.

Five days later the official death toll has reached 35, the majority of fatalities in Cairo, and 3,256 wounded. More than 200 people have been arrested according to human rights activists. An unspecified number of protestors, including at least nine activists, have been shot in the eye. Spokesmen from the health ministry on Tuesday confirmed that some deaths were a result of live ammunition. Doctors in the many field hospitals that have been set up confirmed that they had been seeing injuries and deaths caused by live bullets. They also say several protestors died of asphyxiation after inhaling gas from the canisters that security forces have been firing in huge numbers into the crowds.

Rania Badr, a volunteer doctor, told El-Nahar TV station on Tuesday that the gas had caused symptoms similar to epilepsy, prompting activists, as well as presidential hopeful Amr Moussa, to demand an investigation into whether or not they contain internationally prohibited chemical substances, allegations SCAF has denied.

None of this has deterred the protestors or the hundreds of young men who have been rotating for five days on the frontline battlefield of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, where police were holding a line to prevent any approach to the Ministry of Interior’s headquarters.

"This is a battle about dignity," leftist political activist Wael Khalil told Al-Ahram Weekly. "The young protestors are fighting for their own dignity, and so are the security forces. This is why the clashes have been none stop since Saturday."

The more the police have attacked and killed protestors, the stronger the urge to resist. Thousands have poured into Tahrir since Sunday as the death toll increased. Many people interviewed by the Weekly say they decided to join the protests after seeing graphic film footage of corpses piled by the side of the square and others being dragged by policemen and left on heaps of garbage.

"I can’t stay at home knowing that young men and women are being subjected to this savagery. Damn those people in the interior ministry who want to defeat us," a man in his 30’s said. One protestor who was injured on Sunday when clashes spread to Tahrir’s side streets described the police and the military as being as "bad as Israelis".

Attempts to end the bloodshed have failed. Tantawi’s Tuesday address to the nation - his first since taking over last February - was widely criticized for failing to apologise for the loss of life though he did offer "condolences". The speech came three days after the clashes started, and four days after a mass demonstration in Tahrir Square had demanded a clear timeline for the military’s exit.

Tantawi insisted parliamentary elections would take place as scheduled, and for the first time conceded that presidential elections could be held earlier, possibly by June 2012. Until Tantawi’s speech the SCAF timeline for transition had seen the military council remaining in control at least until the end of next year, and possibly into 2013.

Tantawi also said he had accepted Essam Sharaf’s resignation, submitted on Monday, and promised the formation of a new government after the elections.

"We never sought power," said Tantawi, who looked tired. He defended the armed forces and said the military has never targeted civilians. He also proposed that a public referendum be held on whether or not the military should remain in power until the end of the interim period.

Later on the same day SCAF issued a communiqué saying that an investigation into the violence of 19 and 20 November in Tahrir would be undertaken by the public prosecution. It also said that investigations into the 9 October Maspiro clashes, during which armoured personnel carriers ploughed into crowds of mostly Coptic demonstrators, leaving at least 27 dead, would be transferred from the military to the public prosecutor.

Tantawi’s speech was broadcast after the number of demonstrators in Tahrir had swelled to half a million. "One, two where is the transfer of power?" they chanted. "Down with the military, the people are the only red line!"

Thousands brought in medical supplies to the field hospitals, food and drinks for the protestors, and anti-SCAF graffiti was sprayed everywhere. The cold weather, the spirit and sense of solidarity in the square were reminiscent of the 25 January revolution, evoking a strong sense of déjà vu.

Many in Tahrir, and their supporters beyond the square, predict that Tantawi will eventually step down.

"The problem," says Khalil, "is we want to emulate February but this isn’t February." Back then there was a clear demand by millions to topple the regime, and Mubarak in particular. The military only became part of the scene on 28 January after the interior ministry – whose forces were outnumbered by the nation-wide protests - ordered its personnel to withdraw, creating a security vacuum that lasted for months. Back then the army was greeted with flowers and chants of "the people and the army are one hand". It was a neutral party that was taking over the situation with the people’s approval. When the SCAF pushed Mubarak out of office on 11 February, the generals were careful to position the army as the saviour of the revolution. Yet despite a plan, supported by the vast majority of Egyptians, to transfer power to a civil administration within six months, the generals decided to hang on to power.

Some liberal and secular parties, unprepared for quick elections, pressured the SCAF to remain. Whether or not this pressure actually effected the military council’s decision to remain, or whether they are working to their own calculations, is unclear. What is obvious is that in the nine months since February the army has squandered the goodwill it once enjoyed.

Today the military is paying for putting thousands of civilians on military trial; abusing and physically attacking activists and revolutionaries, including the sexual assault, under the guise of virginity tests, of female activists; killing approximately 25 peaceful Coptic protestors; failing to fill the security vacuum caused by the withdrawal of the security apparatus and persistently ignoring demands voiced in dozens of public protests.

A host of proposals to defuse the situation have been put forth by politicians and activists in the last 48 hours. On Tuesday political party leaders met with Sami Enan, SCAF’s second in command, to fix a timeline for a speedier transfer of power. According to Abul-Ela Madi, leader of the Wassat (Centre) party, Anan agreed to reduce the period for drafting the constitution to one month. The constitutional assembly, to be selected by the new People’s Assembly, should then be able to finish its work on May 10. A public referendum on the constitution could be held on 20 May with presidential elections beginning on 20 June.

Activists in the Revolution Youth Coalition have revealed their own plans for a "salvation government" to replace SCAF during the interim period. The name of presidential hopeful Mohamed El-Baradei has been floated as a possible candidate to lead this government. El-Baradei has said he would consider the post, but only if the power necessary for any new government to act is guaranteed.

But opinion remains over the mandate of any national unity government. El-Baradei is opposed to holding elections now and wants to draft a constitution first, contrary to the plan put forth by SCAF and supported by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Tarek El-Beshri, the judge who oversaw the drafting of the constitutional amendments in March that are supposed to pave the way for parliamentary and presidential elections, says the installation of a national unity government "goes against everything supported by the public in March’s referendum".

"The military has to go, yes, and it is unpopular, yes, but we must go ahead with elections next Monday in order to save the situation." Anything else, he told the Weekly, will lead to chaos.

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