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Tahrir August 1st: Masquerade for a Lost Legitimacy

[Military police personnel run after demonstrators in Tahrir square in Cairo, August 1, 2011. Source: REUTERS] [Military police personnel run after demonstrators in Tahrir square in Cairo, August 1, 2011. Source: REUTERS]

After a nearly three-week long sit-in, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) sent their forces—the same forces that are reportedly tasked with “defending us from our external enemies”—to violently attack peaceful demonstrators, clear a site of protest, and, with the help of a propaganda media machine, try to win over more support of the Egyptian public. I will map out the logic I see in this violent rampage.

From his perch @kikhote captures an important vantage point of the joint military and Egyptian security forces violent attack against demonstrators and the disbanding of the Tahrir sit-in on the eve of the 1st of Ramadan 2011.

 

At 2:16 in this clip you hear a crowd chanting, “al-geish wal shae'b, eed wahda” or “the army and people are one hand, united.” This is the absurd anthem that has rung throughout Cairo since military forces were deployed on Egypt's streets on January 28th. There is certainly a fetish among wide portions of the Egyptian public with the male machismo of the military, hence the cheering on of green mannequins’ phallic clasp of the gun facing the “dirty” demonstrators. The celebration of the organized show of force on August 1 seems to underscore the unquestioned legitimacy of the military in the eyes of the public. The need for the spectacle of such excessive force, as the one we observed on August 1, also reflects the military establishment’s need to masquerade its power in an attempt to maintain such a position of deemed legitimacy.

Their tactics exemplify a nuanced version of those that Egyptian security forces have been using for years to contain “unrest,” or popular discontent against bourgeoisie biased rule in Egypt.

Another video available online reveals the coordination of military and state security forces. Although State Security Investigations Service was renamed “National Security Forces” last March, it still functions along the same logic that governed its policies under Mubarak and thus most Egyptians still called by their former name, or “state security” for short.

Two minutes into this clip we hear the videographer AbdelRahman Ez explain how a known state security officer arrested him in the square. Starting at 6:00 Ez is filming from inside the central security truck and we witness plain clothed security personnel beating up a protester outside the vehicle, a soldier stands by and watches—“the army and people are one hand.” One can only wonder how a scene like that is possible only six months after millions of Egyptians marched in the streets in rejection of the suppressive political system that was sustained by the same tactics we witness in this clip?

The key to running such a classist state is to rule the weak by making use of their weakness, or using the weak to rule the weak.

Let us take a few steps back. What exactly was going on in Tahrir Square on August 1? The participants in the sit-in that started in Tahrir on July 8 set forth some key demands, most notably “justice”: They called for the trial of the previous regime’s ranking figureheads, none of whom have received sentences so far with the exception of the former Minister of Interior sentencing on secondary money laundering charges. On August 3 the trial of the ex-president Hosni Mubarak along with his sons, former Minister of Interior Habib Al-Adly and a number of a other former regime members commenced in a context akin to a theatrical performance. The Egyptian public is yet to see results of these trials in order to assess their seriousness. The protesters, moreover, demanded the sacking of the Mubarak-appointed public prosecutor and the current Minister of Interior Mansour Al-Issawi, and called for independent investigations of security personnel suspected of killing and injuring thousands of protesters after January 25. The protesters demanded a restructuring of the police force such that it would no longer fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Interior, which has systematically ordered police officers to suppress and torture Egyptians for years without any independent judicial oversight. Participants in the Tahrir Square sit-in called for an end to military trials of civilians. Human rights lawyers estimate that at least 12,000 civilians have been tried in military courts since January 28. Demands also included setting a minimum and maximum wage to ensure social justice, and amending the current national budget in order to address needs of the poor. Demonstrators also called on the SCAF to release a clear timeline outlining the transition from military rule to a civilian administration.

While the SCAF responded by introducing a cabinet reshuffle, on July 17, not a single one of the above demands were met. The reason is simple: Implementing a single one of these demand would undermine the country’s de facto military leaders and the very essence of domination in the Egypt. Thus, SCAF’s response to these demands highlights the hypocrisy of its leaders who are looking after their own narrow interests while claiming to be the guardians of the “revolution.”

Many Egyptians were fed up with the Tahrir sit-in for a number of reasons. Some never really felt the torturers wrath on their heads, nor the very long short end of the stick of the old regime’s neo-liberal economic policies and thus do not feel compelled to keep on contesting the transitional authorities’ Mubarak-era tactics. Many others are so poor and are working day and night just to make it by that they cannot invest their time and energy in the ongoing sit-in.  After all, why should Egypt’s poor continue to believe in the possibility of change when they have seen so little change in their every day lives in the past six months after enduring some heavy costs during this revolution—a majority of the 1,600 civilians that were killed or went missing during the uprising were from poor communities. Furthermore, state-run media and self-censoring “independent” media outlets are continuously feeding Egyptians half-truths and lies about protestors in Tahrir and beyond. These outlets often present protesters as thugs and cast violent military action against demonstrations and labor strikes in a patriotic light. The old censorship tactics are still and ever more powerfully at play. For example, writing about the military in the press or mentioning it on air requires military approval. Meanwhile, the media has been spouting propaganda about how economic life and the “wheel of production” are being halted due to sit-ins led by “thugs,” “prostitutes,” and “spies.”

