Timeline of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution (short version)

22 Aug

This is a short timeline of the events of the first year of the Egyptian January 25th, 2011 revolution. A more detailed timeline with a more elaborate explanation of some of the events and milestones is available at the Timeline page of this blog.
To go directly to the full version click at this link: https://awakeningofegypt.wordpress.com/timeline/?preview=true&preview_id=373&preview_nonce=63626fe85d
Comments and corrections are welcomed.

25.1. 2011 The revolution starts.
28.1.2011 Demonstrations   escalate in what activists named the Friday of Wrath. Police forces collapse   and withdraw from the streets.
The   President gives his first speech in response to the demonstrations.
29.1.2011 The   appointment of Omar Soliman as Vice President.
31.1.2011 The new   cabinet is sworn in. It includes many Mubarak cronies.
1.2.2011 The   Presidents second speech gains the President some sympathizers.
2.2.2011 ‘Battle of   the Camel’: A counter attack on the Tahrir Square demonstrators is launched   by the regime.
3.2.2011 Former   Interior Minister, Habib El Adly, is placed under house arrest.
10.2.2011 The   President gives his third speech delegating his authorities to Omar Soliman.
11.2.2011 Huge   demonstrations oppose the President’s speech. The President steps down.
13.2.2011 The Supreme   Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) suspends the constitution.Parliament   is dissolved.SCAF forms   committee to amend constitution.Shafik’s   interim government is kept.
Mubarak   suffers a heart condition and is committed to a Sharm El Sheikh hospital.
3.3.2011 Prime   Minister Ahmed Shafik resigns and SCAF appoints Essam Sharaf.
4.3.2011 Religious conflict in the village of Atfih near Cairo ends up in riots   and an attack on the local church. The church is burnt down to be later   restored by the army.
5.3.2011 State   Security offices in several governorates are stormed by angry demonstrators   when it was noticed that a systematic burning of documents was taking place.
7.3.2011 Essam Sharaf’s cabinet takes oath.
 Clashes between Copts and Muslims erupt in   Cairo’s Monshaat Nasser district resulting in the death of 13 and injury of   140.
12.3.2011 The Muslim   Brotherhood announces its intention to compete for 35% of the parliamentary   seats.
19.3.2011 Egyptians   participate in a referendum on constitutional modifications.  77% approved the proposed process for the   transitional period..
31.3.2011 SCAF   issues a constitutional declaration of 62 items expanding on the 9 included   in the referendum.
13.4.2011 Prosecutors   begin questioning Mubarak and his sons and order their detainment for fifteen   days.
16.4.2011 Administrative   court dissolves Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP).
19.4.2011  The committee investigating the killing of   demonstrators issues its final report accusing security forces of using   excessive force against demonstrators and putting the total death toll was   put at 846 and injuries at 6600.
30.4.2011 Mohamed Morsi   is chosen as Freedom and Justice Party chairman.
7.5.2011 Violence   between Muslims and Copts erupts in the in Giza’s Embaba district resulting   in 15 dead and 232 injured.
15.5.2011  350 demonstrators are injured in an attempt   to break into the Israeli embassy.
24.5.2011 The Public   Prosecutor indicts Mubarak, his two sons and several police commanders on   charges of killing demonstrators and profiteering.
14.6.2011 El Nour   Party, Egypt’s first Salafy party, is officially recognized.
15.6.2011 SCAF lifts   the curfew that was imposed in the early days of the revolution.
18.6.2011 Brotherhood   prominent member, Abdel Meneim Abou El Fotouh, is fired by the Muslim   Brotherhood for announcing his intent to run in the presidential elections.
27.6.2011 The   Administrative Court disbands all of the local councils.
21.7.2011 A New   Sharaf cabinet is formed featuring thirteen new ministers.
23.7.2011 Demonstrators   march from Tahrir to the army headquarters in Abbasia and are attacked by the   district’s residents.
29.7.2011 Huge   demonstrations by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic movements named by   its organizers the Friday of Identity and by their opponents the Friday of   Kandahar.
2 .82011 The first   day of the trial of Mubarak, his two sons and several police commanders for   the killing of demonstrators and corruption.
15.8.2011 The second   court hearing of the Mubarak trial witnesses battles inside and outside of   the courtroom. The Judge orders a ban on live TV coverage.
17.8.2011 Zakria   Azmi, Mubarak’s Head of Staff, is indicted for corruption and profiteering.
18.8.2011 Several   Egyptian officers and soldiers are shot dead by Israeli planes allegedly   chasing infiltrators at the Sinai border.
20.8.2011 Demonstrators   surround the Israeli Embassy demanding the departure of the Israeli   Ambassador.
9.9.2011 Tens of   thousands participate in what was named the Correction of the Revolution’s   Course demonstrations. Islamic movements abstain.
Demonstrators   clash with security forces around the Israeli Embassy then break into it surrounding   embassy security personnel until rescued by army commandoes.
13.9.2011 Former   Vice President, General Omar Soliman, testifies at the trial of Mubarak.
24.9.2011 Marshal   Tanatawi testifies at the Mubarak tial.
30.9.2011 Copts   protest after Muslim fundamentalists in Marinab village near Aswan city   demolish part of a church annex.
9.10.2011 Fierce   clashes in the Maspiro district near the public television building between   the army and demonstrators end up in 25 killed and 329 injured.
26.10.2011 An   Alexandria court sentence two policemen to 7 years in prison for torturing to   death Khaled Said. An incident that is considered as one of the causes of the   January 25th revolution.
19.11.2011 A joint   police and army force use force in an attempt to clear part of Tahrir Square   of some casualties family members staging a sit-in.
20.11.2011 Police   forces retreat to Mohamed Mahmoud street that leads to the Ministry of   interior were a battle would rage for several days leaving 7 dead and   hundreds injured.
21.11.2011 Prime Minister   Essam Sharaf and his cabinet resign.
22.11.2011 Violent   clashes between security forces and demonstrators continue in Mohamed Mahmoud   Street while the absence of the Muslim Brotherhood is criticized by   activists.
23.11.2011 SCAF asks   Kamal El Ganzouri to form the new government.
25.11.2011 Demonstrations   in Tahrir protest police violence and oppose the appointment of Ganzouri as a   prime minister while a demonstration in Abbasia Square showed its support to   SCAF.
The Public   Prosecutor orders the arrest of a police officer after a video is circulated   showing him shooting demonstrators in the eye.
28.11.2011 Parliamentary   Elections begin among fears of violence due to the volatile security   situation.
2.12.2011 Preliminary   results of the first stage of the parliamentary elections reveal that Islamic   parties are heading for a win.
7.12.2011 Kamal El   Ganzouri’s cabinet is announced after a difficult birth.
14.12.2011  The second stage of parliamentary elections   begins.
16.12.2011 Violent   clashes erupt between police and demonstrators surrounding the cabinet’s   headquarter.
17.12.2011 The battle   between army/police forces and demonstrators continues around the Cabinet   building and Tahrir Square leaving 9 dead and more than 400 injured. Sheikh   Emad Effat of AlAzhar is shot dead.
29.12.2011 Seventeen   Egyptian and foreign NGO’s are raided by public prosecutors.

