Egypt’s Rodney King Moment
Will the army’s use of excessive force against protesters in Tahrir be the straw that broke the generals’ backs? Or are they making clear they’re not about to relinquish power?
The sheer amount of evidence is astonishing; the violence, shocking. There’s the now globally iconic "blue bra girl," the poor young woman who was savagely beaten, stomped, and dragged down the pavement by multiple soldiers while her black abeya is pulled up over her head.
That video alone in most countries would prompt an independent fact-finding commission, mass firings, and a round of national soul-searching. But it’s just Exhibit A in a long list of brutal acts committed by the Egyptian army in its increasingly bitter and personal struggle with the country’s activist forces.
There’s video footage of army soldiers — despite repeated government denials that this ever happened — firing handguns directly at unarmed protesters. There are multiple videos showing a wolfpack of baton-wielding soldiers beating down civilians who are either curled up in fetal position or have long since gone limp. There’s footage of soldiers in uniform hurling rocks onto protesters from on top of the Parliament building.
It might even be unfair to compare the situation to the Rodney King beating — which, after all, was merely one incident conducted by officers who didn’t realize they were being taped. What happened this past Friday and Saturday was closer to the assault by the Chicago Police Department on anti-Vietnam War protesters during the 1968 Democratic Convention — if only that attack had taken place during the age of Twitter and YouTube. The Chicago assault was later described by an independent committee as a "police riot"; the Egyptian military’s actions last week may one day be remembered as an "army riot."
The fallout from the violence, which started Thursday night, has been dramatic. At least 13 protesters have died and hundreds have been injured. The Parliament building, despite protesters’ best efforts, remains standing, but two nearby government buildings have been set ablaze — including the Egyptian Scientific Institute, home to thousands of rare books and manuscripts.
The cause of this latest spasm of street anger remains a subject of speculation and varies depending on whom you ask. Military officials claim one of the protesters, who had been camping for more than a week outside the Parliament building on the outskirts of Tahrir Square, attacked an officer. Protesters claim one of their number was savagely beaten by soldiers on the Parliament grounds. Whatever the spark, the long-standing bad blood ensured an instant escalation. By Friday, enraged protesters were attacking any government building in sight, while a group of plainclothes and uniformed men were hurling rocks, bottles, and allegedly kitchenware and office furniture from a fifth-floor roof onto the crowds below.
Among the activist forces, there has been a hardening of wills, a belief that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) must be dealt with exactly as Hosni Mubarak was — forced immediately from power with no exceptions and no grace period. Egyptian novelist and activist Ahdaf Soueif captured this sentiment best in a column in the Guardian newspaper, describing the current fight as a final showdown with the unreformed heart of the Mubarak regime. "Now our revolution is in an endgame struggle with the old regime and the military," Soueif wrote. "The message is: Everything you rose up against is here, is worse. Don’t put your hopes in the revolution or Parliament. We are the regime, and we’re back."
Judging from the attitude of the military, it seems like the SCAF is equally fed up. This was not a dispassionate or professional security operation; there was genuine malice and animosity in the soldiers’ behavior. The two sides in this conflict seem to hate each other, and it’s hard to envision either side backing down at this point.
Amazingly, all of this is happening in the middle of an ongoing extended parliamentary election that actually seems to be progressing on schedule and with a minimum of serious violations. Run-offs for the second round of regional voting begin on Wednesday, and voter turnout remains high. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party still holds a commanding lead with about 40 percent of the vote, followed by an ultra-conservative Salafist Muslim Nour Party — the real surprise performer so far. The strongest liberal/secular coalition, the Egyptian Bloc, trails in third.
The disconnect between what can fairly be called Egypt’s best elections in generations and the savage violence engulfing the city center is genuinely surreal. Inside Tahrir, it’s hard to believe that elections can result in real change to Egypt’s ruling order, so long as the SCAF remains in power. Outside, it’s hard to believe that further street confrontations can produce anything positive. As if to add physical form to this psychological separation, army troops have begun walling off Tahrir from the rest of Cairo, erecting makeshift concrete barriers on multiple streets and playing havoc with Cairo’s already terrible traffic congestion.
On Monday, SCAF member Gen. Adel Emara held a nationally televised press conference to address the accusations of military misconduct. His performance, and that of his carefully selected audience, is worthy of extended study. Foreign correspondents were told the conference was for local media only. One journalist who was in attendance told me the room was partially stocked with employees of the State Information Service.
Emara repeatedly blamed the protesters for inciting the violence by attacking soldiers and threatening to destroy the Parliament building. He praised the "self-restraint" shown by Egyptian soldiers in the course of their duties. He also acknowledged the aforementioned attack on the partially disrobed young woman, but said that observers "don’t know the full circumstances." It was left unclear just what circumstances justify a grown man stomping hard on the chest of a helpless and half-naked woman.
When a matronly female journalist in a blue hijab scarf demanded that the Army apologize to all Egyptian women for the multiple attacks on female protesters, Emara merely said the incidents were under investigation. Then he dropped a bombshell, announcing that he had just received intelligence of an imminent plot to burn down Parliament. It felt like a stunt diversion, as the area around Parliament was relatively peaceful at the time. In the end, Emara called for sympathy and support for the beleaguered Egyptian soldiers.
"These heroes from the Army have our appreciation for what they are doing for the sake of the nation. They will be remembered by history," he said. "They are the pride of this nation, the best soldiers on earth. May God protect Egypt and its people from strife and keep Egypt’s flag flying high."
Incredibly, half the room erupted in applause at Emara’s closing statement, while the journalists in the front row visibly swiveled in their seats to see who was clapping.
So what happens now? Most likely more of the same — more elections and more concurrent violence. The end result will be a deepening of the psychological wedge that has come to define post-revolutionary Egypt. The Tahrir protesters seem completely comfortable with the possibility that they’re out of step with the national mood. A coalition of activist groups has called for a massive Tahrir protest on Friday to demand the SCAF’s immediate departure. The turnout should prove a litmus test for the activists’ true popularity and the level of backlash and public disgust against the army’s tactics. One potential early indicator: Thousands of mostly female demonstrators turned out on Tuesday evening in Cairo in a march protesting the seemingly systematic use of violence against women.
The damning footage has already cost the generals international credibility. The United Nations Human Rights chief, Navi Pillay, called the images coming out of Cairo "utterly shocking." U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the military’s behavior "dishonors the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform, and is not worthy of a great people." Former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley was even more blunt, sending out a Twitter message on Tuesday afternoon that read: "The Egyptian military’s pursuit of its own political self-interest comes at the expense of its relationship with the Egyptian people."
Disturbingly, the military might not be the only ones losing control of themselves. There’s a dangerously nihilistic edge that has steadily crept into the ranks of the protesters and is currently in full flower. On Friday night, I watched uneasily as young protesters cheered while the flames started to spread inside the building housing the General Authority for Roads and Bridges — not the Interior Ministry or the National Democratic Party Headquarters, just some innocuous building whose only crime was that it represented the government.
Perhaps the surest way for the SCAF to mollify the anger of the Cairo streets is by accelerating their departure from power and handover to civilian leadership — currently slated for June 2012. It’s an option that has already been endorsed by former Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, among others. But judging from the genuinely hateful behavior of the army troops last week and Gen. Emara’s defiant stonewalling, Egypt’s military has been pushed as far as it’s willing to go and is more likely to continue lashing out than offer concessions.