After 9 months of slow-motion “trench warfare”, during which the military transition council hijacked the popular uprising and the world turned its eyes away from the Middle East and towards the protests and crises unfolding in the West, the Egyptian Revolution flared up in mighty intensity this weekend as thousands of protesters fought running street battles with riot police in an attempt to reclaim Tahrir Square and overthrow the military junta.
So far, the brutal military-police crackdown, which has left at least 33 people dead and more than 1,700 injured, has only appeared to strengthen the resolve of the protesters, who flocked into the square in the tens of thousands on Monday night, forcing the civilian government to offer its resignation and the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) to call for emergency talks with leaders of all political parties. Egypt’s first post-Mubarak general elections are scheduled for next week, but there are concerns the vote might have to be postponed in the wake of the violence.
The street fighting broke out on Friday, after a massive march by moderate Islamists ended with a police attack on a small protest camp that had been erected in Tahrir Square. Outraged at the assault, thousands of Egyptians of all faiths and backgrounds took back the square on Saturday, demanding an end to the brutal repression of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and an immediate transfer of power to a genuine civilian transition government. Clashes broke out at the fringes as some protesters sought to make their way to the Interior Ministry to protest again the regime.
Then, around 5pm on Sunday, police launched a violent attack on the protest camp at Tahrir, temporarily clearing the square and burning down several tents. But as a testament to the sheer power and bravery of the Egyptian people, within half an hour the revolutionaries swarmed back onto Tahrir, drove out the police and reclaimed their square. The events in Cairo unleashed a wave of protests across the country — with casualties as far away as Alexandria and Suez –reminiscent in many ways of the early days of the popular uprising that started on January 25 and toppled Mubarak 18 days later.
As the Guardian reported:
In a year when Egypt’s uprising against tyranny helped inspire protests around the world even as it stuttered and stumbled at home, the cycle of change has come full circle and revolution has sprung to life here once again. “People have come down from their homes to join us; they removed the head once, and now they are back again to strike down the body,” said Mai Adly, a 25-year-old reporter who was setting up for the night in Tahrir.
The New York Times, meanwhile, has noted how “the violence has seemed to reinforce the revolutionary urgency that had returned to the square, and when the army moved to push out the thousands of protesters on Sunday, more than twice as many quickly flooded back.” Anger in Egypt is boiling over as the SCAF has sought to assure itself a permanent role in Egypt’s political future, while displaying increasingly autocratic tendencies in its dealings with civil society. In recent months, the oppression of opposition forces has radically intensified.
Since the toppling of the regime some 9 months ago, over 12,000 civilians have been arrested and put in front of military tribunals, which is more than Mubarak managed to process in 30 years. Torture and political murder are still part and parcel of state practice. But this weekend’s violent state response — protesters were beaten, tear gased, dragged by the hair and shot at with rubber bullets, birdshot and even live ammunition, often fired at head height — has once and for all revealed the fact that the military government is nothing but the Mubarak regime without Mubarak.
In the process, the mask of the regime has fallen. In the weeks after the revolution, the army was widely perceived to have sided with the people against Mubarak. But what was already clear to some of the more radical protesters in February, has now become unmistakable for a broad cross-section of Egyptian society: Mubarak was never overthrown — he was sacrificed; oozed out of office by the military elite, which still controls most of Egypt’s wealth and therefore has a powerful incentive to cling on to power in one way or another.
Again, the Guardian reports:
When the military attack finally came, dissolving once and for all any lingering boundaries in protesters’ minds between the army on the one hand and the hated black-clad riot police that symbolised Mubarak’s security apparatus on the other, it was brutal and ephemeral. Guns were fired in the air, civilians were beaten on the ground; several soldiers appeared to drag lifeless bodies – unconscious or dead, no one could tell – towards small piles of rubbish by the roadside.
Over the past 9 months, therefore, the SCAF has willfully obstructed the development of democratic institutions, culminating in an obscure clause it tried to secure into the new constitution, which would fix the military budget at its current level; provide the military with permanent oversight over the country’s political system; designate the SCAF as the legal “guardian of the constitution”; and make army officials immune to criminal prosecution. Precisely the type of sham democracy, in other words, that the Egyptian people were so convinced to have overthrown back in February.
Yet the Egyptians — especially those who risked their lives or lost their beloved ones in the struggle to overthrow Mubarak — would have none of it. “This is February 12!” yelled 42-year old Abeer Mustafa. “We have finally succeeded in reclaiming our revolution.” Tarek Salama, a surgeon volunteering in the makeshift field hospital, where he has treated hundreds of severely injured protesters, exclaimed that “this is the breaking point we were all waiting for. Getting rid of Mubarak was just the warm-up. This is the real showdown.”
As the Guardian wrote, “the marches and protests that followed last Friday attracted the largest crowds since Mubarak was toppled, an early indication that concern about the junta and scepticism of their heavily curated vision of democratic transition was beginning to go viral.” The outbreak of violence, which comes just a week before Egypt’s first post-Mubarak elections are scheduled to be held, has already led several leading candidates to suspend their campaigns in order to focus on the protests. But the protesters do not seem to worry about elections much.
“We’ll stay here until we die, or military rule dies,” promised the 27-year-old Mahmoud Turg. “SCAF must leave, because the people have seen through them. It has taken a long time, but the mask has slipped.” Another protester, 21-year old medical student Amr Wageeh, neatly summarized the revolutionary spirit in the square: “the elections can go to hell – Tahrir comes first, and we must complete our half-finished revolution before starting to organise a vote.”