Egyptian Twitter Humor: Presidential Elections Results Announcement Tweets

28 Jun

After two rounds of presidential elections and a long wait for the Presidential Election Committee to announce its results amid suspicions of foul play, the head of the committee, Judge Farouk Sultan, surprised his impatient audience with a lengthy speech that dragged for a whole hour before he came around to announcing the winner.  His young listeners resorted to Twitter and typical Egyptian cynicism to pass the time waiting for the naming of Egypt’s new president. Here are translated samples of the funny tweets that were exchanged during the speech:

  • Please finish. Some of us want to go to the toilet, others are in a hurry to burn the country .We cannot wait forever.
  • We now know why the results were delayed. They were too busy writing this speech.
  • Our new president will rule a nation of paralyzed citizens
  • Election Committee, we are sorry, we regret criticizing you…pleeeeeeze give us the results
  • Is he announcing the results or a new religion?
  • I am worried that by the end of the speech this guy will forget to announce the results
  • Downloading the new president…. Please wait
  • Enough, enough, enough …..I don’t want to know the results
  • Now he will start reading the names of all of the voters
  • It’s a boy, it’s a girl, it’s a boy……
  • The people want to end the speech [a parody of the revolution’s slogan: the people want to end the regime’s rule]
  • I suspect he doesn’t have the results
  • It seems that SCAF wants to extend the transition period by extending this speech.
  • Could anyone remind me what we are watching this for?
  •  That is the kind of situation that encourages youth to turn to booze and drugs
  • We are sorry Mubarak. Please come back.
  • At last someone has unified the Egyptian people. At least we are all cursing the same person.
  • Enough, Sultan, we do not want a president.
  • And now half of the Egyptian people have become impotent
  • Tomorrow we will go out in a million man march calling for the ending of the speech.
  • The objective of committee is to use this speech to kill all candidates and voters and remain the only party on the scene
  • They are carefully boring us so that we would accept any results
  • The committee is making sure that the people won’t have any energy to fight a civil war.
  • I will go get married and get kids then come back to listen to the final results.
  • The first thing the new president should do is to sentence this committee to watch this speech ten times.
  • Anyone remembers what’s this conference is all about?
  • Thank God now we are confident that there will be no violence cause the speech have turned Egyptians into zombies
  • I can’t imagine how we could have survived this announcement without Twitter.

Why isn’t the economy the focal issue in the Egyptian parliamentary elections?

