Resisting the Crackdown in Egypt

Alan Maass Jan 5, 2012

Egypt's military rulers have escalated a deadly crackdown against those standing up for democracy and justice in a new society following the downfall of dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Dozens of people have been killed and many more injured in the latest attacks on protesters that started in mid-December with the violent suppression of a sit-in outside the Cabinet building near Tahrir Square and continued through the end of the year.

In going on the offensive against protesters, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has new allies among the Islamist organizations–both the Muslim Brotherhood and harder-line Salafist groups–that have won the biggest share of the vote in Egyptian elections, which began in early December and are ongoing this month.

With the support of Islamist leaders, the regime has targeted left-wing and human rights activists for both physical and legal attacks, and a coordinated smear campaign in the media.

But the revolution not been silenced.

In late November, the response to the regime's violence and repression led to the largest mobilizations since the revolution in January and February. Marches and protests on university campuses, at workplaces, outside government buildings and on the streets of Cairo and other cities continued on a daily basis, in spite of the escalating attacks by the regime.

One symbol of the determination of the military's opponents was a 50,000-strong gathering in Tahrir Square to ring in the New Year. Demonstrators both mourned those killed by the state and celebrated the revolutionary achievements of 2011, asserting their commitment to "completing the task" in 2012.

The previous week, images of another courageous demonstration were seen around the world–of women on the march in protest against a hideous assault against a female demonstrator that was captured on video. Some 10,000 women came out for the demonstration, publicly shaming the soldiers responsible. Among the popular chants were "Don't be scared, say it loud, the council must go" and "We want a civil state, down with military rule."

The year that began with a mass rebellion that toppled a hated dictator and shook Egyptian society to its core ended with the generals who collaborated with Mubarak for so long taking the offensive against opponents of tyranny and injustice–and threatening to reverse the achievements of the revolution.

But more and more Egyptians are recognizing the SCAF as an enemy of democracy and justice, and the opposition to the regime on the left is being translated into organization. This holds the hope of preserving the promise of the revolution.

The generals who took over for Mubarak after he was toppled in February were initially seen by large numbers of Egyptians as being on the side of "the people." But they have been progressively unmasked for failing to meet expectations of real change.

Slowly during the year, the SCAF increased its use of violence against strikes and protests–carried out both by uniformed soldiers and out-of-uniform thugs, as in the ambush in July of a march to SCAF headquarters when demonstrators reached the Abbasiyah neighborhood.

The repression reached new levels, however, in November, beginning with a police assault on November 19 against a sit-in of no more than 100 people on the center traffic island of Tahrir Square. The government was unexpectedly confronted by tens of thousands of people who turned out to Tahrir Square again, kicking the police out.

Full-scale street battles between protesters and security forces continued for the next five days, with at least 40 demonstrators killed and many hundreds injured, a number of them blinded. The fighting was particularly intense in Mohammad Mahmoud Street, which has been renamed "Eyes of the Martyrs Street."

This marked the return of mass mobilizations to Tahrir Square. On November 25, the turnout was enormous for a demonstration that displayed the spirit of defiance and determination of the huge Friday rallies that preceded Mubarak's downfall.

The new protests forced the resignation of the unpopular civilian government, led by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, which provided a fig leaf for the SCAF. But the military insisted that the series of elections set to begin at the end of November take place. Most Islamist, nationalist and liberal parties agreed to participate–at the cost of angering some members who felt the elections should be boycotted to protest the military's repression.

Meanwhile, as a replacement for Sharaf, the SCAF appointed Kamel el-Ganzoury, a notorious Mubarak henchman, to preside as prime minister over a new cabinet.

Unsatisfied with the choice of a figure from Mubarak's former ruling National Democratic Party and a collaborator with the International Monetary Fund, activists organized an "Occupy Cabinet" sit-in outside the Cabinet office building–in a nod to the Occupy movement in the U.S. that had taken inspiration from the takeover of Tahrir Square.

