Egyptians fight military rule

In just five months, Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has used up the good will it generated in January and February when the army high command did not attempt to crush the protest movement that forced Hosni Mubarak from power. Mass protests erupted throughout the country after 10 police officers accused of killing protesters in Suez during the 18-day uprising earlier this year were released on bail.

Actions have included mass rallies, marches, blockades of government offices and major roads, industrial strikes, hunger strikes and clashes with the police. Since July 8, tens of thousands of people have been taking part in a massive sit-in in Tahrir Square against the current government of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and the ruling SCAF. Protests are fuelled by a growing sense that the SCAF and its hand-picked civilian government are doing nothing, or as little as possible, to implement changes demanded by the revolutionary movement.

The New York Times reported on July 8: “Though at least 840 protesters died in the uprising, since then, only one person — a rank-and-file police officer — has been convicted, in absentia, of murder”. Bringing to public trial those involved in the January-February killings, including Mubarak himself, is the most central demand raised by the mass demonstrations. Around 25 former politicians affiliated with the deposed National Democratic Party are facing charges of murder and of paying others to commit mass murder.  The military council is “trying to avoid” prosecuting ex-officials and police officers for killing protesters, Egyptian journalist Hani Shukrallah told the website Bikya Masr. “At a basic level, they are afraid that once they start punishing these people, the whole security apparatus is going to unravel.”

“On Sunday [July 10] the Revolutionary Youth Council joined other political forces in issuing a joint statement of demands which the SCAF was given 48 hours to meet. They included speedy public trials for those implicated in the deaths of demonstrators, including the Mubarak family and senior officials from the former regime, the annulment of all rulings by military courts against civilians, an end to civilians being tried in military tribunals and the repeal of anti-strike legislation. Failure to meet their demands, said the statement, would result in an escalation in the campaign of civil disobedience”, reported Egypt’s largest circulation newspaper, Al-Ahram.

Protests also demand that all key figures from the former ruling National Democratic Party be brought to trial for human rights abuses and corruption during the 31-year dictatorship. Raising the minimum wage has also long been a popular demand. However, a recent development is a campaign for not only a minimum, but also a maximum wage — reflecting widespread anger at inequality, which grew rapidly under the dictatorship.

Losing legitimacy

When Mubarak fell, only small numbers of radicals and socialists spoke out against rule by the SCAF. However, as more people started to question the SCAF in March and April, outspoken individuals were picked out for military tribunals and given heavy sentences in a bid to stop criticism. That repression has totally failed. Open expression of vehement opposition to military rule is now generalised.

The Daily News Egypt (DNE) website reported that in Tahrir Square on July 8 protesters collectively chanted: “The Military Council is illegitimate”, “Down with [Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi” (chief of SCAF and head of state) and “We won’t go until the military goes”.

On July 14 Al-Ahram weekly reported a statement issued by the Revolutionary Youth Coalition: “If you [SCAF] cannot change things and meet the demands of the revolution, calls for which the blood of the martyrs has been shed, then you will have to change, for the Egyptian people are the sole source of authority, and they are the ones who impart authority and take it away”.

The country’s military rulers appear to be a little slow in adjusting to the rapidly changing political scene. Associated Press reported on July 16: “A member of Egypt’s ruling military council briefly visited a protest camp in [Tahrir] square, but left after protesters, some holding up shoes in anger, booed him off a stage”. Major General Tarek el-Mahdi was seeking to persuade demonstrators to end a hunger strike, but cut short his visit after heckling erupted once protesters realised he was not there to address their demands. “We don’t want to chat”, one protester told AP.

SCAF spokesperson General Mohsen El-Fangari tried his hand at intervening with a July 12 address on Egyptian television. The general warned that the SCAF will not put up with protests that “harm the nation’s interests”,  reported AP.  As he spoke, he wagged his finger at the camera. The scolding drew widespread ridicule. Newspaper cartoons depicted parents using the general’s speech to frighten naughty children. El-Fangari’s address and finger pointing were likened to Mubarak’s style of rule. It added heat to protesters’ anger and is widely credited for the large size of mobilisations in Tahrir Square and other centres on July 15.

The mass protests peak in size on Friday evenings, after prayers are finished and, now that it’s summer, the sun is setting. Significant mass actions in major urban centres occurred on Fridays July 8 and July 15, coupled with continuous smaller, often more militant, protests spanning much of the month.

El-Fangari’s threats came at the same time as an increase in police violence. The Wall street Journal reported: “The Friday [July 8] protest was mobilized in large part due to renewed violence in Tahrir Square last week between young activists and the reformed [sic] Egyptian police force that have been redeployed over the past several months ... Digital videos of riot police once again throwing rocks, beating and verbally taunting protesters has refocused Egyptians’ anger on [the police]”.