These conditions have essentially put the Egyptian public on the fence. Many are torn between their lived experience of economic and political injustice on the one hand, and the feeling that change is imminent and may have already commenced following the 18 days of protest that toppled the former president on the other. The rise of this optimistic view that change has already taken place speaks to the lack of imagination for a different type of society (a problem that is not unique to Egypt), in which elitist political parties, state “experts” and “technocrats,” and top-down political rhetoric no longer shape the fate of millions of “ignorant bystanders.”

Concededly, critics of Tahrir demonstrators are partly correct in arguing that traffic has been made worse by the sit-in, but two notes on traffic are worth mentioning. Firstly, it is important to point out that traffic jams and economic problems that critics of the Tahrir sit-in often invoke did not emerge after the revolution and were not instigated by the demonstrators. These are perpetual problems that the previous government never bothered to address, while its officials were busy robbing Egypt’s public money and lining their own pockets. Secondly, Egypt’s current rulers are not doing any better in addressing these same challenges, and instead are putting the blame on protesters whom they constantly stigmatize and attack through fear-mongering campaigns. For example, while military and security personnel were busy clearing Tahrir Square by force, they failed to do anything to stop the violent street battles that were reported in three different Cairo neighborhoods: Bulaq, Sayeda Zeinab and Faysal.

Returning to the events in Tahrir Square on the afternoon of August 1, I reached Tahrir about half an hour after security forces were reportedly seen approaching the square. Only a few hundred meters away from the Square, I brushed past a person next to me. Shortly afterward, I looked down at my hand and noticed blood. When I turned back I saw a man's head fully doused in blood. One should have no illusions about the excessive violence employed in these types of crackdowns. As military police blocked off the main streets leading to the square, central security forces along with plain clothed state security personnel were smashing anything they came across inside the sit-in area. Meanwhile, state informants were mingling amongst the crowd. I am convinced that these plain clothed infiltrators helped initiate the chant “al-geish wal shae'b, eed wahda” (or “the army and people are one hand”). Until the following day reports were circulating about protesters being snagged off the street by these very same informants lingering the streets around Tahrir scanning for familiar faces.

@Norashalaby and @Mtwfeek captured some of these plain clothed personnel in action as they hauled off civilians for the “unpardonable” act of protesting and took down their information. While they were arresting civilians, some of these characters were adorned in unusually protective garb, such as riot gear helmets and bulletproof vests. After getting assaulted by a police officer I was surrounded by civilian “bystanders” who informed me that a “Lieutenant Khaled” wanted to see me. These bystanders were not the Tahrir shop owners who usually try to mediate between onlookers and the security personnel. By the end of the day over ninety protesters were reportedly arrested, and a few others were missing. While Mubarak is on trial, the tactics that propped up his regime for thirty years are thriving.

Few hours after the initial attack family members of the martyrs of the revolution regrouped near Tahrir and gathered in protest. Once again, the security personnel attacked them viciously. After nightfall, these security forces stormed Omar Makram mosque and arrested more protestors who used the mosque, which is adjacent to the Square, as a resting place.

The refugee camp of Qalandia lies not so far from Tahrir Square in the heart of Palestine. Yet, due to the plethora of man-made boundaries one must cross to get there, the two spaces seem far removed from each other. Earlier that morning on that same first day of Ramadan, Israeli soldiers entered the camp killing Motasem Adwan and Ali Khalifa, injuring Momen Awad and arresting two others. Further north that same morning the military of Bashar Al-Assad erupted in violence against the ongoing protests in the Syrian city of Hama killing an estimated hundred civilians. These sites of resistance are part of a global battle to shift the scales of power. The reverberations of this battle were heard in the 1977 bread riots in Egypt, the two Palestinian Intifadas, the Soweto uprising of 1976, and the 1968 protests across Europe and the list goes on.

These systems must falter from within and it will only occur through continued uprising. The cracks are becoming more visible every single day.

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1 comment for "Tahrir August 1st: Masquerade for a Lost Legitimacy"

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“al-geish wal shae'b, eed wahda” The chant went up in January. The aim was to prevent widespread mass murders and to wedge the mass of ordinary soldiers so the elite commanders would not get out of line. To this day the military elite still have command and control. It will be interesting to say how the devolution of power proceeds in the post-election environment. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

harleymc wrote on August 06, 2011 at 05:18 AM

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