13 Jan

Given that 40% of Egyptians are poor and that the country is under great economic pressure, many are wondering why isn’t the Egyptian electorate voting for parties and candidates based on their economic policy and why isn’t the economy the prevailing topic in election campaigns.

A quick review of election slogans, catch phrases and media coverage shows that the economy is just one of many topics and definitely not the most prominent one. Other predominant topics are social justice, candidates’ integrity, democratic reform and Islamic identity. Most of TV airtime is dedicated to the latter and its derivatives like the application of Sharia law, the rights of minorities and the nature of the country’s constitution.

Obviously, one reason for the focus on such topics is that they lead to the kind of confrontations that TV shows thrive upon. Still, that doesn’t explain the low prominence of economic issues in campaign advertising and political discourse in general.

To explain this phenomenon we should go back to the first days of the January uprising where the most common revolution slogan was ‘the people demand the removal of the regime’ and to many Egyptians the removal of Mubarak and his policies meant an end of injustice and economic hardship. The second most repeated protest chant was ‘bread, freedom and social justice’ with ‘human dignity’ sometimes replacing one these three demands.

The Egyptian revolution was more of a rebellion against injustice than poverty. This hypothesis is supported by the well-known fact that the initial leaders of the Egyptian revolution were well educated upper middle class citizens not the poor. Economic data has been used by the old regime to prove economic progress and improvements in the standard of living, which was true statistically, but the increasing burden of inflation and flagrant inequalities were the more glaring features of Gamal Mubarak’s economic reform policies.

The majority of Egyptians live from hand to mouth and do not have the time nor the appetite for sophisticated economic debates, neither do they have the experience that allows them to judge candidates based on their economic policies and programs. More important, the revolution has uncovered a frightening amount of corruption and profiteering among the ousted political elite out of which grew a deep yearning for leadership with integrity and high moral standards.

Under the influence of these two factors; a disinterest in economic policies and a genuine desire to clean up government, Egyptians opted to avoid candidates that reminded them of the past, including many of the liberals and socialists in the opposition who escaped persecution during the Mubarak era and were allowed a level of political freedom that Islamists were denied, thus they were perceived as part of a corrupt political milieu. Even liberal activists who never compromised their ideals and helped pave the way for the revolution were unable to gain enough momentum for their parties because of their ties to western culture which was linked in the minds of many Egyptians, to the old regime. The people were looking for a short cut that would allow them to achieve their aspirations without getting into the nitty gritty of economic policy, which they found in Islamic political candidates, whom, for the average voter, at least theoretically speaking, represent a breath of fresh air in a corrupt environment.

What are the causes of the Egyptian Army’s violence against protestors?

7 Jan

Since March, reported incidents of the Egyptian army’s human rights abuses and use of force against civilians have been on the rise. These incidents seem like a self-fulfilling prophecy by the army’s Supreme Command. While attempting to comfort those who feared a continuation of military rule, members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) repeatedly assured Egyptians that they have no aspirations to rule the country, explaining that the army was neither structured nor trained for civilian chores. But the army’s performance in the last three months raises doubts about its ability to perform any kind of chores whether political, civilian or military.

The early incidents of violence (explained in my previous article) were limited, both in scope and damage, and were usually followed by the military’s apologies and assurances. The public, at that stage, was too eager to believe the army commanders who sided with the revolution and who represented the last standing authority after the resignation of the president, the fall of the police force and the disbanding of the parliament. Unfortunately, as the clashes increased in fierceness and as casualties mounted the SCAF’s popularity took a nose dive among politicians and activists, although it remained robust among large sectors of the population.

Consequently, doubts about the SCAF’s motives and intentions filled the media and were a frequently debated topic, even among apolitical Egyptians. Many decisions and non-decisions undertaken by the military remain a big mystery.  Although it is very difficult find coherence in the secretive Supreme Council’s actions and decisions, yet, in the case of the excessive use of force some background knowledge and close observation of events may provide some clues.

A Confusing Picture

Foreign analysts who depend on news carried by foreign media in evaluating the events in Egypt will inevitably be misled. The Arab spring has turned demonstrations into a daily activity and while dozens of Yemeni, Syrian and Libyan civilians participating in protest were being massacred, Egyptians were peacefully demonstrating almost on weekly basis. Understandably, since these demonstrations became almost a weekly routine and since they were usually uneventful, they ceased to make the headlines. Starting from Mubarak’s last days in power after the collapse of his security machine and the removal of his cronies’ failure in their last stand on February 2nd, demonstrations were usually peaceful. The few incidents where the police or army clashed with demonstrators were far apart and except for those mentioned here the only other conflicts were related to criminal activities. This may be confusing for who see the picture of SCAF in the foreign media being portrayed, perhaps unavoidably, as a cruel authoritarian regime that is intolerant to dissent. Actually, throughout most of the past months, SCAF had been lax, hesitant and slow to react and up to September the most prevalent criticism they received was that they were overly tolerant. Nevertheless, this neither implies their absolution from responsibility for the violence nor does it indicate that their hearts and minds are in the right place.

