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Five Months of Waiting
What happens when a revolution stalls out?
CAIRO — Five months after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Tahrir Square has, once again, been transformed into a mass protest encampment and the epicenter of the struggle for change in Egypt. Thousands of protesters are entering the second week of a sit-in reminiscent of the one that captured the world’s attention during the 18-day uprising that began on Jan. 25.
At the heart of the matter is the feeling of many that the basic demands of the revolution have gone unfulfilled, with little indication that a path for real change lies ahead; that the calls for justice and accountability for members of the former regime and security forces accused of killing protesters have gone unanswered; and that the revolutionary demands of "bread, freedom, social justice" have all but been abandoned.
"I’m here because most of our demands have not been met," says Lobna Darwish, a 24-year-old protester who is taking part in the sit-in. Many activists are fed up with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and their handling of Egypt’s transitional period following after the ouster of Mubarak.
In Tahrir, protesters have dug in for the long haul. The middle of the square has been converted into a tent city, complete with winding pathways, food stocking centers, and a hairdresser. Electricity has been routed from street lamps to power fans and recharge cell phones. Wi-Fi Internet connections and satellite TV have been set up. Protesters have organized popular committees to protect the entrances, sweep the streets, and make collective decisions about living in the square. To counter the oppressive summer heat, a massive white canopy has been stitched together and strung across the middle garden using scaffolding and rope to provide much-needed shade. Numerous stages have been constructed where speakers lead protest chants and musicians perform. A nightly "Tahrir Cinema" has been organized to screen raw footage, experimental documentaries, and finished films about the revolution. In the evenings, when the weather cools, the crowds swell dramatically, and thousands more gather to join those camping in the square, hold political discussions, and demonstrate.
The sit-in began after issues that have been simmering for the past five months boiled over in the last few weeks, culminating in massive demonstrations across the country on July 8 — the biggest protests since the Supreme Council came to power.
The anger and frustration began to escalate on June 26, when the trial of the much-reviled former interior minister, Habib Al-Adly, and six of his aides was postponed for a second time. The victims’ outraged family members gathered outside the courthouse and pelted police vehicles with rocks as they drove away. Two days later, clashes broke out between police and relatives of those killed in the uprising at an event honoring martyrs of the revolution. The clashes quickly spread to the Interior Ministry and Tahrir Square, where thousands of demonstrators had rushed in solidarity, and escalated into the largest street battles between security forces and protesters since Mubarak’s fall. Security forces used rubber bullets, birdshot, tear-gas canisters, as well as reportedly live ammunition, in some cases, against the demonstrators and taunted them, some while brandishing swords. Protesters fought back with rocks and Molotov cocktails, and more than 1,000 people were injured. The fierce clashes convinced many that the security apparatus remains unreformed.
"What happened on June 28 was the last straw for me," says Sarah Abdel Rahman, a 23-year-old protester taking part in the sit-in at Tahrir. "We don’t have any freedoms. Since the revolution there has been no change."
Less than a week later, clashes erupted at a Cairo courthouse after a judge ordered the release on bail of seven police officers accused of killing 17 protesters and wounding 300 others in the canal city of Suez — widely viewed as the symbolic heart of the revolution. The ruling touched off two days of rioting in Suez, with hundreds of people torching police cars and trying to storm government buildings. Some protesters blocked a highway outside the city, temporarily shutting down transportation to the nearby port while others threatened to shut down the Suez Canal, a primary source of foreign income for Egypt.
Over the past five months, only one policeman has been convicted — in absentia — for the killing of protesters during the revolution, in which nearly 1,000 people were killed. Over the same time period, more than 10,000 civilians have been tried in military courts, where they are routinely denied access to lawyers and family and receive sentences ranging from a few months to five years.
"The Supreme Council has not honored its pledge to bring people to justice," says Ghada Shahbandar, an activist with the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. "It has no constitutional legitimacy at all. Any legitimacy it has comes from the people, and the people are making their voices heard."
Despite the scale of the July 8 protests and the open sit-in, there was no immediate reaction from the Supreme Council. Instead, in what activists saw as another provocation, the military announced that Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi had sworn in a new minister of information, the Wafd Party’s Osama Heikal. The Information Ministry has long been viewed as an integral part of the state propaganda apparatus, and many believed the position, which had not been filled for five months, would remain vacant. Many activists pointed angrily to an editorial Heikal penned on Jan. 24, one day before the revolution began, in which he wrote, "No one wants a clash between people and the regime. What we should understand is that people want change and the quieter those changes come the better this will be for Egypt."
