Monday, November 21, 2011

The Journey Back to Cairo's Tahrir Square


Yasser Alaa / youthjournalism.org
A crowd of pro-democracy protesters in Alexandria, Egypt 
on Nov. 21. A translation of the sign is at the end of this entry.
By Lama Tawakkol
Senior Reporter
CAIRO, Egypt – Almost 10 months ago, immediately after Egyptians ousted former President Hosni Mubarak, I had hope and optimism – and faith in the Egyptian military.
I wasn’t alone in my support for the Supreme Council for Armed Forces, or SCAF, that was to help my country transition to a new, post-Mubarak, government. I wrote about it here, in a piece called “A New Epoch Of Hope.”  

Alongside most Egyptians, I believed, or wanted to make myself believe, that our nation had embarked on a new phase with Mubarak’s departure.
The Egyptian people, for the most part, wanted to move past the 18 days of the “revolution” and move on towards the real change they’d been promised.
Several activists called for continuing the protests and not merely stopping at getting rid of Mubarak. They were met, however, by people who were relieved to have reached their apparent aim, who believed that the snake’s head had been ripped off and most of the poison sucked out. The trials of tycoon Ahmed Ezz and several previous government ministers also served to appease the average civilian’s anger. In fact, it made a lot of people skeptical of these activists’ “exaggeration.”
Today, however, we see Tahrir and its spirit back in full swing. We see the people realizing it had been foolish to put so much trust in the army, an institution whose job had been to protect Mubarak – and whose job now is to protect its own political and economic interests. In retrospect, remembering the activists’ calls against SCAF for months, the people see that they’d been blinded by their need to believe in someone and by the military’s curtain of “security” and “economic stability.”
As the past 10 months quickly go through each of our minds, we remember 12,000 civilians who have faced military trials. We remember the female activists who were forced to endure virginity tests when the military detained them. We see our country, a nation that’s always been praised for its peace and security, turn into a place with hundreds of thugs on the loose. We recall incidents that had confused us at the time – unexplained violence that some protests witnessed and the government’s passive reaction later, for example – now starting to make more sense.
When activists gathered in July in front of the Ministry of Defense to protest SCAF remaining in power, they were met with looters and thugs while the military police stood aside, unabashed. Then, SCAF and the government opened an investigation and bas…. “Bas” is colloquial Arabic for “just” or “enough.” It is a word with such finality yet hollowness that it makes such an appropriate expression for what happened to the investigation afterwards: nothing.
Then in September, a large protest that attracted many more people than usual ended with catastrophic acts of violence and a break-in into the Israeli embassy. SCAF and the government accused the protesters of being thugs, referred several to military trials and, again, bas….
Yasser Alaa / youthjournalism.org
Pro-democracy protesters in Alexandria, Egypt in September
Exactly a month later, a small demonstration gathered in front of “Maspero,” the Egyptian State Television and Radio building, calling for Coptic Christians’ rights. Suddenly, there was mysterious violence. What the media and SCAF tried to portray as a Muslim-Christian rift soon turned out to be a battle between civilians and military personnel. Reports and footage of beaten soldiers circulated, as did civilians being run over by tanks. The government condemned the actions, called on “honorable” Egyptians to be calm and wise and opened an investigation. Bas. To this day, there has been no official statement as to what really happened.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, on October 30th, blogger, journalist and activist Alaa Abdel Fatah was arrested for allegedly inciting violence at Maspero, looting and stealing military weapons. It was too far-fetched this time to believe and people were quick to pinpoint the reason Abdel Fatah was being held behind military bars. His October 24th article in no vague terms held SCAF and the military responsible for the deaths that had occurred in Maspero.
Twitter hashtags used by followers interested in the situation now included #FreeAlaa and organizers calling for a November 18 demonstration added his arrest as another motive for protest.
Many people joined the protests last Friday, but by nightfall nearly everyone was going home. There had been no talk of an extended sit-in. Only a few hundred people who’d been injured in January and the martyrs’ families decided to stay, calling for the help promised them that they’d never received.
But reports of violence and force by Central Security Forces and military police enraged the people. They had no right to break up peaceful protests or use such measures to empty Tahrir Square. It was starting to be more and more obvious that SCAF needed to go.
Saturday morning attracted more people back to Tahrir with the intention to stay. The violence did not end as protesters described on Twitter how they were met with tear gas, beatings and rubber bullets. Still, not everyone was on board; some people were convinced the sit-in was unnecessary provocation.
Once again night pulled into day and Tahrir showed no signs of emptying. By Sunday afternoon, crowds were growing and as attention focused on the square, things became clearer. The people had announced their intention to stay. They demanded the immediate transition of power as well as the resignation of the cabinet and the Central Security Forces. The military police were doing exactly what the police had done at the beginning of the January 25 uprising.
Yasser Alaa / youthjournalism.org
Protesters in Alexandria, Egypt on November 21.
Eyewitnesses tweeted and called TV shows to give their accounts of what was happening. They highlighted clashes mainly taking place in Mohamed Mahmoud, a side street from Tahrir that leads to the Ministry of Interior headquarters. They talked of enormous quantities of tear gas that fogged the place and blurred their vision, and of CR gas that left them numb.