Going back to August, when demonstrators started calling for the ousting of the SCAF or the stepping down of Marshal Tantawi, the military kept neutral and exercised self-restraint enduring the harsh accusations, cursing and profanities from some of the protestors. The earlier March 9th famous incident that ended with the virginity tests could be read either as an individual case of field command failure or a miscalculation. At that time the public support for the continuation of protest was waning and the economy was bleeding badly. The increased activism inspired workers all over the country to go on strikes that frequently turned violent with workers attacking management and facilities while the government stood watching afraid that a confrontation could damage the ailing police force’s reputation and might encourage more violence. AT that time the media and the business community were calling for firmness against activists’ excesses which prompted SCAF to issue decrees allowing peaceful demonstrations but introducing some restrictions on sit-ins and strikes. The March incident, which started with an army attack on a few protestors who decided to sleep over in Tahrir Square and ended in detaining some of them, caused an uproar that the army did not expect since they had felt that the public mood was against prolonged demonstrations. The virginity tests are difficult to explain but are probably an overzealous decision by one of the field commanders for whom a sleep over in the square by a female protestor was a socially unacceptable act equivalent to prostitution, which may sound bizarre for a westerner but not for the  Egyptian conservative majority. Still this incident gave a peek into what may be some of the more disturbing characteristics of the Egyptian military mind, which we will later delve into.

Reform vs. Stability

The second incident, which was more violent, was more justifiable. Protestors had surrounded the Israeli embassy and were attempting to break in and some even succeeded in climbing the building and entering one of its offices. The army had to move in and support the police after being criticized by the US and the Israeli administrations.

As explained earlier the army avoided confrontation with demonstrations and was successful for some time in doing that because their presence was usually out of demonstrators’ main area of activity; Tahrir. However, the military police was entrusted with protecting some of the most critical government buildings and one of those was the Radio and Television building in the Maspero district near Tahrir. It was a usual destination for Coptic activists protest and the presence of military guards there did not cause any problem until the 9th of October when the biggest and bloodiest confrontation took place. There were several events that increased tensions between Copts and the army that led to that moment. All of these events involved aggression by fanatic Islamists against Copts and their churches but the government and the army hesitated to intervene until it was too late. And although after each act of vandalism against church facilities SCAF reconstructed these damaged facilities using army funds and resources, however, they could not rebuild the damaged dignity nor could they restore the trust of Copts.

Army sympathizers can attribute the Maspero incident to panic or third party instigators but the Sheikh Rehan st. incident was more difficult to justify. The government admitted that the incident started with the beating of a demonstrator and despite the protestors resort to violence, the army’s reaction was brutal and unrestrained. The photos and videos of women being dragged by the hair and fallen demonstrators being hit at by soldiers outnumbering them six to one using sticks and frequently their boots are images that have tainted the army’s reputation worldwide, in addition to horrifying many army sympathizers winning over some of them, who were previously against the continuation of demonstrations, to the protestors side. My estimate is that the majority of Egyptians are still on the side of SCAF and believe that activists are disturbing the peace, damaging the economy and impeding the political process. That is a fact that is rarely mentioned in international media and is essential for understanding why revolutionaries who removed Mubarak are so weak in the face of SCAF. But, it is worth mentioning that most of that majority of SCAF supporters are categorized as ‘couch party’ members whose numbers exceed by far their political clout. The 25th of January demonstrations overwhelmed the fearsome police state only when the activists were joined by the usually silent masses on the 28th.

It is difficult to discount SCAF’s concern for the country’s economic situation and their fear of chaos as factors that may contribute to their increased mistrust in hardcore activists leading both parties into fierce confrontations. But, it is also difficult to ignore evidence that since the very early days of the revolution SCAF was very reluctant to embark on the course towards deep and extensive reform. There is wide consensus among political analysts that SCAF’s policies indicate that they see the removal of Mubarak and his close circle of cronies as a sufficiently substantial achievement beyond which reform can fall back to a more gradual and slow-paced process. This view is of course considered scandalous by almost anyone who had participated in the uprising. For them, Mubarak was only one of many pillars of a corrupt regime that encompass almost anyone who has had a political role (including opposition figures) during its era and that real reform requires more than just the replacement of some figureheads.

The Age and Skill Factors

Two other important dimensions that may have deepened SCAF’s adoption of conservative reform policies are the age factor and the brain drain. Most SCAF members are over sixty and their most senior members are over seventy. As one close SCAF advisor recently told me, ‘these people are unable to make a quick decision and unwilling to take any risks’. He also reminded me that during the 1973 war most of the army’s top commanders had not yet reached their mid-fifties and Mubarak himself, the air force commander, was in his forties. Add to this that Mubarak, a risk-avert person himself, had always favored low-key conservative and cautious characters when choosing aids and his paranoid nature coupled with his low IQ meant that sharp intelligent personalities were systematically weeded out except if they were deceitful enough not to appear too clever for their own good.