Initially, protesters hoped to prevent Ganzouri from entering the buildings and taking the oath of office. Once Ganzouri was successfully sworn in, the demonstrators decided to maintain the occupation, setting up coffins marked with the names and photos of those who died in the November clashes.

The military went on the offensive in the early morning hours of December 16–soldiers detained and tortured one of the protesters, to provoke the crowd. Security forces carried out an attack on demonstrators that left nine people dead and hundreds injured. As a statement from Egypt's Revolutionary Socialists reported, the arrest of the protester was:

merely a pretext for a pre-planned attack to disperse the sit-in by force and burn the protesters' tents. The old lies are again being circulated–that "local residents" are "offended" by the "protesters," even though the street where the sit-in is located does not block traffic, and the area itself is a district of government buildings, ministries and embassies and not a residential area.

Thugs and the commandos of "our" army in civilian clothes took over government buildings, which are now effectively under military occupation, including the parliament building itself, in order to throw stones and glass at the protesters and activists who joined them in Qasr al-Aini Street to express their anger at the attack on the sit-in. Dozens of demonstrators have fallen to baton charges, water cannons, rubber bullet rounds and live ammunition.

Video footage shows that during the clashes that followed, soldiers were responsible for the arson of the Egyptian Scientific Institute, repository of thousands of priceless books and manuscripts that have now been destroyed. Yet the SCAF used the conflagration to perpetrate further beatings, torture and killings.

The savagery of the army crackdown was crystallized in a single image–of a young woman protester, surrounded by soldiers who continue to beat her. Video of the assault spread by Internet around the world–it showed the woman being dragged by her arms in the street, her clothing ripped open, leaving her upper body naked except for a blue bra, while soldiers continued to hit her and stomp on her.

As one protester, Somaia Ahmed, a 17-year-old member of the "No to Military Trials" campaign, told Ahram Online: "Women have been targeted since the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes last month, when men were sent in to systematically harass female activists. In the last sit-in, women were the military's primary target. These attacks are no coincidence."

The horrific assault galvanized anger in Egypt, with thousands of women and men turning out for another demonstration in Tahrir Square. Furious protesters confronted soldiers and shamed them about the behavior of the military.

In the wake of the violence against the Occupy Cabinet sit-in, the regime has stepped up its attack on left-wing individuals and organizations.

At the end of December, security forces raided 17 non-governmental organizations, including three based in the U.S. That prompted a direct phone call from U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to get the SCAF to curtail its raids–with the implied threat that Washington's $1 billion in annual military aid to Egypt could be cut off.

But within Egypt, an even higher-profile campaign is taking place against the Revolutionary Socialists (RS). The attack began shortly after the assault on Occupy Cabinet when video clips from a meeting at which leading RS members spoke turned up on the Interior Ministry website, and on television stations run by the state and by the Salafists.

The allegations made in the media–that RS members incited violence and aimed for "demolition of the state" when they spoke at a lecture at the Center for Socialist Studies in Giza, north of Cairo–became the basis of an official complaint against three socialists just before the end of the year. The complaint was filed by Gamal Tag el-Din, a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Lawyers' Syndicate–a further sign of growing collaboration between the Brotherhood and the regime.

The left mounted a spirited defense. After the smear campaign began, the Revolutionary Socialists issued a statement affirming that "it is no indictment to say that we want the downfall of the oppressive state and the creation of a just state–it is the goal we are fighting for." The Revolution Youth Coalition, National Association for Change and 15 political parties issued statements defending the RS.

Within the Muslim Brotherhood, younger members posted criticisms of the complaint on the group's own website, citing the role of RS lawyers in defending Brotherhood members detained under Mubarak. The backlash was so swift that the Muslim Brotherhood leadership and officials of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood's electoral arm, were forced to make statements against the complaint.

