Police beating protesters in Tahrir Square, November, 20 2011. (Photo: Mostafa Sheshtawy)
The horror of the Maspero massacre had barely begun to settle before the morning of Saturday 19 November. Egyptians were generally convinced that we had seen the worst of the Supreme Council of the Armed Force’s (SCAF) sectarian alliances and its drive to destroy the fabric of the revolution. Intra-ruling class feuds were mostly manifesting as debates around the convoluted parliamentary election process. Yet, once again, the churn of a death-machine trained, funded, and programmed by market-worshipping foreign investors intent on preserving the subsidiary function of the Egyptian state has resumed. Countless reports from Tahrir over the last two days have detailed the open-air mayhem, in which the bodies of the dead and the unconscious have been systematically dragged across the rubble and piled on one another among heaps of garbage.
Friday witnessed a massive rally occupying Tahrir Square behind the single demand for a transfer of power to a civilian government. Annoyed at the SCAF’s moves to impose supra-constitutional principles that protect them from any kind of transparency and accountability while affording them a permanent seat at the head of the political table, the Muslim Brotherhood capitalized on the moment by temporarily joining in the anti-SCAF call and thus dominating the demonstrations, which were supported by most political parties and activist groups. Friday also witnessed a large celebration of Alaa Abdel Fattah’s birthday in absentia, while promoting his mother’s continued hunger strike in solidarity with her son and other victims of military trials. For their part, the Muslim Brotherhood voiced sectarian slogans and boasted campaign posters before leaving in the early evening. Although a few groups toyed with the idea of declaring a sit-in, none did, and the square was more or less cleared by midnight.
Tahrir (Photo: Mostafa Sheshtawy)
Late Saturday morning, following a surprise attack on a stray sit-in consisting of less than 100 people – mostly the critically wounded victims of Jan25, their family members and family members of the martyrs – in which Central Security Forces (CSF) and the military police jointly descended upon protesters, beating them and chasing them out of the square, activists quickly gathered in force and number to occupy the central garden of Tahrir before proceeding to pelt a number of riot police vans and trucks deployed from the Ministry of Interior with rocks, hijacking and destroying one police van before the CSF promptly withdrew from the square. After the demonstration rapidly grew to encompass up to 2000 protesters, CSF returned with a vengeance, engulfing protesters in endless tear gas and firing rubber bullets to disperse them into the side streets of Tahrir. In the narrow streets of Talaat Harb and Mohammed Mahmoud, protesters were chased down with rubber bullets and more tear gas, but continued to return to the square pelting rocks in self-defense and advancing with unshakably solid resolve to re-occupy the square. The number of protesters swelled to the tens of thousands, tents went up, and shortly after Saturday midnight, Tahrir was re-taken.
The Egyptian police have been shooting people in the eyes. (Photo: Maggie Osama)
The police forces have also been systematically shooting people in the head. Countless protesters were shot in the face, and at least seven individuals sustained critical wounds to their eyes. One of them, Malek Mustafa, veteran leftist blogger and activist and a beloved revolutionary, was rushed into surgery after receiving a rubber bullet to his right eye. In 2006, Malek – part of a generation hardened in uprisings during the second Palestinian intifada and the Iraq invasion – was brutally beaten and imprisoned, along with several other activists from the then-prominent Kefaya (enough) movement, for 40 days in 2006 for participating in the legendary Judges’ Club sit-in. Like Alaa Abdelfattah, he is one of the many activists who laid the groundwork over the last decade for the 25th January revolution, and has actively participated in protests since. He emerged from Saturday night’s operation, performed to preserve the eye structure but with no promise of a functioning eye, boasting his characteristically unwavering sense of humor, breathlessly discussing strategy and tactics for the re-occupation of Tahrir square that was underway. Another revolutionary, Ahmed Harara, lost one eye to police ammunition on January 28th, and lost his other eye shortly after Malek. Another, Ahmed Abdel Fattah, sustained the same injury.
Others languished among the over-700 wounded in Tahrir, many of them fearful of rushing to emergency rooms owing to widespread reports that most of the central hospitals were (as they typically are) under the direct supervision of the State Security apparatus. In the late hours of Saturday evening, activists mobilized tens of thousands of Egyptians to occupy and secure the square. Skirmishes continued to take place on the peripheries, and street fighting persisted against the CSF in neighboring streets. Though protesters were able to hold the square for a couple of hours, after midnight the CSF returned, with an onslaught of tear gas, bullets and flares, targeting field clinics and relentlessly attacking protesters in street battles that continue as I write. Amidst the fighting, running and utter chaos unleashed on the protesters, the square throbbed with a single, thundering, unified chant: “The people demand the ouster of the field marshall (Tantawi)” and “the people demand the downfall of the regime,” while protesters’ determination to fight back only grew stronger. State television continued to peddle the narrative of chaos and instability, while private channels laced their wariness with measured criticism of the army. Of course, they are aware that its henchman in the Ministry of Information had shut down nearly all private channels during the Maspero massacre.