Furthermore, the Egyptian army, as an institution, had been conditioned for so many years to value keeping the peace above any other goal in the face of continuous provocations in the hottest part of the world. This has required deep-rooted change in the convictions and values of the organization. It has also required a more authoritarian style of management and a culture that rewards obedience over excellence and creativity, transforming the army into a mindless bureaucracy. After Egypt’s move towards open market economic policies in the late seventies, in a political environment that did not provide civil servants with the tools to lobby for their rights, government pay froze at a time of aggressive inflation while more lucrative employment opportunities became increasingly available in the private sector. This has had a negative effect on the military’s ability to maintain its competitiveness and recruit the needed skills.

The above mentioned factors of a) concern for the peace and the bleeding economy, b) risk aversion and favoring gradual reform and c) incompetence may explain SCAF’s conflict with protestors and activists that have at times turned violent but it still fails to justify the extent to which the army reacted in some instances and the resulting carnage in the last three months’ incidents.

The Military Trials

As previously explained, during the early days of the revolution, the army rarely resorted to police-state tactics in the face of demonstrations but starting from the Maspero massacre, not only did the level of brutality increase but the use of military courts to prosecute activists became a hot issue. Under pressure from the general public who was suffering from the increase of criminal activities after the collapse of the police in January 28th, SCAF issued a decree authorizing the use of military law to prosecute outlaws and thugs and although some human rights activists raised concerns, the general public saw it as an inevitable measure during such hard times especially since Egyptian courts are notoriously slow. After some of the demonstrations turned violent the army started apprehending and prosecuting protestors for committing acts of terror. One controversial case was that of Alaa Abdel Fattah, a prominent Tahrir revolutionary and the son of two human rights activists. The case was considered a charade and Alaa refused to recognize the court, starting a series of protest activities raising his case to the forefront of protestors’ demands. At the end SCAF had to give way and transfer the case and other similar ones to civilian courts.

The transformation of military trials from being a tool to establish law and order to means of squelching protest is one of the more important clues to the inner workings of the SCAF’s collective mind and this is where the picture becomes darker.

The Army Comes First

Witness accounts of the activists rounded up then released during the Cabinet (Sheikh Rehan st.) confrontation draws a picture of officers acting as if on a crusade to defeat the enemies of the republic. These officers and their soldiers were running around beating, shouting and using foul language against injured women, children and doctors. Either they saw this behavior as an effective tool against those brazen ‘outlaws’ who were wreaking havoc with the countries stability or they were acting in vengeance for the verbal abuses and the stone throwing they were subject to. Detainees witnessed high ranking officers who did not contribute to the abuse but nonetheless did not rebuke it and eventually released the prisoners in spite of objections from a junior officer. This indicates that the top brass saw the younger ranks behavior as imprudent but justifiable. This was also echoed a few days later when Major General Adel Emara, in the press conference dedicated to justifying the army’s human right abuses during these events, kept repeating, ‘you have to understand what these troops have been through before throwing accusations at them’. It is true that many demonstrators have become accustomed to attacking SCAF and the Marshal Tantawi using derogatory words and even accused them of treason and profiteering and it is also true that during clashes army personnel are sometimes the subject of cursing and teasing but one would expect them to be trained on self-restraint and not get out of control. One would also expect their commanders to reprimand them if they step out of line. Thus, it is clear that those commanders believe that the tough tactics are required to achieve their mission or protect their pride.  The authoritarian military mind coupled with third world concept of citizens’ limited rights in times of trouble is in full play here. Moreover, attitudes towards women and minorities may encourage abuse to those who dare and break society’s norms, as in mixing with men and spending the night in the square.

But the army units did not stop at the beatings and the verbal abuse. They also shot at the protestors using live ammunition. So the more important question would be whether a mixture of provocations, miscalculations and incompetence can result in killing scores of protestors, even if these protestors were infiltrated by violent types who were trying to burn down government buildings? It is ludicrous to believe that army officers were running around shooting demonstrators without being ordered or at least allowed to do so by their commanders. SCAF used paratroopers and Special Forces units instead of military police in the Rehan st. incident, which was an indication that they condoned the possible use of violence in that instant. It was understandable that their patience was running thin and that they were determined this time to squash the protest because it was threatening to disrupt the parliamentary elections and preventing the new government from assuming its responsibilities. But was the killing necessary and was force exercised with the expected degree of restraint? The number of casualties and the manner with which they were killed prove otherwise. It is clear that either the troops were ordered to control the situation at all cost or that these army units are uncontrollable killing machines.