Tag el-Din eventually withdrew the complaint, though police say they are still investigating the allegations made against RS members. Plus, one of the three, RS member Sameh Naguib, has been named in an additional complaint filed by prominent Islamic scholar Yousaf al Badri, along with eight other lawyers.

The threat against the RS remains very serious. But the flurry of media coverage has given the organization a higher profile among those looking to take the revolution forward.

RS lawyer Ahmed Ezzat appeared with Tag el-Din in a moderated public interview, in which Ezzat systematically dismantled the Brotherhood leader's assertions and publicized the real views of the organization to a wide audience. Since that time, the numbers applying for membership in the organization have spiked sharply, and large crowds attended two RS press conferences the following weekend.

Support for the victims of state persecution in Egypt is international. In the U.S., an ad hoc group of activist organizations came together to issue a statement demanding an end to the crackdown:

Because of Egypt's key strategic location, the fate of its revolution echoes across the world. Its success will bring us all closer to achieving economic and social justice. But its defeat would be a major blow to social justice movements everywhere, including Occupy…For all these reasons, we ask Occupy and all U.S. social justice activists to join us in mobilizing to defend our Egyptian brothers and sisters.

Within Egypt, the attack on groups like the RS is being met by organizing across the left political spectrum.

At a large public meeting on December 26, Revolutionary Socialists, human rights activists and independent journalists met to discuss how to defend the movement from repression. Since then, a unity campaign has focused on cooperation across the left for mutual protection, and to build for direct action on the January 25 anniversary of the beginning of the revolution.

A video campaign, titled "The Military Are Liars," has been disseminated through Facebook, contrasting SCAF's public lies with video footage of actual events. Multiple marches and demonstrations have been held in neighborhoods across Cairo and other cities, with public open-air screenings of the short film to educate local residents.

The violence and repression of December show how far Egypt's military rulers are willing to go to maintain their grip on power.

In their statement following the assault on Occupy Cabinet, the Revolutionary Socialists pointed out that the escalating repression is happening at the same time as the first post-Mubarak elections, which will produce:

the beginning of demands for the army to return to its barracks and the formation of an elected government…

[There is] a growing tendency within the army which wants to create chaos and panic so that the generals can seize the reins of power by popular demand, or at least muzzle the revolutionaries until political positions and powers can be divided between the opportunist political forces which consented to enter the battle of parliament under military rule.

Clearly, the Muslim Brotherhood and the hardline Salafists must be counted among those "opportunist" forces.

When Egypt's revolution returned to the streets in November, the Muslim Brotherhood opposed the demonstrations out of fear that they might disrupt the elections the group was expecting to win. Since the votes started, the group made a public offer to grant the SCAF immunity from prosecution in exchange for a peaceful transition of power, and it signaled a willingness to permit the generals wide latitude in the drafting of a new constitution.

Between them, the military regime and the leadership of the Islamist organizations represent a threat to the future of the Egyptian revolution.

At the same time, however, the mass movement has not been defeated or dispersed.

The demonstrations in late November were described by many as the "second Egyptian revolution," and there have been further upsurges of protest against state repression. Economic struggles continue, too. There were nearly 100 uncoordinated spontaneous teachers' strikes just in December. And in a new step forward for broader organization, sugar farmers with the Egyptian Farmers Syndicate are protesting against the Arment Sugar Company in Luxor, the opening salvo in a struggle of recently organized farmers against agribusiness.

The counter-attack by the regime is radicalizing a wide layer of youth and bonding together veteran activists in coalition against the military government outside of electoral politics. As 2012 opens and the elections proceed–bringing closer collaboration between Islamist groups and the regime–the need for an acceleration and deepening of this organization on the left is urgent.

As the Revolutionary Socialists concluded in a statement:

There is no alternative to continuing the revolution in the public squares, in the universities and in the workplaces. There is no substitute for working to win the popular masses, and at the heart of them the working class, to the revolutionary camp.

This article was originally published by Socialist Worker.

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