Last week Tahrir Square was a buzzing tent city, a political hub and home to hundreds of protesters, camped out since 8 July. Day and night Cairenes came in their thousands to listen to political speeches. Debates, impromptu marches and chanting continued into the early hours of every morning.
Families of martyrs killed during the January uprising against Mubarak comprised a sizeable section of the live-in protesters, along with revolutionary socialists, a newly formed women’s rights coalition, and many more associated with the April 6 youth movement – all committed to enduring the heat of the Egyptian summer
At night, during speeches from the dozens of stages set up around the Square a unifying theme between the groups was an ever-increasing hostility towards SCAF (Supreme Council of Armed Forces), the US-backed military junta that has effectively ruled Egypt since the overthrow of Mubarak.
My host one evening in the Square, Mohamed Radwan, who participated in the January uprising against Mubarak’s regime, translated a common chant from the stages, “The people want to bring down the field Marshall” referring to Field Marshall Mohamed Tantawi, Mubarak’s close ally and Defence Minister for two decades, who now heads the military council.
Mohamed is something of a local hero, having survived a kidnapping in Syria by Assad’s death squads after the fall of Mubarak. He was randomly arrested while working in Damascus, and used by the regime as part of its propaganda campaign against Syria’s pro-democracy uprising. After being tortured and beaten, Mohamed was paraded around on Syrian state television, and made to admit to being an Israeli spy.
Radwan jokes that it didn’t help that when he was arrested, army officials found dozens of photos of him on the streets during the January uprising in Tahrir. They concluded that he was in Syria to lead the masses in a seditious uprising against their rulers. If it weren’t for a campaign mounted by activists and revolutionaries within Egypt to free him, which led to nation-wide TV coverage of his plight, he would now most likely be another statistic of the murderous Assad regime.
In Tahrir a family of protesters recognize Mohamed. As he speaks with some of them, other members of the family explain events of the day in the Square to me.
Rosha, a Muslim woman and grandmother describes how Christians held umbrellas over Muslims during prayers that day, shielding them from the sun and heat. With her fist clenched to her chest she recounts how uplifting it was to witness this and how she and so many others are fighting for a truly free Egypt where people can live together peacefully without religious persecution.
But as the Christians were shielding the praying Muslims, a group of Islamists – Rosha says most probably Salafi and members of Jama’a al Islamiya – descended on the scene, screaming at Muslims for uniting with Christians in the Square. Rosha, angry, warns me that she is worried about the demonstration planned in Tahrir the following Friday, by Islamists. She explains the protesters in Tahrir do not want this, and that the Islamists such as the Salafi are determined to undermine the original and unanimous demands of Egypt’s revolution, and to promote and bolster sectarian divides.
Rosha’s brother, a devout Muslim, has shaved his beard so as to not be associated with the Islamists. He believes they are a reactionary threat to the revolution. As we sit together three little boys sing about a free Egypt, run by the people, for the people, where the people are the “red line”, not the army – meaning the people draw the lines and make the rules, and the line is theirs and theirs alone to determine.
Mohamed hears news from his activist cousin that a march is planned the following day against SCAF. The march did take place the next day with 20,000 protesters setting off from Tahrir to SCAF headquarters in Abassiya. What unfolded that day when peaceful protesters arrived at SCAF’s fortress was a massacre. Hossam Al Hamalawy described the scene as “a war zone” as the army, police and undercover thugs beat, knifed, and shot protesters. Five were killed, and over a thousand seriously wounded, although the military reported via state media that no one was killed and only 200 “violent thugs” sustained minor injuries.
Contrary to media reports that masses of local residents in Abassiya joined in the beating and jeering of protesters, activists on the ground reported many locals throwing protesters bottles of water, and cheering them on as they approached the SCAF compound.
Activists say the army is now acting more like the authorities under Mubarak. Mohamed Fahmy, a protester in Tahrir, voices an increasingly widespread view among protesters: “The army is going through the motions of transitioning to civilian government but the foot-dragging indicates they really want to remain in control even after a new government is elected.”
The army attacks Tahrir
Abassiya was to provide a frightening precursor to what happened on Monday, when the army, police and armed undercover thugs swarmed into Tahrir Square, smashing up protesters tents, and beating and arresting over 100 people, including children and elderly family members of martyrs. Many protesters have gone missing, including children.
The army chased activists into the Omar Makram Mosque with their boots on, a profanity to Muslims, and then beat people and dragged them outside. There is a well known story in Egypt that this particular crime of entering mosques boots and all has not been committed since Napoleon’s armies invaded.
Shop owners around Tahrir cheered the army and were allowed to participate in arresting and beating protesters. A father of one of the martyrs killed during the revolution, fleeing from Tahrir, yelled, “So this is what my son died for – the shop owners of Tahrir?!”
Today, Tuesday, Tahrir Square is surrounded by the army and police, with not a trace left of the activism and open protest of the previous weeks. The political graffiti sprayed all over the giant Mogamma building, towering over the Square has been removed and even the street vendors selling revolutionary paraphernalia, who have been a constant feature in the Square since January, have gone.
In Talaat Harb Street, a major access point to Tahrir Square that last week was controlled by activists from civilian committees, giant prison trucks line the kerbs. These imposing metal cages mark out a very concrete and purposeful threat to potential protesters. A few fingers reach out from inside the metal grilles of one of the trucks, and you cannot help but feel anguish wondering what sort of horrors await those inside. Thousands of other protesters are now incarcerated in military jails; their fate hangs in the balance with the military now clearly unwilling to tolerate challenges to their rule.
And the military increasingly has the open support of ultra-conservative Islamist groups, with Jama’a al Islamiya announcing their implicit support of SCAF and strongly criticising protesters, particularly those calling for a secular state or any kind of government that would not incorporate the army.
Egypt, as revolutionaries have now noted, has entered into a dangerous new stage. Activists are warning that SCAF is watching closely, monitoring the twitter and social media pages of leftists and anti-government protesters. The forces of reaction are asserting their rule and their intentions.
But there is also tremendous potential to challenge these forces. This potential is based not only on the courage and determination of activists and their supporters who marched in their tens of thousands against SCAF last week, but also with the millions who took to the streets to bring down Mubarak’s regime, demanding better lives, workers’ rights, social justice and democratic freedoms.
These millions, particularly the youth – who stormed the streets, who set alight the monolithic NDP building that now stands as a charred and burnt-out backdrop to Tahrir – are not easily going to give up their revolution.