Lack of transparency opens the way to guesses about motives and level of responsibility; however, SCAF gave indications that army morale and avoidance of any internal discord was their top priority. One activist reported that in a meeting with some SCAF members he was told that the army’s internal unity is of the highest importance, insinuating that if the country falls the army would be there to rescue it but if the army falls then the whole country will follow. That explains why the army did not declare its casualties in Maspero or any other confrontation, even though that could have helped justifying their resort to violence. It also may explain why the presumed trials of army personnel who committed acts of violence were reluctantly declared but never detailed. In every case the SCAF valued the army’s internal unity and morale over improving its tarnished image.

Conclusion: The End Justifies the Means

To summarize; the army’s resort to abuse and excessive violence is the result of a mixture of factors. One factor that I believe is the explanation favored and supported by a large portion of the population are the good causes of protecting the economy, home land security, peace and order. Causes that their duty to serve Egypt dictates and as the reluctant and unprepared bearer of responsibility they performed it in the way they see fit. The majority of Egyptians see the army as their last standing institution and are ready to accept what it takes to keep it that way until the other legislative and administrative institutions are back in business, even if it comes to accepting its committing of some abuses. Thus the second factor of lack of competence is overlooked or readily excused, though, without it the good intentions factor does not stand. It is incomprehensible to view the army’s crisis management performance as driven by necessity since each action instigated fiercer counter violence while simultaneously damaging the Egyptian military’s reputation. At the tactical level these actions cannot be justified neither by their goals nor by their outcome. Starting a week long battle just to clear out some protesters and their tents who were occupying a mere corner of Tahrir Square, and ending up building a wall to protect security forces from demonstrators’ attacks while losing the trust of more activists and political groups in addition to being hit by a barrage of bad publicity in international media, hardly qualifies as a successful strategy to achieve peace and stability. This is clearly a case where incompetence played an important role.

However, incompetence cannot justify ordering elite army units, armed with guns and live ammunition, to chase demonstrators (even if they were considered rioters) down Tahrir Sq. shooting at them and killing dozens of them. Yes, it was elections time and the economy was and is still suffering but the actions of these troops, as clearly depicted on videos, were acts of war against civilians and therefore betray feelings of superiority and a poisoned belief that human rights are a luxury to be ignored in times of trouble.

The army’s clashes with protestors in Egypt

24 Dec

Since the ousting of Mubarak back in January, periodic outbreaks of violence and street fighting have been erupting leaving behind dozens or hundreds of casualties.  Some of these events saw clashes between various groups of citizens usually instigated by sectarian conflict or business disputes but the more disturbing of these clashes were those between the police and the army on one side and protestors on the other.

Since the first time the army’s personnel carriers rolled out into the streets in late January up to their crushing of protestors in the famous Maspiro incident in October, the army had kept a low profile and seemed unwilling to reign in on any violence whether it was part of a protest, sectarian conflict or criminal act. The Supreme Military Council (SCAF) had repeatedly announced that it respects the freedom of protest and promised not use violence against peaceful demonstrators. I used the word ‘seemed’ because although there were several instances, during the first few months where the military police had been reported to use aggressive tactics to control out of hand situations, as when students of the Cairo University’s Faulty of Mass Communication surrounded their dean’s office for hours calling for his resignation. The students later reported that they were beaten and trampled by the military police. In another incident the army cleared Tahrir Square from a few dozens of demonstrators the day following a big demonstration and apprehended a few female activists subjecting them to virginity test, which caused an international uproar. The SCAF apologized for aggressively clearing the square but denied, then gave excuses, for the virginity tests.

For months after that demonstrators were granted total freedom to demonstrate all over Egypt’s major cities and Tahrir square was used repeatedly to pressure SCAF for political demands like the speeding up of Mubarak’s trials, the removal of certain ministers and other demands that the SCAF reluctantly gave in to in many instances. The police routine practice was to totally disappear from streets during the usual Friday protest up until the demonstrators became more aggressive after the killing of an Egyptian soldier on the borders by Israeli gunfire. When the protestors surrounded the Israeli embassy in Cairo the riot police intervened unsuccessfully at the beginning but when the army came in to help casualties mounted.

The second major bloody conflict between a military unit and protestors took place in Cairo’s Maspiro district in early October when a mostly Coptic demonstration protesting sectarian violence against Copts in upper Egypt got into a street battle with army personnel that ended in a huge number of casualties among protestors, including 28 killed in addition to an unannounced number of military casualties. The Maspero district is a small area near Tahrir square where the huge state’s TV and Radio building, symbol of the Egyptian authoritarian regime, resides. Due to its importance the building was guarded by the army.  At first the army and the state media blamed the protestors for attacking the army then shifted their blame towards an unnamed third party accusing it of shooting at both sides causing the demonstrators to act violently and the soldiers to panic and drive their armored vehicles over demonstrators in an attempt to escape. Some amateur videos showed demonstrators beating soldiers in what seemed like an attempt to crush their skulls and other videos clearly showed army vehicles running over demonstrators. The Egyptian Human Rights Supreme Council launched an inquiry and issued a report confirming the presence of third party instigators but also accused the army of mistakes including the use of excessive force and of lack of transparency and called for an independent investigation.