Although Saturday’s attacks were conducted almost entirely by the CSF, yesterday – Sunday – saw the return of the military police to partake in what most have described as the most vicious bout of violence visited upon protesters in the course of the last nine months. They deployed live ammunition, rubber bullets and buckshot, along with at least two different sorts of tear gas, all produced by US companies. Most insist that they have had the most toxic and debilitating effects of any they have ever experienced, with countless protesters fainting and experiencing various neurological reactions upon inhalation. By late afternoon, police forces had set fire to countless tents in the center of the square as well as motorcycles belonging to protesters. As night fell, snipers could be seen shooting at protesters from balconies surrounding Tahrir. Around 3 am, a ceasefire was negotiated between the Imam of Omar Makram mosque (on the corner of Tahrir, the mosque has become one of the safe-houses of the revolution) and the generals directing the ammunition, only to be followed by fresh rounds of bullets and tear gas canisters. As I write, the revolutionaries continue to hold the square.
Tahrir standoff on November 19. (Photo: Jonathan Rashad)
Many reactions to the violence have sought to explain the SCAF’s strategy, particularly as it relates to the nearing parliamentary elections in which the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is poised to dominate. The argument is that because of the recent tensions between the MB and the SCAF, the SCAF may wish to again postpone elections (last night’s communique categorically stated otherwise). Instability, chaos and violence help them justify this. Prior to Friday’s demonstrations, the Muslim Brotherhood – in between tentative alliance with a myriad of liberal parties, old and new – had largely refrained from challenging the SCAF directly. They were eager to speed up elections and ensure a swift institutionalization of the political facts on the ground – meaning, their organizational dominance. To that end, they have cooperated directly with the SCAF over the last ten months in policing and repressing the labor movement – the leading edge of the revolution, against too many analyses focusing on the mediatic spectacle of Tahrir in between confrontations and the hype of violent confrontation with the state. What’s most important is what people do between highly public mobilizations.
But the SCAF’s abrasive publication of supra-constitutional principles protecting against any kind of transparency or accountability for the military and securing the military’s position in the political field perhaps signaled an end to its honeymoon with the Muslim Brotherhood. It was the publication of those documents which prompted the MB to join the demo on Friday. Still, measured against the benefits – to the SCAF’s short-term and long-term control – of holding elections as soon as possible, fatally violent though they would certainly be, no rift with the Brotherhood can reasonably cause them to postpone the elections. The SCAF and Muslim Brotherhood differ, mostly rhetorically, on moral and strategic grounds, but effectively answer to the same economic agenda. There is nothing to be gained by either of them from a postponement of an electoral process designed and equipped to preserve the status quo, and indeed, heighten the stratification of the Egyptian political economy by concentrating privilege yet further amongst the elites, be they remnants of the Mubarak regime, businessmen coalitions, or of course, the bourgeois leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood itself.
What is clear is that the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the liberal parties, were nowhere to be found among those who mounted a committed response to the intolerable behavior of police forces over the last 48 hours. Although, of course, many of their politicians made appearances once the square had been temporarily secured, and others suspended their election campaigns and issued statements in support of the protesters.
“Forget about the last revolution, peaceful protest is dead.” When protesters chant this, they are not referring to Jan25. They know that this was not and has not been a peaceful revolution. They are referring to a mythical narrative constructed by the US and the SCAF to refer to the contained uprisings which were hijacked by the ruling council and upon which empire’s regional counter-revolution has been feasting. In this narrative, the moral economy of the wheel of production is wedded to national security and stability, dissent is demonized and usurped, and ‘marginal’ (or what the counter-revolution has named ‘factional’) groups are attacked: women, Copts, the Bedouin of the Sinai, workers, non-Egyptians, and more. In a different vocabulary, the people of Egypt. The chant is a reminder that the 18 day uprising that ousted Mubarak, and the ‘transitional’ period since, has been written in the blood of hundreds of martyrs, along with over 12,000 victims of military kitchen tribunals. It echoes the urgency to defend the revolution against a wretched wave of violence, one that has no end in sight.
From Alexandria and Mansoura to Port Said, Suez, Qena, Assiut and Minya, among others, those that have not given their lives to the revolution have lost limbs, organs, and eyes; they have been humiliated and made targets of thuggery by state media; and subject to all manner of torture, including virginity tests and ongoing extra-legal military trials without due process that end in arbitrary sentencing – from five years to life. The SCAF has persisted in its belligerent behavior for the last ten months, fighting court decisions for the re-nationalization of the public companies that were privatized under Mubarak, and like a loyal dog that can respond to none but his own master, allowing former NDP members to run in elections. The martyrs that lost their lives in the last two days did not die thinking about elections and constitutions. They are not members of the political elite vying for a redistribution of power among themselves. They are not (as articulate experts and wheedling and wheeling-and-dealing politicians suggest) awaiting transition schedules sketched behind closed doors among the squabbling ruling class. They did not mandate the regime in which the SCAF belligerently rules with iron fist like a racket of henchmen for the United States and Israel. And they are aware of the material interests that cause the SCAF to be allied with the hyper-capitalist class of the Muslim Brotherhood. And they are acting upon that awareness. How far that action goes remains to be seen.
A version of this post originally appeared on Max Ajl’s blog Jewbonics.