On July 9, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf vowed to suspend police officers accused of killing protesters and said a panel would be created to speed up court cases against them and those accused of corruption. However, that same evening, the interior minister, Maj. Gen. Mansour Essawi, publicly contradicted Sharaf’s statement and refused to suspend accused policemen, saying that Sharaf "does not have the competence to issue any decrees regarding officers who are currently appearing before criminal courts charged with the murder of demonstrators." The ancien régime, it seemed, was not about to be pushed around by the protesters in Tahrir Square. In a follow-up speech, Sharaf promised a cabinet reshuffle and vowed to "cleanse" the police force, though few activists trust that Sharaf is capable of delivering meaningful reforms.
"The key thing is that there isn’t any understanding of the anger of protesters," says Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. "It’s the same promises that have been repeated and that have failed since the Supreme Council came to power. It’s going to take more than public statements to address these problems."
Least astute of all was a July 12 televised address by the council’s Gen. Mohsen el Fangari, who warned that Egypt was "facing a planned and organized attempt to disrupt the country’s domestic stability" and that the Supreme Council "will take any and every action to confront and stop the threats surrounding the country." In a gesture much-derided by the protesters, Fangari repeatedly wagged his finger at the camera and insisted the military "will not give up its role in administering the country in such a critical time in the history of Egypt."
The statement did not have the desired effect. That afternoon, in an impressive display of force, thousands marched out of Tahrir Square to the parliament building and the headquarters of the Cabinet of Ministers, which were being guarded by the military a few blocks away. Chanting loudly, they called for Tantawi to step down and blasted the Interior Ministry as thugs. In the evening, Tahrir had its most crowded night since the July 8 sit-in began, with thousands of people crowding the square until the early morning hours in defiance of the Supreme Council.
"The Supreme Council helped make Tuesday a great success," says Alaa Abdel Fattah, a prominent activist and blogger."
If anything, the council’s subsequent moves only reinforced activists’ conviction that street pressure is the only tool at their disposal. Other announcements soon followed, including the resignation of Deputy Prime Minister Yehia el Gamal and the conviction and sentencing of up to 10 years in prison of Mubarak-era prime minister Ahmed Nazif and two other former senior officials in a high-profile corruption case. Court officials also announced that future trials will be televised on big-screen TVs outside courtrooms in response to demands for transparency.
The next day, Essawi announced the early retirement of 669 senior police officers in what he called "the biggest shake-up in the history of the police." While it did not release their names, the Interior Ministry said 18 police generals and nine other senior officers were let go because they were accused of killing protesters in the uprising. In Tahrir, the move was largely viewed as a cosmetic change that did not properly address issues of accountability or a restructuring of the security forces.
"They are receiving retirements with full benefits; this is a routine thing they do every year. Under pressure they moved it up a few weeks," says Abdel Fattah, who, along with a number of other activists, lawyers, and human rights groups, put forward a detailed plan to revamp the Interior Ministry. "They are ignoring all the steps that would require them to admit the police committed crimes," Fattah says.
The Supreme Council also announced that parliamentary elections originally planned for September would be postponed until October or November. Many political groups had wanted to delay the poll to give them more time to prepare, and welcomed the move. The Muslim Brotherhood — Egypt’s best-organized political force and the likely beneficiary of early elections — called the new schedule "a good compromise."
Yet as the days go by, more tents are being set up in the square — numbering between 150 and 200 — with no end in sight. Many point to a list of demands put forward by a large number of groups taking part in the sit-in. They include: banning the use of military trials again civilians and the immediate release of all those sentenced in such trials; establishing a special court to try those implicated in the killing of protesters and the immediate suspension all implicated police officers; replacing the interior minister with a civilian appointee and the declaration of a plan and timetable for the full restructuring of the Interior Ministry; replacing the prosecutor general; holding public trials for members of the ousted regime; and replacing the current budget with one that better responds to the basic demands of the poor.
During the 18-day uprising, a common chant that rang out in Tahrir was "The army and the people are one hand." Five months later, a more frequent chant you hear is for Tantawi to step down and for military rule to end. Egypt’s revolution, it seems, is far from over.