They reported that many people had fallen victim to live ammunition, rubber bullets, pellets and heavy beatings. Eye injuries were especially common. Throughout the night, it didn’t slow down. The shocking numbers of dead and wounded kept going up.
At 4 a.m. Monday, both sides agreed to a “truce” where the Central Security Forces and military retreated to the Ministry of Interior’s headquarters and the protesters in Tahrir were allowed a long-earned rest. It proved to be short-lived, though, with the police resuming violence almost two hours later, when many protesters had gone home to rest or went to sleep in their tents.
For those of us who hadn’t been able to go to bed while such acts were going on, following the news and the protesters’ pleas for help on Twitter was heartbreaking and disappointing. It was also infuriating that earlier on Sunday, the cabinet had released an official statement, supporting the Ministry of Interior and praising their exercise of self-restraint. It was like January 25th all over again, especially since the Ministry of Interior itself had denied the use of any violence in Tahrir. It was back to Mubarak’s mistakes again, as they inadvertently pushed the people back to Tahrir.
The rest of Egypt woke up in disbelief, astounded to see the return of Mubarak’s tools and tactics. They woke up to a Tahrir Square reporting about 30 people dead because of live bullets and at least 400 injured. They woke up to a square whose makeshift clinic was attacked in the early hours of the morning and relocated several times. They woke to pleas from their fellow Egyptians to join and help them. The people in Tahrir were no longer the other, the protesters who were going over the top. They had gone back to being fellows in the struggle as people gathered donations and supplies and rushed over to Tahrir to help.
Still, there was no tangible response on behalf of the government and SCAF except for a lame announcement that the law for political corruption would be implemented. Activists had been calling for it to be put into use for months, because it roughly means that political parties previously involved corruption would be banned from the upcoming parliamentary elections and public service in general. SCAF was, in short, trying to appease the people but it was a very late response to a demand made months ago and one that would do no good now. The people were getting an overdose of déjà vu.
As people watched things unfold, they continued to be in disbelief. Disturbing videos have been widely shared online and across the media. Some showed girls pulled by the hair on the ground or a man held captive, repeatedly beaten by the police. One outrageous clip showed a police officer aiming at a protestor’s eye, and another officer congratulating him on a good shot.
More and more people had shifted to Tahrir’s side, and calls for a Million Man March on Tuesday rang loud.
Late Monday night, the cabinet handed in its resignation and announced it was now waiting for SCAF’s decision. This got positive feedback as it was a key demand of the protesters, but it’s not enough. The cabinet was never really anything but an honorary post, a puppet of the SCAF. It is a step, but not really progress.
A little bit later, SCAF released a statement in which it condemned the acts of violence, expressed its sorrow at the deaths and injuries and offered its condolences to the families. It also implored the people to work together and exercise self-restraint and insisted that the upcoming parliamentary elections will take place on time next Monday. They also stated that the Ministry of Justice would be heading an investigation committee into the events in Tahrir. Really? Another investigation? Bas?
It is now Tuesday afternoon and Tahrir is packed once more with hundreds of thousands of protesters in preparation for the Million Man March scheduled for 4 p.m. The people want SCAF to leave and hand over power to a civilian temporary government until parliamentary and presidential elections are held. The chant that used to be, “The people demand the fall of the regime” has become, “The people demand the fall of the Marshall.”
Tahrir is reportedly safe, with only Mohamed Mahmoud Street a “war zone,” as some have put it. Everything is shaky and no one knows what to expect. Rumors of curfews are going around, but so far nothing has been confirmed. SCAF is calling for “national talks” but it is too late for that.
The spirit of January’s Tahrir is back and it is no longer separate parties protesting, but rather an entire people. Whatever it is that SCAF and the Ministry of the Interior think is worth killing people for isn’t going to be tolerated. The people will not rest until their demands are met.
Yasser Alaa / youthjournalism.org
A crowd of protesters in Alexandria, Egypt on Monday.
Too many people have died since January in the search for freedom and even more have been injured or lost their eyes. It is too late now to give up or compromise our demands, our legitimate demands, for freedom, dignity and a humane life.
As many people have tweeted, “We are losing many eyes but not the vision.”
For live updates, check Twitter hashtags #Tahrir, #TahrirNeeds, #NoSCAF, #Nov21, #OccupyTahrir, #Egypt and #Jan25.

PHOTO INFORMATION: For English readers who are curious about what the sign in Arabic says in the photo at the top of this blog entry, Youth Journalism International Senior Reporter Jessica Elsayed translated it:
“On top as a title it says, Al-Wafd Revolutionaries (Al Wafd is an Egyptian Political Party)
The list says:
1. No to 'El Selm' Document which was a proposed piece of legislation separate from the constitution that would ban scrutiny or questioning of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF
2. No to the Anti-Revolution
3. No to the 'Felool' which is a word used to describe anyone or anything loyal to the past regime and its survival and no to people who are supporting the revival of the old regime."

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