More than 100,000 Egyptians packed Tahrir (Liberation) Square on Friday, November 27 for the ninth consecutive day since new protests began on November 18, calling for democracy, social justice and an end to the military’s control of the country. Despite the death of at least 40 protesters and injuries to more than 2000 others at the hands of the security forces, hundreds of thousands have continued to flood onto the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and other major centres.
Chanting “Freedom, freedom” and “The people want the fall of the marshal”, the protesters called for the resignation of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the leader of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF).
Since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak – after a thirty year rule – in February, Tantawi, who had served as Mubarak’s defence minister for two decades, has been the de facto ruler of Egypt as the leader of the SCAF. Since Mubarak’s fall after 18 days of protest in January and February, Egyptians have continued to protest, calling for a transition to civilian rule and an end to the SCAF’s repression.
According to a report issued by Amnesty International on November 22, the SCAF has undermined the struggle for democracy and continued the repressive rule that protesters in January and February fought so hard to get rid of. An Amnesty media release issued the same day noted: “Egypt’s military rulers have completely failed to live up to their promises to Egyptians to improve human rights and have instead been responsible for a catalogue of abuses which in some cases exceeds the record of Hosni Mubarak”. According to Philip Luther, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa acting director, “By using military courts to try thousands of civilians, cracking down on peaceful protest and expanding the remit of Mubarak’s Emergency Law, the SCAF has continued the tradition of repressive rule …” He went on to say: “Those who have challenged or criticised the military council – like demonstrators, journalists, bloggers, striking workers – have been ruthlessly suppressed ...”.
According to the report, “Broken Promises: Egypt’s Military Rulers Erode Human Rights”,between February and August, the SCAF had admitted, some 12,000 civilians had been tried by military courts, with at least 13 being sentenced to death. Another international organisation, Human Rights Watch noted in September that this number is more than the total who faced military trials during the 30-year rule of Mubarak. Military tribunals had convicted 8071, including 1836 suspended sentences, while a further 1225 convictions are awaiting ratification by the military. Those tried were charged with “thuggery”, “breaking the curfew”, “damaging property” and “insulting the army”.
According to Amnesty, in an attempt to suppress negative media reports, the SCAF had sought to intimidate and jail scores of journalists, broadcasters and bloggers by summoning them before the military prosecutor. One blogger, Maikel Nabil Sanad, was sentenced to three years in prison in April for criticising the military and for objecting to military service. Another blogger, Alaa Abd El Fatta, who had criticised the military has been held since being arrested on October 30.
The SCAF has used brutality to repress protests. In October, 29 Coptic Christians were killed when the security forces opened fire on a protest. Many of the protesters died from bullet wounds or from being run over by speeding armoured vehicles.
The military have also sought to intimidate female protesters and dissidents through “virginity tests”. Seventeen female protesters among the 173 protesters arrested on March 9 were forced to undergo the tests, which involved a soldier inserting two fingers into the women’s vaginal opening against their will. In an interview with the Global Post on 21 November, one of the 17, Samira Ibrahim, who has taken legal action against the military, said that she was detained for four days and was “beaten, electrocuted, and forced to strip naked in front of male officers”. Another of the women, Rasha Abdelrahman, has also filed a complaint against the military for sexual assault and torture. Her lawyer, Mostafa Shaaban, told the Global Post that he was not optimistic about winning the case: “The Supreme Council of Armed Forces will not solve the problem, because they are the problem.”
Protests against the SCAF that began on Friday, November 18, were originally called by a range of Islamic forces. However, the protests were attended by tens of thousands of Egyptians from across the political spectrum, demanding that the SCAF announce a date for handing over power to a civilian government. While parliamentary elections were set to start on November 28, the SCAF had made it clear that they were not willing to hand over power until July 2012 or even later.
The first attacks on the demonstrators by the police and military came when smaller groups of protesters led by the April 6 youth movement decided to camp in Tahrir Square overnight after the mass rally on Friday. In the wake of the attack, hundreds and then thousands of Egyptians began to pour into the square.
The Associated Press reported on November 19 that as the protesters’ ranks grew, “thousands more riot police streamed into Tahrir Square blocking off the entrances and clashing with protesters”. Protesters chanted slogans including “Riot police are thugs and thieves” and “Down with the marshal”. Many were beaten and arrested by the police and military.
On Sunday 20 November, Egyptian and international media reported that at least three people were killed when police and the military opened fire on dozens of protest tents inside Tahrir Square.
Protests quickly spread to other parts of Egypt, including Ismailiya (located on the Suez Canal), where more than 4000 protesters took to the streets, and Alexandria, where more than 2000 demanded the fall of the SCAF. Protesters in both cities were violently attacked by police and security forces.
According to a November 21 Reuters report, the police also attacked a makeshift hospital in Tahrir Square but were driven back by protesters hurling chunks of concrete from smashed pavement. On the same day, protesters told a Democracy Now correspondent in Cairo, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, that the security forces had been firing rubber bullets, live ammunition and tear gas, tear gas being fired at the unarmed protesters for 24 hours non-stop. One protester told Kouddous: “I am here because we don’t feel like we had a revolution at all. Our demands at the beginning of the revolution were freedom, dignity and social justice. We have not seen social justice. We had a regime that looked like this building here. The building is 10 stories. We got rid of two stories, but there are eight stories to go that we can’t get rid of. They’re built in tight. They’re the ones ruining the country, left and right.”
In the wake of the military and police attacks, a number of political parties and individual candidates announced that they were putting their electoral campaigns on hold and joining the protests. According to the British Guardian on November 21, Bothaina Kamel, Egypt’s only female presidential candidate and an outspoken opponent of military rule, was arrested in the crackdown on protesters. Kamel told the Guardian before her arrest that the violence against the protesters exposed “the ugly face of Mubarak that has been lurking behind SCAF all along”.
In an attempt to quell the growing protests, on November 22 Tantawi accepted the resignation of the interim civilian prime minister, Essam Sharaf and his cabinet and took to the radio on the same day proposing a referendum to decide when military rule should end. In response to Tantawi’s speech, nineteen political organisations issued a statement condemning the speech as an insult. The statement noted that Tantawi had not apologised for the violence of the security forces and had not mentioned the release of detained civilians who were facing military trials.
In the wake of the ongoing protests, the SCAF issued a public apology on their Facebook page two days later on November 24, apologising for the killing of more than 35 protesters by the Egyptian security forces. In the wake of the apology, a tense truce took place between the military and the protesters, with protesters vowing to remain on the streets.
Anger was fuelled on Friday, November27 when the SCAF appointed Kamal el-Ganzouri, who has served under Mubarak, to the prime ministership. Despite the truce, clashes have still continued to occur sporadically, with one protester being killed when he was run over by an armoured military vehicle outside the cabinet building on Saturday, November 28, when protesters had gathered to prevent el-Ganzouri from taking up his new post.