Al-Ahram reported on July 14: “After a week of protests the political situation ... has reached a new turning point with the threat of continuing civil disobedience across the country”. On July 10 and 11 protesters shut down Mugamma Al-Tahrir, Egypt’s largest government complex, located on Tahrir Square. They halted traffic and threatened to broaden the sit-ins to the nearby Interior Ministry and state TV building if their demands are not met.

Suez

On July 7 the military mobilised ground troops, light tanks and personnel carriers to protect the Suez Canal, which handles 8% of world shipping. On July 10 military police forcefully dispersed a sit-in by blocking the Suez-Ain Sokhna desert road, detaining a number of protesters, according to Ahmed Abdel-Gawad, a member of the Suez Revolution Coalition, reported on DNE. Once Suez residents heard the news about the clashes, many rushed to join others near the canal authority office in Port Tawfik, where a symbolic sit-in was being held. Workers could not reach their workplaces, and some joined the protesters, whose numbers swelled to thousands by noon. Popular committees were formed to screen those entering the city, allowing only trucks carrying food supplies, revolutionaries and reporters to pass. The protesters called for the arrest of the police officers released on bail by the Suez court.

Thousands initiated a two-week-long sit in at El-Arbaein Square in Suez and declared a state of civil disobedience in reaction to the bail announcement. Protesters threatened to storm the Suez Canal building in the city and that of the local municipality if their demands were not met. Chants included “The people want to overthrow the field marshal” and “The army is ours and the SCAF is theirs”, DNE reported. On July 15 protesters in Suez waved red cards to the military junta, symbolically sending them off the field.

Actions have been held across the country. Various groups marched on different sections of Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, on July 8. The main mobilisations were addressed by injured victims of state repression. The crowds revived the old slogan against Mubarak: “The people want to overthrow the regime”.

On July 15 in Alexandria, Egyptian military police fired shots in the air and beat demonstrators blocking a main road, according to Reuters. Witnesses told the news agency a crowd of more than 1000 began marching toward the headquarters of the ruling military council, chanting: “Down with the field marshal”.

In Sharm El-Sheikh about 4000 protesters, including tourism workers, marched to Sharm El-Sheikh International Hospital, where Hosni Mubarak is detained pending trial. The protesters denounced Mubarak’s presence in the Red Sea resort, saying it has a negative impact on tourism. In the North Sinai capital of Al-Arish, thousands gathered outside El-Refa’y Mosque in El-Horriya Square to demand: “The people want the prosecution of the corrupt”,  DNE reported.

The latest protests have been largely ignored or opposed by the Muslim Brotherhood, which is seen as Egypt’s largest electoral force, receiving the support of 15% of respondents in a recent Gallup poll. Website Al Masry Al Youm reported on July 17: “The Brotherhood mobilized for the Tahrir Square rally on July 8 but made a pointed exit at 6pm, defying calls for a sit-in and leveling criticism at the political parties and groups who remained in the square.

The group has since launched an attack on the ongoing protest via its website.” Al-Ahram reported on July 14 that the Muslim Brotherhood “maintained its support for the SCAF, and praised El-Fangari’s statement. Mahmoud Ghozlan, Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, said it was important to affirm that ‘the army will not allow chaos to spread in the country’.”

Military response

The wave of protests recorded some minor victories, adding to a growing list of concessions to the protest movement. In a direct response to protest anger, Judge Mohamed Hossam al-Gheriyani, the head of the Egyptian Supreme Judiciary Council, said in a statement on July 12 that one camera would be allowed into each session of trials dealing with Mubarak’s associates, Al Jazeera English reported. On July 18 Egyptian television covered live the trial of two of Mubarak’s ministers.

Another Mubarak associate, Zahi Hawass, dubbed “the Mubarak of the archaelogy scene” in Egypt, was sacked as minister for antiquities and escorted out the back door of the ministry into a cab while being showered with insults and angry chants from a large group of young archaeologists. Hawass’ nominated replacement as minister, antiquities Professor Abdel Fatah al-Banna, was also removed from a newly reshuffled cabinet as worries over his character surfaced. “Al-Banna’s name is on corruption lists and many of his colleagues accuse him of using his position within the department for personal and financial gains”, Bikya Masr reported.

Interior minister Mansour El-Essawy admitted a government decision to retire 600 police officers was in large part due to popular pressure. However, most protesters saw this as a manoeuvre to appease the movement by appearing to be taking action while doing very little. National parliamentary elections have been postponed until around November in a recent announcement that appears to have had little effect on the popular movement, which, for the most part, is in no position to compete in parliamentary elections.