The army’s insistence on the third party scenario, which in that incident only was confirmed by some witnesses and human rights groups, has been later repeatedly used by SCAF and the Ministry of Interior as an excuse for bullet casualties among demonstrators without any evidence to support it, thus inspiring boogeyman jokes in the media and on Facebook/Twitter.

Shortly following Maspero, another even bloodier clash took place near Tahrir Square. It all started when a police squad using excessive force cleared an area of Tahrir Square where around one hundred demonstrators were camping in demand for better compensation and treatment of demonstrators injured during the early days of the revolution. It is unknown what prompted that action but if the move was initiated by the army then it might be in retaliation for demonstrations that in the previous day called for the stepping down of the SCAF. It was a dumb move because within hours activists were alerted and arriving at the scene in large numbers they marched towards the Ministry of Interior where they were stopped by a police force at Mohamed Mahmoud Street one street away from the Ministry building. For a whole week a battle raged in that street resulting in 42 dead and about 800 injured many of them losing eyes or limbs. The army had learnt the lesson from Maspero and did not interfere except in the last days when they built a concrete barrier to separate the police from the demonstrators thus ending the battle.

The third conflict was very similar to the Mohamed Mahmoud battle but this time the army was in place of the police. The battle started in front of the Prime Minister’s complex in Sheikh Rehan st. when one of the officers on guard badly beat a young man who was part of a rally camping in front of the complex for several weeks protesting against the new Prime Minister. The most reported reason for the beating was that the young man stopped the officer and asked him for an ID which angered the officer and prompted him to call for his troops and asked them to beat the young man. An alternate story was that some protestors were playing soccer and when the ball flew over the government building’s fence the young man climbed to get it and ended up getting beaten. In any case this angered the crowd and started a stone throwing exchange that developed into a Molotov battle threatening several government buildings including the nearby Parliament building and a historic library which was burnt down destroying many valuable heritage books and maps. The army fought back and drove the rioters back to Tahrir Square using brutal tactics. Again the battle raged for several days and only ended after the building of concrete barriers to protect the army and government buildings from the protestors.

It has to be noted that although the incident started with the torture of a demonstrator, the demonstrators’ retaliation was violent and caused heavy damage to historic buildings and threatened others. The battle left 15 protestors dead and hundreds injured but the most damage had inflicted the army’s reputation as guardian of the revolution. Many of the casualties died of gun wounds but the army denied using live ammunition and blamed the usual anonymous third party. Pictures and videos of women being beaten and dragged in the street, young men being brutally beaten by five or six soldiers after they have fallen and fainted, officers shooting their guns at fleeing demonstrators, soldiers throwing stones and pissing on demonstrators from the roof of a government building were all over You Tube, Facebook and TV talk shows but the most damaging worldwide was the image of a woman in Islamic dress being beaten and dragged until her dress was torn open and her bare torso and bra showed. The picture was featured on the front page in most of the major international and local newspapers.

In the next article I will try to guess the reasons for the army’s gradual shift towards using violence against protestors.

The role of the Internet in the Egyptian elections

17 Dec

Facebook logo on a wall in Alexandria, Egypt

As mentioned in two previous articles in this blog, the Egyptian revolution benefited from the Internet and social media and helped motivate many citizens to join the cyberspace. One phenomenon observed by many computer retailers was the sudden surge in laptop sales during the two months following the removal of Mubarak, despite the dire economic condition. Many Egyptians who had been largely ignoring the Internet suddenly came to the realization that it was a unique and useful tool to keep up with events and to even participate in them.

This prompted presidential nominees, political parties, activists and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to maintain active Facebook and Twitter presence and as elections neared, almost all political parties had elaborate websites where their programs, nominees and news are published.

A more critical use of the Internet was in helping prepare voters for the elections. Since each group of voters was assigned to a certain poll station but voters were not required to preregister and were not issued voter registration cards, there was a need to communicate to each voter his/her number, sub-station number and poll station location. This was accomplished through three different means: a phone information service, a texting service and the elections website. The texting system required the voter to only text his/her ID number and within minutes they get back a text message with the name and address of the poll station, sub-station number and a voter ID.  The elections website launched by the High Council for Elections provided these services in addition to a Google Maps locator of the poll station and the list of relevant candidates and parties in the voter’s district.

