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Egypt: The Struggle Continues

[Protests in Tahrir Square. Image from dailymail.co.uk] [Protests in Tahrir Square. Image from dailymail.co.uk]

Thousands of demonstrators filled expressing anger and determination rallied in Tahrir Square on Friday, July 1. Sharp clashes between youth on the one hand and police and regime thugs on the other on Tuesday and Wednesday June 28 and 29 were the immediate impetus for the demonstration. But in addition to outrage about police brutality, which most Egyptians had hoped was a thing of the past, there is growing dissatisfaction with the limited changes since the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak.

According to a group of youth who took a time out from returning tear gas canisters lobbed at them by the police on Wednesday morning, families of the “martyrs of the revolution,” who had been conducting a sit-down protest in front of the main government TV and radio headquarters in Cairo had gone to the Balloon Theater on the west bank of the Nile River on Tuesday evening to complain that they had not received compensation for their losses from the interim government and that some of those seriously injured did not have sufficient funds to pay for medications.

The families were attacked by thugs, a common phenomenon during the last years of the Mubarak regime. The aggrieved families then marched to the Ministry of Interior across the Nile River to lodge a complaint about this treatment. Once again, they were attacked by thugs. The crowd then moved to Tahrir Square, where clashes with police continued throughout the night and most of the next day. After 1,114 people were wounded, the army appeared and sealed off the street leading from Tahrir Square to the Ministry of Interior.

However, the pretense of the military’s neutrality whose purpose is simply to maintain order is wearing thin on some people. In response to the unusually repressive measures of the police, by the standards that have come to be acceptable in the post-Mubarak era, the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, the 6th of April Youth Movement, and several political parties called for a mass protest in Tahrir Square on Friday. These forces dubbed the protest “Friday of Retribution and Loyalty to the Martyrs.” Even the usually quiescent Muslim Brothers, who appear to have an understanding with the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to maintain “stability” and to limit the extent of social change, denounced the excessive force used by the police.

There were also demonstrations in the provincial capitals of Suez and Isma‘iliyya, which have been particularly active since the popular uprising of January-February.

Many, including the liberal daily al-Masry al-Youm, believe that the thugs’ attack on the families of the martyrs was instigated by supporters of the former ruling National Democratic Party reacting against the judicial decision dissolving all of Egypt’s the local councils the day before. The councils had been a central pillar of the power of the NDP and the Mubarak regime. Their definitive demise would be a very substantial blow to the capacity of former supporters of the old regime to reconstitute themselves as a viable political force. The SCAF has announced that it will not appeal the court’s decision.

The protest began with a rousing Friday sermon by Shaykh Mazhar Shahin of the ‘Umar Makram mosque, located across Tahrir Square from the improvised stage. He sharply denounced the government for failing to provide for the needs of the families of those killed and wounded during the revolution. He demanded swift prosecution of much-hated former Minister of Interior Habib al-‘Adli, who is under detention, and others responsible for deaths of demonstrators sine January. Embracing a Coptic colleague, Hani Hanna, and clenching both their hands high above their heads like victorious boxers, he denounced all forms of sectarianism and division between Muslims and Christians. He removed his red and white headdress, symbolizing his education at the citadel of Sunni Muslim learning, al-Azhar. Then, holding it high for all to see he proclaimed, “This imama will never submit to injustice. The tradition of al-Azhar will never submit to injustice.” His words recalled the career of Shaykh ‘Umar Makram, for whom his mosque is named. Makram led Cairenes in resisting both Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt and the Ottoman reoccupation in 1800.

After prayers, a representative of the youth coalition read out its official demands which included: full compensation for the families of those killed during and since the revolution, the dismissal of ministry of interior officials responsible for attacking demonstrators, a speedy trial for former Minister of Interior Habib al-‘Adli, press access to trials of officials of the former regime. This was followed by militant chants including “The people want the fall of the field marshal” (al-sha‘b yurid isqat al-mushir, referring to the SCAF chief Muhammad Husayn Tantawi) and “Freedom, freedom, the people are not thugs” (al-hurriyya, al-hurriyya al-shabab mish baltagiyya). Around 4pm demonstrators marched from Tahrir Square to the offices of the Cabinet to present their demands.

One factor exacerbating the anger of the crowd was the death of Ahmad Sharif only days earlier from wounds he received during the popular uprising. He became the 847th “martyr of the revolution.” His mother addressed the demonstrators, many of who responded shouting, “We are all your children.”

Several tents were set up, reminiscent of the occupation of Tahrir Square from January 25 until Mubarak’s departure on February 11. The Revolutionary Youth Coalition called for a continuous occupation of the square until the demands of the demonstration were met. This expression of a more confrontational approach towards the military is a recent development resulting from growing realization among the liberal and radical-liberal upper middle-class intelligentsia the youth movements represent that the SCAF seeks to contain the revolution rather than to realize its full potential.

Another new development is that the April 6 Youth Movement has raised the slogan, “The martyrs and the poor first,” a demand that the government should give priority to these people’s needs. This is in sharp contrast to accusations by some liberals and the business classes that workers who continue to strike to demand a basic monthly minimum wage of £E 1,200 (about $200) are greedy or worse. The current minimum wage of £E 700 (about $118) was established in 2010. But many workers have still not received it because the government does not compel employers in the private sector and the “informal economy” to pay.

Those workers and others have understood from very early on that they cannot assume that their basic requirements will be met by the revolutionary process. The SCAF implored them to stop striking and protesting and return to work to restore economic growth. Nonetheless, strikes have persisted almost daily. There have been hundreds of strikes and protests by workers this year despite the promulgation of a draconian military decree in March establishing penalties of up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $83,333 for participating in strikes and protests that disturb production and public order. On Thursday five workers at Petrojet were given one-year suspended prison sentences for obstructing the entrance to offices of their employer, the Ministry of Petroleum.

The suspended sentence suggests the delicate balance SCAF must maintain. It seeks to minimize the political changes that occur under its watch and until it can hand off power to a legitimate civilian government. But it cannot repress all popular demands and remain legitimate in the eyes of the people.

Only a few hundred people occupied Tahrir Square by the end of Friday. The police, who were notable by their absence on July 1, posed no obstacle to their remaining. A long-planned demonstration to push the SCAF in the direction of more comprehensive changes and speedier accountability is scheduled for next Friday, July 8. Egypt’s revolution is very much a work in progress and the struggle among its political and social forces remains undecided.

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