The military announced it would adopt, prior to elections, a declaration of basic principles governing the drafting of a constitution. According to a July 17 article, “Protesters seek to thwart Egyptian military designs”, on the Al Arabiya website, “The declaration would be designed to ensure that the defense budget would not be subject to public or parliamentary scrutiny. It would also give the military the right to interfere in politics ...

“Elections would enable the military to return to its barracks but retain its grip on national security; maintain its direct, unsupervised relationship with the United States; be shielded against civilian oversight; and keep control of its economic empire. In effect, the military would continue to enjoy the status it had under Mr. Mubarak.”

On July 18 the US Department of Defense released a plan to sell Egypt 125 armed Abram tanks, spare parts and maintenance and support as part of a US$1.3 billion aid package, Bikya Masr reported. Reuters reported in January: “The United States has given Egypt an average of $2 billion annually since 1979, much of it military aid, according to the Congressional Research Service. The combined total makes Egypt the second largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel.”

In 2010, US$1.3 billion went to the Egyptian military and US$250 million to economic aid. Egypt also receives hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of excess military hardware annually from the Pentagon.

Popular power

What the mass protests are able to achieve remains limited in the immediate term and while they are still largely restricted to calling on the SCAF or other Mubarak era structures to implement reforms. A case in point is the treatment of Hosni Mubarak. The popular movement is demanding that the military brass punish one of its own, something that may be possible under enormous mass pressure but is unlikely to be carried out consistently and thoroughly.

In another case, the hated former interior minister Habib El Adly has been jailed for 12 years for money laundering (he is yet to face trial for ordering protesters shot earlier this year). However, it is conceivable that he could be set free at a later date if the protest movement is defeated. The military rulers are reluctant to carry out even the most basic demands of the movement, such as punishing human rights abusers, so it is inconceivable that a new social order, one that benefits working people, can be built by mass movements demanding that a hostile regime bring it into being.

The response by liberal commentators to this contradiction is to encourage the mass movements to organise electorally ahead of parliamentary elections. However, trying to make advances for working people’s rights and living conditions through parliamentary processes is not a strategy that has worked historically. There is no room in any parliament for mass participation. Direct, active mass involvement in public life is what has transformed Egypt over the last five months. The key factor - mass action - is precisely what an electoral focus would reverse.

To effect fundamental change, working people need to find ways to move towards taking power directly into the hands of their own grassroots organisations. Many such organisations sprung into life this year as people began to organise to fight the old regime. There is some evidence that ongoing mass struggle is strengthening them. This is the key reason, besides winning things like justice to the human rights abusers, that the mass movement needs to continue and grow.

In an AP article, “Street by street, Egypt activists face Old Guard”, Sarah El Deeb wrote on July 10: “There are now nearly 50 ‘Popular Committees’ nationwide, each with volunteers working in their home neighborhoods. Many of them have taken the additional title of ‘in defense of the Revolution.’ That can mean anything — fixing infrastructure and providing literacy classes, working with residents on rooftop gardens or on better water usage, or monitoring officials to keep them accountable. Some conduct ‘name and shame’ campaigns to expose those who take bribes or embezzle — whether policemen or bakers who sell government-subsidized wheat on the black market. They catch perpetrators on mobile phone cameras and publicize the footage.”

According to this report, committees in defence of the revolution are far from ready to take power away from the ministries, government departments and armed forces of the old regime (something that would also require a split or decomposition of the army), but who is to say that under the impact of ongoing struggle  they won’t go through further radicalisation and become the embryos of a new power?

Al-Ahram Online’s article “In Egypt’s iconic Tahrir: who’s running the show and when will it end?” reports on features of the Tahrir organising that can be seen as embryonic forms of a future working people’s state: “On the north side, a complex made out of about 20 tents stood somewhat isolated from the rest of the square, across from Muggama, the largest governmental administrative building in Egypt. Though relatively quiet compared to the center of Tahrir, this tent grouping functions more or less as a de facto headquarters of the square ... The area has another field hospital tent. It has a large tent for the popular committees (or security personnel) where volunteers process suspected thugs and others who break public law in the square and then decide what to do with them.”

So far the Muggama government administrative headquarters has been shut down for only two days by protesters before they called off the picket. Its 18,000 workers and bureaucrats, like all the state bureaucracy and armed forces, are still in the hands of the old regime. The adjacent Tahrir protesters’ headquarters remains a mere 20-tent complex. However, it seems possible that at some point the mass movement could take the decision to seize Muggama or other government buildings, similar to the March 5 and 6 popular seizures of State Security Investigations Service (SSIS) buildings across Egypt. In the SSIS seizures, secret police documents were confiscated and published. There was no attempt to take over the SSIS because the secret police played no socially useful role. Popular control of Mugamma, on the other hand, would pose the question of a people’s government.