Although the majority of Egyptians are computer illiterate, yet the Internet was the most popular method out of the three. This was helped by hundreds of party members who seized the opportunity to reach out to voters and promote their candidates by offering, as a free service, to inform citizens of their voting ID and poll station’s location while squeezing in a flyer and a recommendation for their candidates. Some parties, notably the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, set up tents with computer workstations and mobile internet access near most poll stations to provide voters with access to the website’s services.

The late decision to allow Egyptians living abroad to vote also necessitated the utilization of the Internet to compensate for the remoteness of voters from the consulates that were designated as their polling sites. Voters were asked to register at the elections website and get an ID and password that allowed them to print their voting sheets which they mail with a copy of ID and proof of foreign residency to the consulate. The new voting system required each voter to elect both individual candidates and party/coalition lists (through a system of proportionate representation) with each having a different zoning system; therefore voters were assigned two different voting districts depending on their place of residence in Egypt. As a result some consulates received votes belonging to more than a hundred different districts and had to sort and categorize them. The use of an electronic tool of course facilitated the communication process with the electorate and the logistics of providing them with the right voting sheets. More than three hundred and sixty thousand Egyptians living abroad used this internet based service.

Why Did Egyptians Give the Army a Warm Welcome?

2 Apr

One of prime sources of concern among foreign analysts was the handing over of authority to the Egyptian military, an institution that has long been considered by observers to be closely linked to, and supportive of, the Mubarak regime. The scenes of the people’s jubilation and the warm welcome with which they greeted the army were a source of wonderment to those who have seen too many revolutions hijacked by military dictatorships. Yet, the Egyptian people did not appear to entertain those concerns.
Several factors, rich with nuances that may escape a foreign observer, contributed to the people’s reaction. A semi-conscious preemptive attempt by demonstrators to win over the military could not be ruled out. But, on the conscious level, Egyptian’s did not see the military as part and parcel of the regime. One of the reasons the military was linked in the minds of foreign political analysis to the Mubarak regime was the fact that Mubarak was a high ranking army officer before his appointment as vice president by his predecessor President Sadat, himself an army officer. Yet, what escapes many observers is that both Sadat and Mubarak had drifted away from their military roots during their presidential years. Even President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who headed a military coup and ruled the country by placing military officers at the top of the most important government institutions then led the country through two fierce wars, ended up court marshaling the army’s top brass for their responsibility for the 1967 defeat against Israel, causing a rift between the regime and the military. By the time Sadat came to power he too had drifted away from the military and one of his first major actions as president was the removal of the army’s commander and appointing a police officer as prime minister. Since then, the Presidency increasingly relied for its safety on the police security apparatus and the role of the army in that respect diminished.
Mubarak came to power after Sadat’s assassination by Islamist army officers during an army parade and the country for several years was under a serious threat by Islamic extremism which prompted him to strengthen and place his trust in his police force. During these years animosity between the army and the police was on the rise and there were many signs of the latter’s increase of influence and power. The police force bulged into a heavily armed paramilitary force at least three times the size of the army. The most important and populated governorates were managed by ex-police officers, while army officers were assigned to border desert governorates. It was also revealed after the revolution that the State Security (an FBI equivalent) was spying on some military figures. The power and influence of the State Security had grown immensely under Mubarak to the extent that the appointment of a College dean or the airing of an interview with a public personality had to get its nod of approval.
Another common misconception frequently cited by the foreign media is that the country’s army affiliated intelligence agency was the authority responsible for harassing and spying on political dissidents and opposition members. Consequently, when Mubarak appointed the intelligence head as a vice president in a move aimed at quelling protest many in the international media thought he was out of his mind to select a person whom they thought was the chief opposition torturer as a deputy. They were not aware that that honor belonged to the Minister Interior and his State Security department instead.
Another widely held belief in international circles was that the army’s involvement in civil life through its manufacturing and construction establishments gave it political and economic clout. That is another misconception. It is true that the army’s engineering corps has been, since the early eighties, an active contributor to national megaprojects and that the government sometimes resorted to the military in helping relieve bread and other essential supplies shortages but that did not constitute a constant and growing trend. It is also true that the State Intelligence agency owned trading companies but most probably their raison d’être was to be used as a foil for intelligence operations and in any case these companies were mainly involved in commercial dealings with the government and did not represent a significant weight within the Egyptian economy. Furthermore, there was no reason to believe that these entities would be adversely affected after the revolution since they never attracted media or opposition attention or criticism. On the contrary, there were many calls for the increase of the role of the army in fulfilling the country’s developmental needs.
As individuals the army officers were considered to be law abiding citizens who went about their jobs just like the average civil servant whose involvement in public life was limited. While police officers, especially State Police members, represented a pain to many Egyptians and were a target to a lot of gossip and criticism and a source of flagrant corruption.
All this helped make the Ministry of Interior and its agencies a feared and loathed entity while, for so many years, the army’s role in supporting the regime has been retreating in people’s consciousness.